PROFILE: Exclusive Interview With Dr Nick Maurice
Dr Nick Maurice OBE, is a house-hold name in the sprawling coastal community of Gunjur and The Gambia on account of his work for the 34-year-old partnership between Gunjur and Marlborough in the UK. The 74-year old has not shown any signs of slowing down in his persistent efforts to promote development in the Global South, as well as efforts to promote policies around development and integration through his contacts with the Commonwealth and British government. In this exclusive interview with @Gunjur - The Voice of Dabanani, Sainey Darboe began by asking him a bit about himself and what circumstances shaped his vision and calling in life: Nick Maurice: I was born in Marlborough, a small market town in Wiltshire UK on 11 February 1943, two years before the Second World War ended, as a result of which over sixty million people died world wide – it seems unbelievable now. I have two older sisters and a younger brother. My father was a general medical practitioner and obstetrician in Marlborough and indeed the fifth generation of his family to be doctors in the town. 34 years later on January 1st 1977, I was to join the medical practice and with my cousin David to become the sixth generation of doctors in Marlborough. Indeed we were recorded in the Guinness Book of Records for having practised medicine in the same community for longer than any other family in the world. My early years, post war, were marked by some degree of deprivation. Food and petrol were rationed and we received food parcels from American friends at Christmas time. My very early education was at a small preschool in Marlborough but then at the age of eight, I was sent away to a private boarding school in Winchester, 35 miles from my home. The Pilgrims School was the choir school to the beautiful Anglican Cathedral in Winchester which was consecrated in 1093. I was not a chorister but the music of the Anglican Church and the beauty of the Cathedral and its Christian services was introduced to me at that young age and became a very important part of my soul. I was very homesick when I first started my education there as I only saw my family at half term after six weeks away and then again six weeks later at holiday time. After five years at The Pilgrim’s School at the age of 13 I came to the large public school of Marlborough College, which had 800 pupils, all boys, and all of whom, including myself, were boarders at the school despite the fact that my parents only lived one mile away. By this time my parents were relatively wealthy and were able to buy a holiday house in Cornwall by the sea in the extreme South West of England where we always spent our summer holidays playing cricket and football on the beach and swimming and surfing in the waves. @Gunjur: You are very outward looking with a global perspective despite your privileged background. What particular experiences did you have as a child that influenced this? Nick Maurice: Each summer my parents would invite three or four young people from different European countries, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, to come and stay with us for four weeks to improve their English but also to introduce us, the children in the family, to people from different backgrounds and cultures. I believe my parents’ motive was that we had just been involved in a terrible world war and it was essential that we should hold out our hands to our onetime allies and enemies, welcome them into our home and recognise that ultimately we are all human and must learn to live together and love one another. I am sure that this helped me to understand that there was a world outside Marlborough and the UK and introduced me for the first time to people who were ‘different’, and it was a difference which I was always to enjoy. It might have been this introduction to people of different nationalities and a certain claustrophobia that I felt, living and going to school in the same small town that made me want to break away and live abroad. @Gunjur: So how did you manage to accomplish this desire to explore the world beyond your immediate environs? Nick Maurice: I had managed to secure a place at Cambridge University to study economics but when I was interviewed at the University I made it clear that I did not want to leave school and proceed immediately to a University education but rather I had a sense of adventure and wanted to ‘see the world’ for a year. Thus it was that I applied to be a Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) volunteer. Until 1956 young men had had to undertake compulsory national service in either the army, air force or navy. But in 1958, recognising that many young men in particular might benefit from working in Africa or Asia, Alec Dickson founded VSO in part to replace national service. When Alec Dickson interviewed me in London he discovered that I spoke a little French and thus it was that in 1961 I was sent to teach English in the College Moderne in the town of Sokode in francophone Northern Togo. VSO had no money and I was therefore made to work my passage painting the ship that took me from UK originally to Nigeria and then by bus to Togo. Aged 18 I lived for one year in Sokode with a wonderful Muslim family who treated me as though I was their son and it was that extraordinary year that was to be so influential, years later, in my passion for setting up the link between Marlborough and Gunjur and providing other young people with similar opportunities. Remember that it was before the days of instant communication. If I had any problem while I was in Togo I would write a letter to my parents in England. The letter would take three weeks to reach them by sea and land and three weeks later i.e six weeks after I had written home about the problem I would receive a letter in response, by which time I had often forgotten what the problem was! It was while I was in Sokode that I changed my mind and decided that after all I should follow in my father’s footsteps and study medicine rather than economics. On my return from Togo, I spent three years studying the theoretical aspects of medicine, anatomy, physiology and biochemistry at Cambridge University and then went to St Mary’s Hospital in London to undertake the clinical study. @Gunjur: I bet you were still itching to leave for another part of the world where you presumably have now developed a level of comparative comfort with your Togo experience? Nick Maurice: While still a student in London I began to get “itchy feet” and felt that same feeling of claustrophobia and the need to travel again. This time in 1967 VSO sent me to Papua New Guinea where I had a wonderful