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Memoirs of Neil Bonnell of Budo: delightful and inspiring.

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Memoirs of Neil Bonnell of Budo: delightful and inspiring.

Photo: Budo teaching staff, 1966.

Back row - L to R: John Fyfe, Dennis Chisholm, James Patrick Boston, Colin M. Davis, Patrick Whittle.
Middle row - L to R: Lewis Dodd, Neil Bonnell, Keith Brewster, Nick Milford, Geoffrey Barraclough.
Seated - L to R: Barbara Collins, Joy Wilson, Bryan Wilson, Cyril Truran, Ian C. Robinson (Headmaster), David Weston (Deputy Headmaster), Veronica Brunette, Cynthia Whittle. 

Photographer: Unknown



On this sunny Canadian Labour Day weekend, my joy was enhanced by the Memoirs of Neil Bonnell, one of my favourite high school teachers at King’s College, Budo. It was delightful reading, repeatedly interrupted by chuckles at the humorous recollections that were vintage Bonnell. 


Restricted to his teaching career, the memoirs summarise highlights of the fascinating journey of a qualified English and History teacher that began in 1957. After completing his professional training for a Diploma in Education at the Sydney Teacher’ College in Australia, his first appointment was as Administrative Assistant to the Principal and Vice-Principal of Sydney Teachers’ College. What followed was a 65-year teaching career that started in Australia, then the United Kingdom, then Uganda, back to Australia, the United Kingdom again, then China, and back to Australia. 


In an email message to me, Bonnell described the memoirs, which were published in a series of nine online articles by the Warwick, Australia branch of the University of the Third Age (U3A), as “really snapshots written with a strict word limit.” The “snapshots” beautifully tell a story that comes alive without the necessity for great elaboration. The gentleman who taught us the art of writing essays in English was his own best student. 


The snapshots are presented under the headings: (1) A Strange Way to Start a Teaching Career, (2) Memories of Coffs Harbour High School, 1958-59, (3) Sydney! 1960-1962, (4) An English Interlude, September 1962 to April 1965, (5) The Pearl of Africa, 1965 to 1971, (6) The Long Way Home/Trinity Grammar School 1972-1984, (7) The Queensland Years, 1985 to 1990, (8) The Lean Years for Scots PGC, 1991 to 1994, and (9) On the Road to Cathy.


The events on his teaching journey in Australia, Europe, Africa, and Asia are all fascinating. One fills in the gaps in our knowledge about the professional life of one of our most beloved and respected teachers. He offers nuggets about leadership challenges and solutions that should be of interest to modern teachers who must deal with students that are less compliant with rules than older generations were. 


Naturally, the Budo memoirs invited reading twice, for I wanted to get every bit of detail of his experiences and observations. For example, he helps explain why to many of us, Monday January 25, 1971, was a normal learning day at Budo, until the late afternoon when a radio announcement by Warrant Officer II Sam Wilfred Aswa changed everything.  Aswa was the man who informed the world that the military had overthrown the government of President Milton Obote “to save a bad situation from getting worse.” 


Bonnell recalls that while he was coaching cricket at about 4:00 pm on the main oval, a student rushed onto the field and shouted, “Idi Amin has taken over.” In true British tradition, Bonnell replied: “Thank you. Please field at square leg. You can have the next over at the other end.”  The anonymous student must have been stunned by his teacher’s reaction in Cricketese. We need to hear from him.


Bonnell explains: “As a staff we had vowed never to make the same mistake as we had in an earlier political crisis.”  The earlier crisis was the May 1966 military attack on the Kabaka’s Lubiri (palace of the King of Buganda), which triggered severe tensions among students at Budo, leading to temporary closure of the school.  


Bonnell also recalls one of the great puzzles about Budo, the supposedly “elite school for the sons of kings, chiefs, clergy and the rich”, as the entrenched myth goes. “It’s a wonder that the students achieved what they did with the diet they had to exist on,” he writes. “Maize porridge for breakfast and a staple of steamed green bananas at other meals. A thin gravy with a piece or two of meat was added to the banana mash. One boiled egg was a Sunday treat, although for some girls tribal custom forbade them to eat eggs. The men wanted this delicacy for themselves. Both tea and coffee were served from the same large pots. In the end, even the tea tasted like coffee.”


Whereas I did not know that some of our female peers laboured under a cultural aversion to eggs, Bonnell’s description of the Budo diet during the great days of plenty is correct. Perhaps our headmaster harboured a secret wish to prepare us for a life in the military or to spare us the sudden shock of a suboptimal diet should we find ourselves in prisons or exile. 


Bonnell is very gracious in his evaluation of Budonians’ intellectual abilities. His students, who sat for their O-levels in Senior Three (Express classes), did exceptionally well in the English examinations. When he resumed teaching in Australia in 1972, a student asked him what kind of students he had taught at Budo. “He clearly could not envisage Africans coping with secondary education,” Bonnell writes. “They were a great deal brighter than you lot,” he informed his Australian students. The latter “were not convinced that this was so.”


Who is Neil Bonnell? Born on May 2, 1935, in Salamaua, New Guinea (now Papua New Guinea), Neil was educated at Trinity Grammar School, New South Wales, Australia and Sydney University where he graduated in 1956 as a B.A. with Honours in English and a Diploma in Education. I tell his story in “Neil Bonnell: a passion for teaching, a passion for life”, a biographical note archived on this Fireplace.


When Neil and Beverly Bonnell, together with their four sons left Budo in August 1971, they flew to London, England, bought a Dormobile campervan and a tent and “set off for Bombay” driving through Europe, Iran, and on to India. 


Upon his return to Australia, he continued his career and only retired from fulltime teaching in 1996. He has enjoyed a very active retirement. At the age of 88, he still tutors two courses – China Today and the Bible as History – at the University of the Third Age. During that university’s thirtieth anniversary celebration two months ago, Bonnell presented a class on modern China, accompanied by a slideshow. He is active on social media, the subtle humour in his posts always a delightful read. 


I know that very many of his Budo students share my gratitude to this fine gentleman, one of the best teachers we were blessed to learn from. We wish him continued good health and service. 


© Muniini K. Mulera



Neil Bonnell: a passion for teaching, a passion of life 



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