And that can make all the difference in the world. In 1986, I was 22 years old, immortal, and out to discover the world. I had just completed the first year of a two-year volunteer contract to teach mathematics in Africa. I was posted to an impoverished boarding school in Malawi, a sliver of a country in Central Africa, with another Canadian teacher for a roommate. Unlike my roommate Janet, I was a novice teacher, still feeling my way through lessons, spending long hot nights planning and grading, while I listened to distant drums and nearby crickets.
My job was fulfilling despite the overcrowded classrooms and 1920s British textbooks and by the end of the first year I was beginning to realize that job satisfaction was dependant on a lot more than my student s academic successes. Besides the new experiences in my community, the opportunities to travel were fantastic. It was near the end of one particular trip that I learned how important one teacher s influence can be. On this occasion Janet and I had been visiting the fabled Victoria Falls that Livingstone had so loved.
We had been lucky enough to hook up at the end of our trip with some young American missionaries who were driving their new pick-up truck back from South Africa to their Malawian mission. They were in a hurry to get back as one of their number had just come down with malaria, and they were eager to have as big a company as possible. I was worried about accepting a lift in a vehicle with South African license plates. This was, after all, still the apartheid years, and Zambia had been bombed by the South African air force less than six months before our trip. I was afraid that the soldiers that manned the many roadblocks on our route might not. Give us the chance to explain that none of us were actually from South Africa before they reacted. But there were going to be risks whether we accepted the lift or rode along the twisting pot-holed road in one of the Zambian buses whose undercarriage was held together by chicken wire.
Janet and I had already decided that avoiding adventure was neither possible nor always desirable. Nevertheless, I tensed every time we came to one of the many military roadblocks that lined our route. At first all went well at the various stops. In the heat of an African afternoon, the soldiers were happy to do no more than a quick check of our apers and vehicle before retiring to the shade. We were actually beginning to enjoy the breathtaking views of the distant mountains, and close to the road, the sight of brilliant scarlet-leaved trees announcing a rainy season soon to come. Janet and I sat in the back of the pick-up for the entire journey and the breeze kept us cool as we covered our heads in the local cloth, or chitenge to prevent sunstroke. It wasn't't until we approached the last roadblock that the aggression I feared began to seem a reality. Right away we could tell things would be different.
Even before we had completely stopped at the gate, a row of soldiers had risen and were facing us, rifles very much in evidence. As soon as we had braked completely, an officer walked angrily to the driver s side and ordered the three Americans out. Other soldiers gathered around, rifles in hand. Janet and I were frozen in the back unsure of what we should do. The Americans tried to explain that one of their company was too sick to stand, but the soldiers had no time for what they took to be excuses. The missionaries were pulled stumbling from the cab. Sitting in the back I could feel the adrenaline rushing as I recalled every orror story I had heard about travelers in Africa. The seven Germans who had disappeared on the Bulawayo-Victoria Falls road. The Canadian mother who had been strip-searched along with her two daughters by Zambian soldiers. I did not of course at this time remember that the anger Africans feel against foreigners is justified by decades of aggression and rule by outsiders. All I felt was panic as the yelling went on at the front, as one of the missionaries began to cry, as the soldiers voices became angrier, and as we waited, and waited, interminably in the back of that truck.
One of the soldiers finally came around to Janet and me. We had taken out our passports and were nervously waiting. He demanded that we hand them over, then, as his gaze fell on their deep blue covers, his whole face changed. Canada? You re from Canada? he asked excitedly. We hardly knew what to answer. Do you know Father Leclerc? he went on. He taught me French in high school. He was such a good teacher. Is he a White Father? I asked tentatively, trying to control the shaking in my voice. Yes he is! answered our guard, delighted. Do you speak French? I told him I did, and, in what I was beginning to feel was some kind of twilight zone we exchanged a few words in French. Suddenly our attention was called back to the front of the truck. The sick missionary had begun to collapse and one of his friends put out a hand to steady him. We heard the slap of rifles going up and the yells of fear even before we turned and saw the panicked faces of the Americans. For a moment the tableau of missionaries and soldiers stood frozen in the shimmering heat. I felt the ball of a scream stuck in my throat, but before I lost the struggle to control it, our new friend called out sharply to the other soldiers.
I couldn't understand much of what he said but two words stood out again and again. Canada. And punzitzi, the word for teacher. After a moment the rifles slowly went down, and one of the soldiers gestured to the Americans to get back in the truck. They climbed slowly back into the cab as Janet and I held our breath. It didn't seem possible that we would get away so easily. But we did. When moments later we were headed on our way, and we had all finished a long shaky prayer of gratitude I remember wondering, as I still do today, if I could ever have the same effect on my students as that unknown teaching Father obviously had on his.
That's what teaching is all about. Hoping that somewhere, somehow the children you have taught will grow up to make moral decisions in situations and places you can't even envision. We were lucky that that priest was Canadian like us. But even more, we were blessed that he was good at his vocation. Wherever he is, I thank him not just for that one brief moment in Zambia, but for the inspiration he has given me ever since.