Saturday, June 18, 2016

Time Past in Africa - My Father

A Biography of my Father, Mervyn Vice Smithyman

My Father was very keen to get his family story written down. In 2005 he was 94, and he asked for help with a booklet about his Mother. That was this book’s origin and these words are mostly his words. This is a story. Perhaps it is a true story. However, all family recollections are stories from a particular viewpoint.

He and I then began to plan his life story and this interest occupied him during his last years and particularly during his last difficult months. I hoped that after his retirement my brother, Michael Smithyman, would help with the unfinished project, but sadly, Michael died too young in 2011.
The Smithyman family depicted in this book were Africans, born and brought up in Africa of British ancestry. They eventually grew up in Zomba, speaking fluent Chinyanja, the language of Nyasaland.

As children they were independent,  resilient and resourceful and often barefoot! The ten children were born over a period of 25 years (1905-1930) and loyal bonds were formed between them.
I am one of the children of those ten. I have, or had, 23 cousins spread across the world and every one of them and their children has an individual view on the story of the Smithyman world. It was a fascinating world.

In my family our Smithyman aunts and uncles were always honoured and spoken about. There was the eldest, Doris; Fred, the eldest boy; Harold on his farm in Zimbabwe; Victor who was always such fun and so close to my father; Jessie, Pearl and Freda my father’s dear sisters; Wilfred, the young pilot who died in France and was always mourned; and John.
I came to realise my Father would do anything for his siblings. He loved them all and was always caring and giving advice even if it wasn’t always taken on board.

The photographs I have included are old and faded but we have these as memories and they are precious. I have realised these images have historical value beyond our family. I have given the Society of Malawi at the Mandala Centre in Blantyre, Malawi, copies of my Father’s photos as well as sending the Tanzanian Museum in Dar-es-Salaam copies of the photos of my Father’s social welfare programs from Samé in the Pare Mountains in the 1950s.

Section One is about Fred and Catherine Smithyman’s family from their beginnings in Port Elizabeth to settling in Zomba, Nyasaland. Of course, it focuses mostly on my Father, Mervyn Vice Smithyman, the fourth child, as it is mostly through his eyes and memories that the stories came to me. Section Two starts after the war and focuses on my Father and Mother.

The first time I really understood the depth of my Father’s dedication to his family and particularly his Mother was while we were on a family visit to Italy. It was 1961 and I was a thirteen year old. We were on a bus travelling to Venice as my Father told me the story of the Spanish Influenza of 1919 and how his Mother had ministered to her seven small children while she herself was sick and unable to walk. He told me how she had crawled to the kitchen to make soup for them. My Father wept as he told the story. I had never before seen my Father weep.

I met my grandparents only twice but the story of their lives in Zomba was made very real to me over the years. Theirs was a vibrant, exciting world. The children had a freedom not seen in modern times and, with it, a great deal of fun. Someone once told me that the Smithyman family did not need other friends, they had one another.

There has been a mystery to solve — it was the family background of our grandmother, Catherine Jessie Vice. My Father told and imagined all sorts of stories to demonstrate and understand her sterling character. Part of this mystery has been solved since he died through the determined research which my daughter, Shannon Adams, has done on Ancestry. Shannon has also discovered more about Fred Milner Smithyman, my Grandfather.

Section Two deals with my Father and Mother’s move to Tanganyika in 1946 and their life in East Africa till the terrible 1964 Zanzibar Revolution / Invasion.

This is the world I remember as a child and which I absorbed as my world. I felt that I was not really British: I was some sort of hybrid with a deep love of Africa and a growing awareness that our living there was complicated.

I am aware this book largely neglects my Mother’s story. Her strength and her grace sustained us all.
This book is for the future generations: so the story of our past is remembered and is not lost. It is for my Father who is no longer here; for my brother, Michael, who is sorely missed; for my children, Shannon and David; for Mike’s children, Matthew, Stephen and Sarah, and for our greater Smithyman family that they should know something of these remarkable lives.

Anne M. Chappel, née Smithyman

This book is available as a print book on Amazon.


  1. Congratulations Anne. I can't wait to read it. I LOVED your last book.
    Love, Tara

  2. My family knew your grandfather very well as he was a regular vistor, my mother having known your grandparents from being a young girl

    1. Its a small world. I assume that was in Zomba - what were their names. I see you are in Australia (as I am ...)

  3. My parents were Danny & Gerty Morrison,my mother was a member of the Bishop family another large family, my father was in the Nyasaland Police so we also knew Vic & Joan

    1. Hi Mary, I assume you know Dr Chris Bishop in Tasmania - I have been in contact with him. Victor Smithyman was my father's very dearest brother. We often visited them in Swaziland. I see you on FB but not as a person - as a place I can follow ...

  4. My parents were Danny & Gerty Morrison,my mother was a member of the Bishop family another large family, my father was in the Nyasaland Police so we also knew Vic & Joan