year working in the Highlands in the paediatric ward of a small hospital in Mount Hagen treating children who were seriously ill with meningitis or gastroenteritis etc. A lot of my time was spent walking through the mountains of PNG inoculating babies and children against whooping cough, diphtheria and tetanus. I learnt more medicine through practical application in PNG than I ever learnt through books at Cambridge University or in London. After I married my wife Kate in 1971 we spent 18 months in Nepal with our small baby in a Hindu village, where I was working to cure people of tuberculosis which was a very common disease. Finally, in 1977 I arrived back in Marlborough as a general medical practitioner and took over from my father on his retirement. It was in 1979 that I was watching a television account of the terrible things that had happened over four and a half years of the ghastly regime of Pol Pot and the hard line communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, South East Asia. They had been responsible for the deaths of some two million of a total population of six million people in what became known as ‘the killing fields’. I felt I had to do something as a French speaking doctor with experience of working in difficult environments in different parts of the world and thus perhaps better qualified than most other doctors. I volunteered to work for four months as a member of Oxfam’s emergency team and was accepted. Oxfam paid for a locum doctor to work in my place in Marlborough for that period of time. My four months in Cambodia, leaving Kate and our three children back in Marlborough, as it was much too dangerous for them to accompany me, was a turning point in my life. I saw the evidence of terrible suffering and heard the stories of so many people who had suffered so much and had all lost close family members. @Gunjur: What inspired you to start the link with Gunjur instead of other places you have been to? Nick Maurice: I often feel that everything that I had been doing in my life had been preparing me for Cambodia and everything I did thereafter came about as a result of the Cambodia experience. On my return to UK I became a trustee of Oxfam for ten years and Chairman of their Asia Committee. My return to Marlborough in 1980 coincided with the publication of the Brandt Report produced by Willy Brandt, the Chancellor of what was then West Germany. The Brandt Report looked for the first time at why it was that the so-called rich North was getting richer and the so-called poor South was getting poorer. On the one hand we were sending people to the moon at vast expense and yet on the other hand there were many people dying of starvation through lack of food in the South. The Brandt Report was entitled “North South – A Programme for Survival”. The report talked of how “We are all interdependent”. It stressed the need for “new partnerships” to develop between the North and the South. I was inspired by the Brandt Report and I still am moved if I read it today, and so were a few friends in Marlborough who had had international experience. We felt that the report was speaking to us personally and that we could not ignore it. And thus it was that in 1982 we set up the Marlborough Brandt Group and developed the link with Gunjur thanks to encouragement from Abdoulie Bojang the High Commissioner for The Gambia in London. @Gunjur: What do you see as the greatest accomplishment of the link? Nick Maurice: Perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments is the fact that it has lasted for 35 years thanks to the dedication of so many people in Gunjur and Marlborough who have seen it as playing such an important role both locally, nationally and internationally. It would be very easy to point to certain visible expressions of our accomplishments in Gunjur whether they are a five classroom block at the Lower Basic School, the TARUD pre-school, the market place, wells that have been covered and have hand pumps, all achieved through collaboration between the people of Gunjur and Marlborough, and in Marlborough I can point to a children’s playground or a cycle path along the site of a disused railway line, again built here with help from visitors from Gunjur. But I believe it is the invisible accomplishments that have been much more important. Many people’s lives have been changed by living and working in the opposite community. So many young people who have lived with families in Gunjur and either taught for a year in the Upper Basic School or have been involved in project work for a month would not be where they are today without having met with such kindness, hospitality and fun that they experienced. Many of them are now working in the field of international development and helping to improve the lives of others in different parts of the world. Likewise I know that many people who came to Marlborough and received training here are now in influential positions and would say that their lives were changed by the experience and the training. Some people have said to me that the most important impact of the link in Gunjur has been the change in the relationship between men and women. Women, they tell me, have reflected on the relationship between women and men in Marlborough and been given the self confidence to challenge the status quo and get more authority over their husbands and men in general. Other Gunjur people have told me that the greatest contribution the link with Marlborough has made, has been to give people the opportunity to leave The Gambia and work in Scandinavia, Europe or America. This worries me a little, when I am told that 80% of Gunjur families have relatives living in other countries. And then I reflect that they will all be sending remittances (money) back to their families which will be helping them to educate their children and give them proper food, clothing and access to medical care. It is estimated that three times the total amount of money that comes to Africa through international organisations and Governments comes to Africa from the diaspora living in other countries. Perhaps the most important thing we have learnt is that although we may be culturally different and have different faiths, we are all basically members of the human family. We all have strengths and weaknesses and it is when we share those that we are strengthened and can support each other. Too often in the Western media, African countries are portrayed as “poor”, having corrupt Governments, torn apart by conflict or diseases such as HIV or Ebola. Gunjur has demonstrated a social wealth that we in the West have lost to a very large extent. We have problems of loneliness, mental health