Story 41

Inspirational vision

I first met Leonard Cheshire in 1988. He was sitting quietly in a corner with his wife, Sue Ryder, at a meeting in the House of Lords.

Gillian Graham Dobson

He was the most unassuming man — very warm and always focused on the matter in hand.  He had recently launched The World War Memorial Fund. I had for 9 years been Hon. Secretary to The Airey Neave Memorial Trust, and was recovering from a major cancer operation. I offered to help Leonard’s work, thinking I might make myself available for a fortnight or so, but found myself working energetically on his projects until 1993, from his Maunsel Street base.

I have a hilarious memory of writing a speech for Sue Ryder. The bustling Cheshire Foundation premises were very cramped, so I enthroned myself on a peaceful loo seat to write, sat on the end of their bed with her while she read the speech through, and heard her speak it in the House of Lords that same evening.

In 1989, I was asked by Ron Travers and Sir Henry Marking to seek corporate funding, ‘In Africa, For Africans.’ I had spent my youth in Africa, and could not imagine a happier task. I visited and stayed in Cheshire Homes in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and South Africa, to learn their specific needs. I spent many days thundering and rattling along hot red dusty roads, meeting people who carried bundles of sugar cane or pineapples on their heads, or who sold strange breadfruits or charcoal in banana-leaf containers. Coffee beans were laid out in the sun to dry. Vanloads of exotic fish from Lake Victoria lurched past. Lunch might be camel legs wheeled in on a barrow to make soup. Ants were a delicacy. The Nuns running the Homes on a shoestring were an inspiration. At a Durban Cheshire Homes Conference, Leonard was received with enormous admiration and warmth. His unassuming manner was universally admired.

In each country, The British High Commission, The British Council or CEOs of companies with UK links invariably gave support. One Home asked for a cow — the Ugandan High Commissioner gave two, by giving a cow in calf. The British Council endorsed an exhibition of the paintings of two disabled boys in Nairobi. Companies might not offer money, but instead give what they manufactured – loads of teak, sacks of sugar,  a shipping container (perfect for a secure lock-up), a grinding mill, cheap fuel, irrigation equipment, a second-hand van, replacement tyres…  I invited donors to visit these far-flung African Homes, and asked their ex-pat wives to fundraise, perhaps with bridge drives. All were moved to help the plight of disabled Africans, survivors of war, fire, polio, leprosy, poverty…

In Providence Home in Nkokonjeru, Uganda, then ‘behind the lines’ of civil war, I found Teresa, an orphan of 14, disabled and using a wheelchair because of a bullet lodged in her spine from the time of Milton Obote. She was brought to London. The Queen’s Private Physician took a benevolent interest in her case, and arranged for specialist MRI scans and medical advice for surgical action. We helped her begin rebuilding her life. Her case epitomised the Cheshire ethic to me, and why it was I wanted to be involved. She died in Nkokonjeru in 2014.

Back in England, I moved on to other things, but always kept a special interest in Nkokonjeru, where I had found funds for an underground watertank to be built. It filled via new gutters – residents no longer had to walk several miles to collect water in buckets on their heads. Years later, I took part in a 500-mile sponsored bicycle ride in Uganda to benefit those Homes. I now live in Norfolk — not far from Leonard Cheshire’s one-time P.A., still a close friend, whose tiny London office I had shared.  My years supporting Leonard Cheshire’s Homes in Africa­­­ were the most meaningful in my life, and I hope his farsighted vision for help for people with disabilities will long inspire support.

My years supporting Leonard Cheshire’s Homes in Africa were the most meaningful in my life.