Graham Bamford - interview 2009

Graham Bamford 1944 - 2017
The following article was first published in the Bayon Pearnik issue 155 in 2009.
As part of the Expat Files series of interviews with foreigners 
living in Cambodia.
Graham established and co-owned Khmer Delight Restaurant in Battambang.
He passed away 24th January 2017.
Graham was simply wonderful and will be missed by very many.

The Expat Files (published 2009)

Graham Bamford is 65, and was born in South Africa, of British decent. He now resides in Cambodia, is semi retired, but teaches English a few hours a week, as well as advising Khmer friends in the hospitality industry.

‘I’m often asked by people I meet, where I’m from, and I find this a particularly difficult question to answer’. ‘ The reason being as I’m actually from many different places, I was born in South Africa, but left with my family to what was then the British crown colony of Kenya when I was four years old, and it was in Kenya that I grew up and was educated’. ‘ It was quite an experience growing up in Kenya in those days, but of course at that age one didn’t appreciate what the benefits were of living in that kind of environment, until many years later’. ‘Now of course that country has changed beyond recognition from what it was like in the 1950s’. ‘ My family decided to migrate to Australia, basically because they lacked trust in what was going to happen to Kenya’s independents that was just about to take place in the early 1960s’. ‘So we moved to Perth, and I must say I felt like an alien from outer space, I didn’t particularly feel at home there, but I manage to fit in eventually’. ‘ I had a number of casual jobs before deciding to enter the seminary, and study for the catholic priesthood, but after getting for my degree in philosophy, I decide the scarlet woman of Rome and I wouldn’t make particularly good bed fellows, so I left that particular pursuit ’. ‘ I guess I was seeking adventure, as I then decided to volunteer for a teaching position with the catholic mission in Papua New Guinea, a place that few people new anything about’. ‘I felt at home as soon as the plane touched down, as the surroundings were very reminiscent of Africa, and that feeling didn’t leave me for a very long time, I was on a three year contract, but ended up staying for thirty eight years’. ‘There’s a story I recall from 1968 when they had the second ever election in PNG, under Australian administration, and there weren’t enough government officers to actually carry out the election.’  ‘Now the election in remote areas had to be carried out on foot patrol and meeting all the villagers, and as a young 25 year old I was press ganged into doing this.’ ‘So I was duly instructed as a returning officer to go on a three week foot patrol around the lake Kutubu area, and I found myself with fifteen carriers, six armed policemen, three interpreters and I felt like Wallaby Jim of the islands, I didn’t have to go through the loops and hoops to become a patrol officer, and now here I am one’.  ‘I set of on this patrol, and it was really quite a hard slog because PNG is extremely mountainous, no roads off course, and up and down steep inclines’. ‘I remember when we finally got to Lake Kutubu, marching into the first village with my entourage behind me, feeling extremely important, and all the natives scattering into the jungle.’ ‘Looking a little bewildered I turned to a policemen and what was going on, and he explained that they think I’m here to collect head tax, which understandably they weren’t keen on paying.’ ‘So I said well go and round the buggers up, we don’t have three weeks here, we’re only overnighting in a camp, and they called out to these people who were hiding that we were only there to collect their votes, and they furtively crept back to the village.’ ‘In those days in was preferential voting, and all the natives being illiterate, we had three photographs, which I pinned up for them to choose from.’ ‘Well they scratch their chins and had a little confab, and finally the village chief said we don’t know these people, we’ve never seen them before, we don’t know who to vote for, who do you think we should vote for ?.’ ‘So with interest now flagging amongst them and the novelty of the situation wearing off, and not wanting to return with empty ballot papers, I gave each candidate equal votes.’ ‘As part of the job, I had to sign each ballot slip on the back, well, our journey took us down some pretty turbulent rivers in a dug out canoe, and on more than one occasion these turned over, into the river we went and all the ballot boxes.’ ‘We couldn’t open them as they were locked, so we did our best to drain them, well I did hear later that the people back at base were utterly frustrated with having to peg each ballot paper to a clothes line, enquiring as to who is this Graham bloody Bamford written on the back.’ ‘After the teaching assignment finished around 68, I went into business with some partners, it was a general goods trading company way out in the southern highlands, infrastructure was very rudimentary at the time, and the way to get there was to walk in or fly in’. ‘While living in a tent we set up the first trade store selling tinned food items that the natives wanted, they didn’t wear clothes as such, but wore bush clothes that comprised of a wide bark belt, croton leaves stuck down the back, and a long woven cloth at the front.’ ‘We had assistants in the store who were trained and could translate, and I distinctly remember one old guy who came in wanting to buy a tin of fish, fish and rice being the staple diet.’ ‘Well, he gently rolled back his foreskin and produced the 2 dollars from under there, and presenting these dollars to me I stepped back and said ‘ah, you can deal with this Samson, I remember I have to do something out back.’ ‘Many of them were becoming interested in wearing western clothing so we stocked those items as well, we also sold fuel to the missionaries, and were agents for a local airline’. ‘ In those days PNG was still under Australian administration, and the Aussie dollar was the currency, most of the population were subsistence farmers, but those that worked for the administration or did odd jobs were part of extended families and money was past down’. ‘ So although the economy was strange, and this is true of today in some areas, that many of the locals were not immersed in the cash economy, but they did have money to spend, but it was a pretty primitive country, pretty primitive conditions’. ‘After being involved in this venture for three years I then went to work for a company in the western highlands, setting up a company training scheme for their employees, basically training them in commercial practice’. ‘ I was also in charge of the vegetable produce, and the big challenge was to grade and market it, as I said before there were very few roads, so we depended on two DC3 aircraft a week that came in and picked up the boxed veggies and flew them to various centres around PNG, and this worked out pretty well’. ‘ It was now the early 70s, and I moved on to work for the Electricity Commission, recruiting high school graduates from the fifty six schools that there were at the time in PNG for training in various careers, and scholarships’. ‘After a number of years, and a couple of other managerial positions in human resources, I and a friend decided to move to Madang, a beautiful resort spot on the north coast’. ‘It was here we bought an old hotel that was in a pretty shocking state, and resurrected it’. ‘In our naivety we didn’t really know what this would entail, but we managed to make quite a success of it, even though our only experience of hospitality was having been customers of hospitality’. ‘The hotel was situated within what had been an old coco plantation, right next to the beach with the smoking active volcano of Kar Kar Island in the middle distance’. ‘Customers would comment on how it was like something from South Pacific, a paradise, which it was, but my partner and I would mutter under our breath on how we felt like prisoners of paradise, as we needed to be there 24/7, and had very few breaks’. ‘We had to generate our own electricity, and water treatment, and had various pieces of cantankerous equipment around the property, a lot of work was involved’. ‘ Many interesting things happened there, we had a general store on site, and some thieves broke in one night, I rushed out clad in only a towel, forgot my glasses, it was pitch black, not realizing that the thieves were armed’. ‘So they heard me pursuing them, and ran of through some thick undergrowth towards the beach, I charged after them, god know what I thought I was going to do, and the next thing was I saw a blue flash from a shot gun and heard pellets whistling about my head’. ‘I dived into the grass, and thought what an ignominious way to die, having grown up as a kid through the Mau Mau in Kenya, I was now going to be shot clad only in a towel by a bunch of lousy thieves, however, now disturbed they took flight’. ‘Eventually, after five years of blood, sweat and tears, we sold the hotel, and moved to the Capital Port Moresby’. ‘I think the chalk dust got up my business partners nose again, who was a former teacher, and we set up what was initially a private tuition centre to what soon became in 1993, Port Moresby Grammar School’. ‘It’s still running today with fifteen hundred students, and I’m still on the board of directors, I do the odd foray to PNG every few months from Cambodia to make sure things are running on an even keel, which I’m pleased to say they very much are’. ‘By 2002, I’d needed a change from PNG,I spent some time back in Australia, and I suppose still seeking adventure decided to teach in south east Asia.’ ‘One often has romantic notions before setting foot somewhere, and I envisaged wending my way on a motorbike through countries with a blackboard and easel strapped to my back doing itinerate teaching, but of course It’s not quite as primitive as that.’ ‘I’d been to Cambodia before on a couple of short holidays, and I think the attraction of returning was that at the time it had been listed as one of the eighth poorest countries in the world, I find developed countries bore me quite quickly, I was very impressed with the people and the resilience they showed, bouncing back from the atrocities, and there was clearly a need for education.’ ‘I’ve only been here for about three years, in PNG we had this expression ‘oh, he hasn’t got his bags through customs yet’, so I guess that accusation could be leveled at me, but I feel very at home here.’ ‘Because I suppose it is third worldish, and has this exotic mix of an ancient civilization, that’s still apparent, still evident, can be glimpsed at different times, so here I am, and here I am for the foreseeable future.’ ‘At my age, health can determine how long I stay in Cambodia, but so far so good, and I have no plans to go anywhere else, day by day is the way I see it.’ 
Kevin Bolton