My inspired Person – Louis Mariette
Howard Darkin is an extraordinary vet, lived a fascinating life, compassionate, and intelligent ‘over-opinionated ‘character and yes my fantastic Dad!
Howard was born in the UK and traveled to Africa. In Malawi, he met and married my Mum Tina, nee Gomes, then Mariette. They later traveled to Swaziland and Botswana in connection with his government veterinary contracts.
- Education at Palmers Boys Grammar School,
- Grays, Essex
- Glasgow Veterinary College 1962-1967
What was the initial driving force to leave the UK to go to Africa?
I was fascinated by Africa ever since watching Armand & Michaela Dennis’s safari documentaries on TV in the 50s & 60s. The opportunity to experience it for me arose halfway through the final year at College when reps from ODA (Overseas Development Administration) visited to talk about work opportunities in Africa. I jumped at the opportunity to do something different for a few years, never expecting it to extend to 21 years!
How did your Mum, Dad, and sister Ursula react?
My Dad was very understanding, my sister already had ambitions to travel overseas but my mother was very upset at the prospect of my going so far away.
What was your title, department, job requirement for the British government and relationship with the government of those countries?
I went out as a Veterinary Officer as part of the UK’s aid package. I was employed directly by the local governments, ODA/Crown Agents acting as ‘recruiting agents’. The Department of Veterinary Services within the Ministry of Agriculture in the different countries set its own agenda, depending on the local needs. Our responsibilities were to fill the skills gap until the local country had trained its own nationals to fill the posts.
What was your exact memory of the very first moment you stepped foot on African soil? What mode of transport?
I exchanged the flight I was initially booked on for a sea ticket, sailing at the end of October 1967 from Southampton to Capetown via Las Palmas, as I wanted to give myself the opportunity of a 10-day voyage to ‘acclimatize’ the different season. Arrival at Capetown was greeted by the ‘tablecloth’, a sight one never forgets. I transferred immediately to the train by the quayside for the 3 day trip to Francistown in NE Botswana, via the Great Karoo the barren nature of which, viewed through the carriage window prompted the written comment ‘what have I let myself in for?’ In Francistown, I met other new VO arrivals for our ‘induction’ into mysteries of the Vet’ Department. After a couple of weeks, we were allocated our stations, I being given Ngamiland, home of the Okavango Delta.
What were your occupational experiences working with locals, as joy and challenge?
The staff I encountered everywhere were conscientious in the duties although frustrations and amusements abounded. Their choice of language was sometimes excusable only by their obvious repeating of what they had heard from their European seniors and added color to conversations!
They never refused to do anything which was reasonable but was not backward in pointing out that which was not. As the ‘outsider’ I always treated their comments seriously.
As well as your government work, tell more about your privately set up practices?
In Botswana initially, there was very little opportunity for ‘private practice’ although I remember spending many hours attending to transmissible venereal tumors in dogs, which seemed to be a very common problem. Latterly it became an important part of my routine, but always secondary to ‘official work’. In Malawi & Swaziland, it was done as part of the government duties and all proceeds went into the government coffers with the issue of official receipts. On many occasions operations were carried out in situations where serious improvisation was required to establish a safe operating environment. In Swaziland I ran a surgery from Piggs Peak in the NW at Havelock asbestos mine in a room allocated by the hospital staff next to the room where they X-rayed the miners’ chests twice a year and I also operated in the open air at the citrus estate near the SA border; in Botswana, I ran a surgery at the diamond mine at Jwaneng at the request and with the assistance of the mine management. I operated from the ’servants’ quarters’ in my last station. I was assisted by members of the family, friends and members of my staff on different occasions, for a share of the proceeds when I was able to charge privately, otherwise, regular staff members assisted at the ‘official surgeries’.
Tell us a bit more about your various clients and some of the issues you faced?
