Magazine article Geographical

Under an African Sky

Magazine article Geographical

Under an African Sky

Article excerpt

Her late husband, Sir Michael Wood, helped revolutionise medical care in Africa with the creation of the Flying Doctors. Now in her 80s, Lady Susan Wood talks to Sacha Vaughan

SITTING ON THE VERANDAH looking out over the fabled Ngong Hills in the early evening light, as she does most evenings now, Lady Susan Wood has an archive of memories that spans over half a century in Kenya. Not only has she been witness to the country's changing fortunes, but she has been an instrumental force in the struggle for black and white relations, and for the fight towards improving the African way of life. She has also been a farmer, a nurse, brought up four children, documented her experiences in various books, and launched her own pottery which now sells to a global market.

Her late husband, the surgeon Sir Michael Wood, along with his two colleagues Sir Archie McIndoe and Dr Thomas Rees, founded The Flying Doctors, which revolutionised health care in East Africa. What began with one man and a single four-seater Piper Tripacer plane almost 50 years ago, now employs over 500 Africans and operates in over five countries.

Lady Wood, who recently celebrated her 82nd birthday, has just finished editing a new book on her husband's career, which she put together from one of his old manuscripts. The book, No Turning Back, is due out in the UK at the end of the month.

Her husband Michael, Britain's first plastic surgeon, McIndoe and the US surgeon Rees, wanted to push out the medical boundaries in Kenya. Lady Wood says: "All three of them had been witness to the ravages of trauma in Africa resulting from countless road accidents, disease, animal attacks and on a more domestic scale, burns due to the cooking pots being on the floor inside the traditional tribal huts."

They needed money to establish a reconstructive unit and Wood went to find Albert Schweitzer in Gabon. "Schweitzer was the same generation as Einstein, a monumentally clever doctor who ran a highly successful hospital in Gabon. Michael asked me to be his navigator on the trip, so I was given a protractor, a pencil and a ruler and told to get us there. It was an unforgettable flight, high over the dark, inscrutable forests of the Congo."

She said Schweitzer gave them "an invaluable piece of advice -- which was not to follow in his footsteps but to use the tools of our time". They realised this was most obviously the aeroplane and the radio. From here grew the idea of mobile medicine. So came the birth, in 1957, of The Flying Doctor Service and its funding body, The African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF).

ABOVE AFRICA

Her husband published other books about his flying adventures before his death in 1987, but Lady Wood believes that No Turning Back gives a greater insight into his character. She says: "In Go an Extra Mile (Michael's previous book) he was playing himself down, yet in this manuscript he was writing much more freely and his personality shines through brilliantly. What a crazy fellow -- all that flying he did, it really was quite amazing."

The Woods' time in Africa, which spanned several decades of change, is a story of both well executed plans and fortuitous meetings. Since her husband's death, Lady Wood has remained in the country she loves.

Her eyesight is now so seriously impaired that she can no longer read, watch television or recognise people from any distance -- but she is full of ingenious alternatives. She has a talking watch and is an avid listener of book tapes. Her two long-serving male servants -- Kivu and Unguato -- are trusted comrades who will help her to find a pen, put on a jacket or entertain friends. She has a wonderfully mischievous sense of humour and appreciates the same attribute in others. And despite an amazing quality of stillness and wisdom, has a hugely youthful outlook and manner.

WARTIME ROMANCE

She was born Susan Buxton in 1918 to missionary parents, the first white baby to be born in the upper reaches of the Belgian Congo, then known as the `Heart of Africa'. …

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