Nick Maurice is a house-hold name in the sprawling coastal community of Gunjur and The Gambia on account of his work for the 34-year-old partnership between Gunjur and Marlborough in the UK. The 74-year old has not shown any signs of slowing down in his persistent efforts to promote development in the Global South, as well as efforts to promote policies around development and integration through his contacts with the Commonwealth and British government. In this interview, Sainey Darboe began by asking him a bit about himself and what circumstances shaped his vision and calling in life:
Nick Maurice: I was born in Marlborough, a small market town in Wiltshire UK on 11 February 1943, two years before the Second World War ended, as a result of which over sixty million people died world wide – it seems unbelievable now.
I have two older sisters and a younger brother. My father was a general medical practitioner and obstetrician in Marlborough and indeed the fifth generation of his family to be doctors in the town. 34 years later on January 1st 1977, I was to join the medical practice and with my cousin David to become the sixth generation of doctors in Marlborough. Indeed we were recorded in the Guinness Book of Records for having practiced medicine in the same community for longer than any other family in the world.
My early years, post war, were marked by some degree of deprivation. Food and petrol were rationed and we received food parcels from American friends at Christmas time.
My very early education was at a small preschool in Marlborough but then at the age of eight, I was sent away to a private boarding school in Winchester, 35 miles from my home. The Pilgrims School was the choir school to the beautiful Anglican Cathedral in Winchester which was consecrated in 1093. I was not a chorister but the music of the Anglican Church and the beauty of the Cathedral and its Christian services was introduced to me at that young age and became a very important part of my soul.
I was very homesick when I first started my education there as I only saw my family at half term after six weeks away and then again six weeks later at holiday time. After five years at The Pilgrim’s School at the age of 13 I came to the large public school of Marlborough College, which had 800 pupils, all boys, and all of whom, including myself, were boarders at the school despite the fact that my parents only lived one mile away.
By this time my parents were relatively wealthy and were able to buy a holiday house in Cornwall by the sea in the extreme South West of England where we always spent our summer holidays playing cricket and football on the beach and swimming and surfing in the waves.
You are very outward looking with a global perspective despite your privileged background. What particular experiences did you have as a child that influenced this?
Each summer my parents would invite three or four young people from different European countries, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, to come and stay with us for four weeks to improve their English but also to introduce us, the children in the family, to people from different backgrounds and cultures.
I believe my parents’ motive was that we had just been involved in a terrible world war and it was essential that we should hold out our hands to our onetime allies and enemies, welcome them into our home and recognise that ultimately we are all human and must learn to live together and love one another.
I am sure that this helped me to understand that there was a world outside Marlborough and the UK and introduced me for the first time to people who were ‘different’, and it was a difference which I was always to enjoy.
It might have been this introduction to people of different nationalities and a certain claustrophobia that I felt, living and going to school in the same small town that made me want to break away and live abroad.
So how did you manage to accomplish this desire to explore the world beyond your immediate environs?
I had managed to secure a place at Cambridge University to study economics but when I was interviewed at the University I made it clear that I did not want to leave school and proceed immediately to a University education but rather I had a sense of adventure and wanted to ‘see the world’ for a year.
Thus it was that I applied to be a Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) volunteer. Until 1956 young men had had to undertake compulsory national service in either the army, air force or navy. But in 1958, recognising that many young men in particular might benefit from working in Africa or Asia, Alec Dickson founded VSO in part to replace national service.
When Alec Dickson interviewed me in London he discovered that I spoke a little French and thus it was that in 1961 I was sent to teach English in the College Moderne in the town of Sokode in francophone Northern Togo. VSO had no money and I was therefore made to work my passage painting the ship that took me from UK originally to Nigeria and then by bus to Togo.
Aged 18 I lived for one year in Sokode with a wonderful Muslim family who treated me as though I was their son and it was that extraordinary year that was to be so influential, years later, in my passion for setting up the link between Marlborough and Gunjur and providing other young people with similar opportunities.
Remember that it was before the days of instant communication. If I had any problem while I was in Togo I would write a letter to my parents in England. The letter would take three weeks to reach them by sea and land and three weeks later i.e six weeks after I had written home about the problem I would receive a letter in response, by which time I had often forgotten what the problem was!
It was while I was in Sokode that I changed my mind and decided that after all I should follow in my father’s footsteps and study medicine rather than economics.
On my return from Togo, I spent three years studying the theoretical aspects of medicine, anatomy, physiology and biochemistry at Cambridge University and then went to St Mary’s Hospital in London to undertake the clinical study.
I bet you were still itching to leave for another part of the world where you presumably have now developed a level of comparative comfort with your Togo experience?
While still a student in London I began to get “itchy feet” and felt that same feeling of claustrophobia and the need to travel again. This time in 1967 VSO sent me to Papua New Guinea where I had a wonderful year working in the Highlands in the paediatric ward of a small hospital in Mount Hagen treating children who were seriously ill with meningitis or gastroenteritis etc. A lot of my time was spent walking through the mountains of PNG inoculating babies and children against whooping cough, diphtheria and tetanus. I learnt more medicine through practical application in PNG than I ever learnt through books at Cambridge University or in London.
After I married my wife Kate in 1971 we spent 18 months in Nepal with our small baby in a Hindu village, where I was working to cure people of tuberculosis which was a very common disease.
Finally, in 1977 I arrived back in Marlborough as a general medical practitioner and took over from my father on his retirement.
It was in 1979 that I was watching a television account of the terrible things that had happened over four and a half years of the ghastly regime of Pol Pot and the hard line communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, South East Asia. They had been responsible for the deaths of some two million of a total population of six million people in what became known as ‘the killing fields’. I felt I had to do something as a French speaking doctor with experience of working in difficult environments in different parts of the world and thus perhaps better qualified than most other doctors.
I volunteered to work for four months as a member of Oxfam’s emergency team and was accepted. Oxfam paid for a locum doctor to work in my place in Marlborough for that period of time.