An extreme lesson in Overcoming Adversity

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This is the tenth episode of “Memorable Moments” – the “Blogging a Book” project about my life in Africa. This is a very personal story, but one which has an important lessons for all of us, young or old, millennials or baby boomers.

Most people have a few tough periods in their lives. Some overcome adversity so terrible that it is unimaginable to the rest of us. Others crumple when faced with minor problems. Most of us are between the two extremes. Life in most developed societies is relatively safe, despite what many people may think, comparatively few are faced with life shattering situations.  Unlike those in many other parts of the world where life is a daily struggle for survival. Either from lack of clean water, food and shelter or because of violent conflict.

Living in Africa for most of my life, I had my own intimate experiences with adversity on many occasions. Saw enough violence, death and destruction to last many lifetimes. I also saw many examples of bravery, courage, perseverance, standing up for principles and kindness. The worst and the best of the human condition.

The most extreme lesson in overcoming adversity was provided by my own mother.

My parents had retired from farming and were living in an idyllic setting in the mountains in the Eastern District of Rhodesia. My father had taken a job with the water authority. He spent a couple of hours each day recording and monitoring water flows into and out of Lake Alexander,  a sizeable man-made lake which was the main water source for the city of Umtali about 70 km to the south. He also spent a lot of time fishing for bass in the lake.

Rhodesia was still fighting a terrorist war, my parents house was close to the Mozambique border. Mozambique had itself been surrendered to Frelimo terrorists after the coup in mainland Portugal a few years earlier and was an important refuge and supply route for the Zanu terrorists operating in Rhodesia. Most houses in rural areas were surrounded by high security fences with locked gates, had windows protected by anti-grenade or rocket screens. My father carried either a Uzi 9mm sub-machine gun, a pistol or shotgun at all times, even in his boat when fishing.

He had a government issue land mine protected Land Rover pick up truck which he used for his patrols around the perimeter of the lake to check flow meters. My parents also had their own personal Renault 4, a very small (by today’s standards) 4 cylinder hatchback.

Late one evening in August 1979 when I had been living in South Africa for 9 months, I got a call from my father. That was unusual, it would generally be my mother who would call with my father talking to me later. He very calmly told me that in the middle of the afternoon he and my mother had been ambushed by terrorists while returning home from a visit to Umtali. He was unhurt, but my mother had been shot in the right hip and was in a serious but stable condition in Umtali Hospital. At that stage, there was no indication of how long she would stay in hospital, or her chances of walking again.

I wanted to fly up immediately, but my father assured me that there was nothing I could do, that I needed to look after my own family and that he would keep me informed of  my mothers progress. He did not go into detail about the ambush or his heroic efforts that saved both of their lives.

Much later, I found out that my mother had been driving, (right hand drive vehicles in Southern Africa) as they were going slowly up a steep hill in their little Renault car, 9 terrorists had opened up on them with Ak47’s. One bullet had come through the driver’s door, smashed my mothers right femur just below her hip, exited through her left leg leaving only a flesh wound in that leg and lodged in the back rest of my father’s seat. Another had blown out the right front tyre, one had gone through the ignition coil in the engine compartment, several others had broken glass and left holes in the body work. With the right front tyre blown out, the car had swerved to the right and out of sight of the terrorists below an embankment on the side of the road.

Before the terrorists could climb down to finish them off, my father 65 years old at the time, ran up the road to get a clear view and returned fire with his Uzi. Showing their customary cowardice when meeting resistance, the 9 fled.

Despite a dodgy arm and back problems, my father managed to lift my mother into the passenger seat and drive the car with its shredded tyre and damaged coil towards the nearest army unit a few kilometres up the road. The unit had heard the shooting and a patrol was already on the way to investigate. My mother was immediately evacuated to hospital.

Over the next 4 months my father would keep in touch with reports on my mother’s condition, a few days after the ambush an embolism almost killed her. The medical staff had considerable experience of gunshot wounds by this stage so they were monitoring her closely. There was not enough bone left to provide her with an artificial hip, but they patched the remaining bone together to get some rigidity in her leg. The nerve had been completely severed, she had no feeling in her leg and no control over it. She was told that she would need months of bed rest for the bone to heal and fuse and that she would almost certainly be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. She was only 56 years old.

It was before the days of cell phones and email, long distance phone calls were expensive, telephone service in the rural areas unreliable. My father communicated mainly by letter, with a phone call every few weeks. On a few occasions I was able to phone my mother in the hospital.

Despite early hopes that she would recover enough to be out of hospital before Christmas, that was not to be. With both the reality of her condition setting in and the realisation that although we were winning the terrorist war convincingly, South Africa was about to betray us. The future for Rhodesia looked increasingly bleak,  my father began talking about leaving the country. Both my parents had been born in England, both had served in WW2. They had contributed to British pensions so could expect some income if they returned. It was a terrible decision for my father to make. He loved Rhodesia, disliked the English weather and hated the idea of leaving. But after the experience my mother had been through, he did not think it fair to expose her to more danger.

Her troubles were to get worse. On December 31st on his way to visit her in hospital, my father was ambushed again. A group of terrorists had stopped a bus and were in the process of beating up and robbing the passengers – all poor tribal native people. They were also attempting to push the bus over the cliff on the side of the road. With the road blocked by the bus, a cliff on one side and a steep drop on the other, my father could not turn around. Before he could get his Uzi ready to fire back, he was killed.

In the almost 4 months since her injury, my mother had only been out of her hospital bed once to be x-rayed. She was facing a bleak future as a disabled widow with no income and not much in the way of assets.

My father in law phoned me on New Years Day, I could tell by his voice that it was bad news. I immediately thought of my younger brother who was on a military call up over Christmas, complications to my mother’s recovery also flashed through my mind. When I mentioned my brother’s name, he said no it’s your Dad.

We had no money for air tickets, I contacted the Rhodesian consulate in Durban, they told me to phone back in an hour. When I phoned back, they had verified that my story was correct, asked me how many of my family would be returning for my fathers funeral and  told me that they would arrange air tickets for us. Amazing efficiency from a small government under constant attack by most of the world. We flew the next day.

My mother insisted on getting out of bed and into a wheel chair to attend my fathers funeral. After the service, we took her to a friend’s home and she had her first day out of hospital.

Within a few days, my brother and I were able to get her transferred to the St.Giles Rehabilitation centre in Salisbury. The centre had considerable experience with trauma from gunshot and landmine injuries. After a few months she was able to walk with a caliper on her leg using a walking frame, then with two crutches and after a year she left the centre using just the caliper and a cane. For years, she lived on her own without using a cane, drove herself in her automatic transmission Datsun with pedals modified for use with her left foot.

She stayed in Rhodesia, for many years in her own cottage on my brother’s property, later, when security and intimidation again became concerns,  in a cottage in a seniors village. Stayed through the chaotic surrender to Zimbabwe and through the steady decline that Mugabe and his government brought about. In 2001 when it  became apparent that the government would not stop its campaign to drive every white farmer and businessman out of the country, she moved to England.

Now at age 89, although feeling her age, she still lives alone, looks after herself, walks to the shops and church. She still takes an active interest in politics, Formula 1 motor racing, other sports.

That is overcoming adversity, she has shown me the true meaning of resilience, tenacity and courage.

Peter Wright

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