disease which would never be found in Gunjur, where there is such a strong sense of community, of extended family and a sense of well-being. We in Marlborough have had so much to learn from you in The Gambia. And we have been able to use that example to encourage so many others to form partnerships between schools, hospitals, local authorities, faith organisations, youth clubs etc in the UK with counterparts in Africa, Asia and Caribbean. @Gunjur: Do you have any regrets about any aspect of the link? Nick Maurice: I have two major regrets. We have to accept that we live in a very different world to the one in which the link started 35 years ago. When we first came to Gunjur in 1983 there was one telephone in the central market square that was dependent on solar power. If the sun was not shining we could not communicate with the outside world. There was no electricity or piped water. Now, so many people have access to instant communication through their mobile phones, through Skype and social media to anyone living anywhere in the world. This is just one example of the way life has changed. But let us be clear! This instant communication is no substitute for proper human interaction where we speak face to face, we laugh together, we sing together, we pray together, we dance together, we express our grief and our happiness together. The two tragedies for the link are firstly that it is no longer possible to obtain visas for young Gambians to come to UK and live with us in Marlborough as many have done in the past. We know that there are many Gambians who are taking ‘the back way’ to Europe, risking and indeed often losing their lives in an attempt to get to Europe where they believe the streets are paved in gold – which of course is not true and many find considerable difficulties when they arrive in Europe. But this means that our Home Office which monitors migration to the UK does not trust young Gambians to return to The Gambia if they come to UK under the auspices of MBG and therefore no one is allowed in. The second tragedy is that in the UK we live in a world of “health and safety” a world in which our lives are governed by insurance companies and the legal profession. Nobody, and particularly young people, is allowed to take a risk because they might get sued if anything were to go wrong. The result of this is that our young visitors from Marlborough to Gunjur are no longer allowed to live with families in their compounds because it is not considered safe; they must live together in a lodge which has been ‘passed’ as risk free. These two tragedies completely undermine everything that the link between Gunjur and Marlborough has stood for and they are a barrier to the vital human communication that I refer to above and which makes our world a safer place in which to live as we come to understand each other. @Gunjur: Where do you see the link in the next 30 years? Nick Maurice: This is a difficult question to answer! I hope and pray that the link will continue but it will be dependent on younger people to take up the responsibility for maintaining the relationship between our two communities. I am delighted that in MBG we have three young trustees, two women, Reverend Janneke Blokland and Lilli Loveday and a man Alex Davies who are committed to taking the link forward. They all have had experience of working in Gunjur and The Gambia, particularly Lilli and Alex who have been many times and Lilli worked for Tostan in The Gambia for two years. I am also delighted that we have young highly intelligent, committed and experienced men taking TARUD and the Gunjur Youth Development Programme forward in Baai Jabang and Buba Touray @Gunjur: You are now an old man with a lot of experience and wisdom. What's your take on the state of the world and what advice would you have for the younger generation? Nick Maurice: I often ask myself and my UK friends of a similar age whether when the time comes, despite the fact that we were born during a World War, we think we will be leaving this world in a better place than it was when we arrived. We express some doubt. Of course life is better for very many people. Many diseases have been conquered, many more children are surviving and getting access to education. While there is still a lot of conflict in the world it tends to be internal, within countries, rather than international. I am told that the number of people employed in the armed services worldwide is lower than it has been for very many years. And yet we have an estimated 65 million refugees worldwide escaping those internal conflicts whether in Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria or Eritrea and with the remarkable exception of Uganda that has shown a generosity second to no other country in the world, including the UK, no country is currently taking this situation seriously. It is a disgrace that wealthy countries like ours and Australia are doing so little, not least for the unaccompanied children. But I am concerned about the levels of gratuitous, and I would say, cowardly abuse by one person against another particularly through the use of social media. This is no substitute for sitting together with our different views and opinions and arguing properly through the problem whatever it may be. I would encourage our young to become politically active, to engage with some of the problems facing the world and help to bring about change. I have quoted Robert Kennedy the American politician on many occasions. He said “Each time a man or woman stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others they send forth a tiny ripple of hope and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring those ripples can build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance”. @Gunjur: Is there anything in your life that you will do differently? Nick Maurice: I don’t think so! I have been incredibly fortunate to have had such a wonderful life, always supported by Kate, my wife, and the family. I have had a good education, always had enough food on the table and have been able to work in amazing situations that have added so much to my enjoyment of life. I often say that I don’t believe in altruism. I think most of what we do has selfish motives. Through giving, we gain more. That has certainly been true for me. @Gunjur: You received an OBE award. For what were you specifically recognised for this honour? Nick Maurice: The award was given for my services to Oxfam and international development. @Gunjur: What would you like to be remembered for? Nick Maurice: I don’t expect to be remembered. But if I am, I hope it will be as a true friend who has benefited from the friendship of so many people.