In Botswana especially where my district at one time was about the size of Wales, I would spend up to a couple of weeks in the month touring & visiting staff at their substations and the local farmers to discuss problems/needs, etc. Outside of this routine, the distances were an obvious problem to dealing with immediate problems as it could often take a couple of days between a situation arising and my attending it, with the inevitable less than satisfactory results. I particularly remember one case where a farmer reported a prolapsed uterus in one of his cows which promptly fell off in my hands-on initial examination, having been severely damaged by fly-strike.
Any particular ‘oddities’ within local customs?
One unfortunate ‘fixation’ of the local farmers was that the number of cattle owned was more important than their condition – 10 thin animals were worth more than 6 well-built ones. The fear of snakes was endemic, understandably so, but this even extended to dead ones, as I discovered when I asked a staff member to remove a dead snake I had forgotten & left in the office over the weekend which most forcefully reminded me of its presence on Monday morning – he flatly refused to have anything to do with it, although its pungency could have indicated nothing other than long decease.
Your most challenging operation?
I well remember being called to a cow that was having trouble calving. I was standing in for a colleague who was on overseas leave at the time and I attended with our eldest son, Chris, what I thought would be a routine problem. The cow was penned in a small ‘kraal’ strewn with obstacles but with no other more suitable site available. It took little time and some anguish to establish that the cow was not of the obliging type, noticeably involving my being pinned on my back to a rusty bedstead with the animal’s forehead on my chest and a large horn either side. Chris having ably relieved my predicament we then used the bedstead to restrain her. It took a brief internal assessment to realise that a caesarean was necessary. Local anaesthetic obviated the subject’s further potential distress and the operation proceeded without incident; the other circumstances surrounding the episode have blanked my memory as to the fate of the calf! My colleague returned from leave a few days later and I felt obliged to apprise him not only of the operation performed and the need to remove the skin sutures but of the temperament he might face. I enquired later as to how he had fared, to be told that the sutures were still place, followed by a list of expletives of which I am sure not even he thought he was capable!
How do you handle emotional situations like having to put down an animal?
It depended entirely on the circumstances. The case of an animal being put down for the ‘owner’s convenience’ would always upset me enormously and I would try to dissuade the owner, discuss alternatives etc, almost invariably without success as such a mind is essentially unapproachable. In the case of an animal suffering with no hope of relief I would try to mitigate the owner’s own distress by emphasising that this was last service they could provide for a well loved pet/companion. It perhaps goes without saying that I have the same attitude to human life, and death!
You had some very seriously intense disease control problems and hurdles to overcome, tell us more, the region covered?
When I first arrived in Botswana 90% of the country’s income derived from cattle and the meat export market, principally to Europe, centred on the BMC abattoir in Lobatse in the SE. Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) was a serious threat to this and the most important task of the department was its control through annual vaccination campaigns in the danger areas, especially associated with the buffalo in the swamps, with a vaccine especially developed against the prevalent sub-type, and movement controls through quarantine camps and cordon fences. In addition, vaccination campaigns were carried out against Anthrax and Blackquarter, the former especially being a serious threat to humans. In Malawi and Swaziland, whilst Foot and Mouth Disease was something of a threat in small areas, the main function of the department was tick control through the weekly dipping of all cattle which required the monitoring of the dip concentration etc. The initial use of Arsenic carried its own potential risks and precautions!
What was the most unusual animal and for what reason did you treat them?
My routine work did not involve wild animals, although spending so much time in the bush in Botswana brought me in regular contact. Otherwise the most unusual I suppose involved my regular castration of police camels at Tsabong & Werda on the Molopo river border with RSA; their use was necessitated by the nature of the sand and dunes making vehicles impractical for routine patrol. Castration made them more amenable.
What are your happiest, saddest , challenging memories performing an operation?
