Interview: Gordon and Margaret Bell

As a little girl serving her grandmother dinner, Scottish-born Margaret Bell (then Mackenzie) was in return fed with glorious stories of a life overseas. This wanderlust grew wings when she met her English husband Gordon, who was four years older, and then 22 years old. She was mesmerised with the tales of his life in Dominica, an island in the West Indies. The fruits, flowers, birds – all sounded like a fairytale… one that would become her reality for the next 46 years!

Relaxing on the veranda of their month-old guesthouse, the Pineapple Guesthouse, in Entebbe, Margaret speaks about their journey, literally and figuratively, from Scotland to Kenya to Tanzania to the UK, then out to Nigeria, back to Kenya  and finally Uganda; from newlyweds to a family of four; from a fresh graduate to head of three international schools in Uganda and from being a civil engineer in a British company to owning his own company in Uganda.

It was Gordon’s love of building roads that initially paved their path to Africa, but it was his visit to Uganda that cemented this lifelong connection. He built roads to the fruit farms at Kangundo, Kenya, installed a water supply project in Tanzania, built roads and a cement factory in Nigeria and restored tea factories in Western Uganda. He finally laid the foundation of his dream, his own business, Construction Services Ltd, in Kampala. From a one-man team in 1987, Gordon grew it to a 20-member team in 2000 completing several projects, including  rehabilitating the science
faculty of Makerere University, installing a water treatment works at Wobulenzi, renovating Mweya Lodge and parts of Old Mulago Hospital, built several health centres in northern Uganda and law courts in Masaka and Mbarara.

Margaret’s teaching narrative begins on a sprawling verandah at their home in Nigeria, with 24 children, including daughters Corrie and Iona, in her playschool. Around the time she moved to Uganda, Lincoln International School (now International School of Uganda, ISU) was looking for a head. Under her tutelage, the school introduced IGCSE and was jointly accredited with acclaim by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (US and ECIS (Europe). She ruffled some feathers when she suggested the school’s name change to ISU and move to the Lubowa campus. Margaret went on to set up Kabira International School, with 64 students, aged from 2-11 years, on the old Mowlem Ltd. Compound. Leaving this stint to pursue her PhD., she  was invited to interview for a position to join the Aga Khan Education Services Uganda as the Head of Education, later CEO, for all four schools, two at nursery level, a primary and a high school. The deal
clincher was the similarity between her job description and her PhD thesis, ‘Enhance the Uganda national curriculum, and introduce international programmes’.

So putting her research to one side, for the next seven years there, the school introduced exams for IGCSE, the IB Diploma  and Cambridge Primary Programmes.  But her biggest achievement, she says, was empowering Ugandan students, teachers and staff members thereby increasing the ratio of Ugandans to expats among the senior staff at the school.

Gordon has also been the senior administrator for Medical Research Council in Entebbe, a job which also engaged his engineering skills to build research labs, offices and staff housing. Margaret was the editor for artist Taga Nuwagaba’s book Totems of Uganda. Reflecting on the changes they have seen in Uganda, they related an anecdote about the time they went for dinner to China Plate in 1985. Due to inflation, a meal for eight would cost them a whole pile of money. One had to drop the money in the morning, let the staff count it, and then visit in the evening. “For the same amount of money, we could buy a Suzuki in Kenya,” they laugh.