Meet the Member: Irene Birt

Meet Mrs Irene Birt:

Irene is another long-standing Friend of Chitambo. She trained as a nurse, with Janet Knox, in Glasgow, Scotland, before being posted to Chitambo, by the Church of Scotland, in 1962. Irene was only 22 years old when she arrived at Chitambo, to take up midwifery duties. By her own admission, she was 'very green' and did not know how to light a paraffin lamp or a wood stove. Chitambo taught her much, including of her extended duties of looking after the hospital cows! However, she also contributed, substantially, to the training of student nurses and to nursing responsibilities. She and Janet each supervised their agreed wards, which was good for the nurse training, as they had both been trained in similar ways. We are honoured to have Irene on board.

I would like to become a friend of Chitambo, as I have long had interest in its future, and worked there, along with Janet in 1962. Our acquaintance goes back further than that, as we trained together at the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow, in the late 50s, so Janet was a friend, and also a colleague. I was, therefore, happy to find out that I was coming to work with someone who had trained at the same hospital, and whom I knew and liked. We complemented each other, as Janet, being several years older, was also much more academically inclined, whereas I had always been practical. This meant the division of the hospital work almost dictated itself, the one exception being, as I ran the midwifery side, I was told that I could also be responsible for overseeing the cows ( there was a small herd of Jerseys!). All I had to do was use the same principles, so I was told by one of the doctors! A bit of multiplication WAS required. This to a girl from a large city, was terrifying, but I DID develop a fondness for the cows, once I had recovered from my fright.

I arrived in Chitambo in late September, 1962, having been met in Lusaka, from the train, by Janet and Libby Currie. We then proceeded to what was Broken Hill (now Kabwe,) to get provisions and open a Bank Account. At 22, with no experience of running a house, and no idea what I would need, I was heavily dependant on Janet to do my first order, which she had done. We then had a light lunch, and set off up an amazingly (to me), primitive road , arriving some hours later. I found the experience not particularly enjoyable, and VERY dusty and hot. I was informed that I was privileged to have been met - others had not, and I was also privileged to have a house to myself, which I was told was equipped with furniture. This rather horrified me, having spent the previous years in nurses' homes and at home. I cannot remember whether I spent the first night with Janet or not. I rather think I did, as I was VERY green about everything, and had to be shown how to light lamps etc.

I settled, and adjusted, and spent the next year and a half working at the hospital. We divided it in two, and also divided the nursing training into two. I taking the first years, Janet the second, and sharing the third with Matron (Joey Smith at that time, and later, when Joey left, a lady from Mbereshi called Eileen). I also felt that the training of the girls needed a bit of 'lightening' and socialising, and started a club, held on a weekday evening, for sewing, knitting, and making scones/cakes, which we then ate, before the girls left for bed. We did this in my house, using my machine, sewing and knitting patterns. I felt the girls needed some extra domestic training, if later they might marry, and live in European-type houses. Also, having seen, and been distressed by, the number of babies of between 1 and three which were admitted with malnutrition, and, to me even worse, readmitted three to four months later with the same condition, I started, when my language improved, to go to Mabonde school weekly, to teach the senior girls hygiene, simple dietetics,( using locally available foods) and baby-care. I do not know whether this was effective in the long run or not, as, there being an emergency, in that one of the staff at Kawimbe was ill, I was asked, in the autumn of 1964, to go there, and run their hospital. Janet had, a year or so after I arrived, left to be

married and we had a new sister shortly after. So I had a quick learning curve! I now had an even quicker one. 400miles further North, to Kawimbe, and ex LMS mission station in a different, but, fortunately, not too different, language area, in a beautiful place, and with different colleagues. I was still 'the baby', being 24 at that time, and was told my transfer would be for just a month while my colleague (who was sick), recovered. Her assessment was rather hasty and hopeful, and I finished my time with the Church of Scotland still at Kawimbe, around 9 months later!

Looking back, and with the benefit of hindsight, I was really too young, at 22, to be in charge, every alternate night, of a hospital, at that time, of 120 beds, and frequently 150+ patients. I had had six months' staffing experience in a large hospital, and was still learning although I was considered fully trained. I also had a lot to learn about life, with all its shades and facets. I learned a great deal at Chitambo, and will always be grateful for the help of Drs. Currie and Musk, and the thoughtfulness of Libby Currie and Lily Musk in 'mothering' us single girls on our days off, and at odd weekends, when they gave us a decent lunch. I was always hungry, as we worked generally from 6a.m.-6p.m., and my 'cook' was a bit of a joke. He could NOT cook, and usually had gone home by the time I got back. He DID bake bread, which I lived on, with various beans etc., but, on the whole, our diet was poor. At least mine was, through lack of time, and difficulty with the wood-stove etc. Also, I did not really know how to cook, and all I could do was bake biscuits, cakes and scones. When I went to Kawimbe, I had the luxury of a 'fridge, but, at Chitambo I had a meat safe with its legs in tins of water to keep the ants out. There were also lots of rats, as the house was an old one, built by the first missionaries on site, in the early 1900s, so I got a cat, which helped that particular problem.

I am therefore amazed to hear of computers etc., but I suppose I should not be, as we are living in that era now. My kit-lists contained mosquito boots, and dresses for evening! Things have moved on a bit! But people, and their needs, are essentially the same, as is God. I am glad to hear the training has re-started, and hope that it will now continue. I should like to hear how it goes, and if I can help, I will. I will be in touch with Janet, and should you wish to put these words into your magazine, you are very welcome to do so. I am a bit old to help practically, but can send a donation. I still have my foetal stethoscope, my ordinary stethoscope, and my artery forceps, and medical bag, but it is all, I think very out of date.

Thank you Irene. What bright memories! I wonder if the ‘older’ stories also resonate with those of


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