One of the most satisfying was that of a horse which reared up and came down on a water stand pipe, creating a massive wound in the axilla; it required the assistance of a colleague, who regularly topped up the intravenous anaesthetic, and two hours of carefully suturing muscle layers and skin to return the animal to eventual full function. An equally challenging case , but with a less happy end, was that of a dog caught by a crocodile, which had been rescued by its owner and rushed to me. 2 hours later, after carefully repairing the extensive area of damaged muscle and skin the animal succumbed to the shock with only a few skin sutures left and recovery in sight.
Your most awkward moment?
One most unfortunate incident was that of SBT kennelled whilst the owners were on overseas leave. It escaped one day whilst I was away in bush, and was found and returned to its kennel. The following day a python was found in the kennel with a dog shaped & sized swelling in it. It was killed but the dog, which had obviously seen its previous efforts to enter through the open top via an overhanging tree, was long dead.
What were the challenges working out on bush locations?
I cannot recall thinking of any ’challenges’, depending on your definition. I looked forward to my bush trips, the main pleasure being that they were almost invariably done to my own timetable and in my own way, without outside ‘interference’, with the exception of FMD campaigns. There were, of course, the official ‘expectations’ but how one performed them was largely one’s own decision, bearing in mind one needed to justify the mileage claim at the end of the month! I carried 400 litres of petrol, 200 litres of water, 2 spare tyres plus tyre changing equipment , a book to read, pen and paper and full camping gear whenever I went out, not forgetting the all-important shovel of many uses. I got stuck in the desert twice which was frustrating but it was always certain that someone would come past even if it meant waiting a couple of days. I took with me a guide cum cook cum translator who could also be very interesting company. The weather was a regular concern – a river could be dry on the way out and a raging torrent on the way back, not to mention the roads! A camp at night could attract people one would never have imagined were around – from casual ‘locals’ popping in for a chat to expats in the nearby school inviting one for dinner.
Tell us more on your involvement within the local communities.
My bush trips usually involved contact with the local communities, either at the veterinary crush where vaccinations were carried out or the dip tanks. The farmers would congregate here and it was often a useful place for informal contact, even though I was obliged to use a translator! However, since these were times and places of fairly intense activity matters of more import were discussed at more formal meetings in the villages when there were no other distractions. Matters of government policy or of immediate concern such as drought or Rabies for example were raised, as well as providing the opportunity to listen to the farmers’ own concerns.
Your proudest moment?
The memory which gives me the greatest pleasure concerns a project I developed and wrote up as a paper presented to a forum which a friend and I had established some time before and which on that occasion included the PS Min of Ag and a local progressive farmer who was a friend of mine. I had long been concerned about the water supply situation in the western part of my district with too many cattle concentrated around too few boreholes and the inevitable destruction of the fragile savannah. I persuaded Geological Survey to survey the area and identify potential new boreholes, without subsequent exploitation – it would be necessary to ensure one did not merely extend the existing problem before development could take place. This could only be done by establishing fenced farms on what was communal tribal grazing land. Such was the substance of the paper I wrote with some statistical assistance from a Peace Corps friend. Some time later I eventually left Botswana. When I returned 10 years later I found the Tribal Gazing Land Policy in the area I had written about was in operation and was told by my local farmer friend that it was a direct result of my paper, all the research for which I had done outside my expected duties, in the more than sufficient unfilled time the performance of those duties allowed.
Your view on environment of the planet?
The most dangerous animal on the planet is man, whose intelligence has not kept pace with his increased ‘cleverness’. His ability to think long term about the planet when faced with immediate problems is severely limited, especially when handicapped further by the short term of political motivation. The single most dangerous aspect of this is the blindness to the fact that a finite resource, the space available on the planet suitable for habitation (by all of the flora and fauna needing it), cannot support the infinite potential of human population growth. To ignore this simple fact requires a blindness, wilful or otherwise, of frightening proportions.
Name your chosen charities.
Although I am a Rotarian you will note that I have included no ‘human’ charities: whilst I support and sympathise with efforts to enhance human well being and reduce human suffering I cannot support anything which has the potential to increase human population!