African camps an eye opener for Kiwi aid worker

By Dionne Christian

Bob Askew, centre, at Nyamirangwe camp in Zaire. Photo / Supplied
Bob Askew, centre, at Nyamirangwe camp in Zaire. Photo / Supplied

Bob Askew, the environmental health officer from Nelson whose story also features in A Thousand Hills, describes himself as the least likely model of an aid worker ever - a cross between Frank Spencer from Some Mothers Do Ave Em and Mr Bean.

"One of my colleagues asked how many refugees were in the camps and when I told him around 200,000, he said, 'well, there'll be 200,001 when you get there'!"

Born and raised in Yorkshire, Askew emigrated to New Zealand in the early 1970s and has spent his 40-year career as an environmental health officer specialising in food safety issues. One of his major achievements was developing an award-winning Safe Food Handler programme.

Now a grandfather, he had never travelled to anywhere like Rwanda when, in 1994, he joined the Red Cross because he felt he had to "do something". At one stage in his career, he was responsible for health and safety checks on funeral parlours but was so squeamish he would avoid visiting if he knew there were dead bodies there.

"And then I found myself in this place where 1000 people a day were dying of cholera and there were dead bodies everywhere. I just had to get on with it.

"I was very conscious of not 'letting the side down' because New Zealand aid workers are so highly regarded and have reputations for being able to do things like build generators out of old washing machines - can do anything with a piece of No 8 fencing wire."

Askew and Byamana were introduced by a fellow Kiwi aid worker, Chris Ives, who asked Askew to keep an eye out for the young Rwandan.

"He was naturally gregarious and I thought if anyone was going to make something of themselves and the opportunity for a new start, it would be him," says Askew. "I am thrilled he is getting the chance to talk about his experiences and share his story.

"It's a different world in Africa and I hope that comes through along with a sense of the emotions one feels when there. I think New Zealanders should feel hugely proud that this is a great country where we can be generous about letting people come here and have a second chance."

Byamana says he wanted to pay tribute to Bob Askew to show what a "determined man" can achieve.

Askew, now an NZ Red Cross area council member, has been renamed Nick in A Thousand Hills and is portrayed by Andrew Grainger. While writer Mike Hudson and director Margaret-Mary Hollins have met and talked with Askew, Grainger says he has delayed contacting him so he could develop his own performance.

"But now there are things I need to discuss and double check so hopefully we'll be talking soon."

- NZ Herald

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