A Life’s Mission – From Ceduna To Nepal

Brian Richards, what an incredible man. One of the first Australian men to enter Nepal in 1959. One of the most interesting men that I have ever met. A pharmacist in his youth, who spent 15 years working for a Christian missionary in India, Nepal and Bangladesh whilst simultaneously raising his three children with his wife, Patricia, in the aforementioned countries. 

When I was introduced to Brian, he was delighted to make my acquaintance and all too delighted to tell me about his life’s work. 

“Make yourself comfy, we could be here all afternoon”

“Nepal only opened up in about 1954, and we (our missionary) were one of the first westerner groups to enter about five years after that. I was the first pharmacist in the Christian Mission Hospital in Kathmandu and the only pharmacist in the country.”

“I did my pharmacy training first and then I went to bible college for three years.”

“After my three years I was hoping to travel to India, as a pharmacist, but they said that the Mission Hospital had a perfectly good Indian pharmacist, which I was happy about anyway, but they didn’t need me anymore.”

“So, my first job after bible college, was actually out in Ceduna, working for the Bush Church Aid Society, who were an Anglican church mission from Sydney, and they had a Flying Medical Service.”

This Flying Medical Service that Brian mentions played an integral part of forming Australia’s famed Royal Flying Doctor’s that service the Australian outback. The Bush Church Aid Flying Medical service utilised six rural hospitals, including Murat Bay (Ceduna), two aerial ambulances, a radio base for an extensive outback network, a pharmacy (enter Brian), a dental clinic and a radio school for children in isolated rural areas. 

“It was hard to get people to work out there, however, The Murat Bay District Hospital was built out there (in Ceduna), and the nurses ran that, and I ran the pharmacy for about three years.”

His wife, Patricia, unbeknownst to Brian at the time was a nurse, who had finished her bible study and was setting off to relieve nurses for holidays across the West Eyre Peninsula, in towns like Tarcoola, Cook and Ceduna. 

The nurse and the pharmacist were united in Ceduna, fell in love and married in December of 1958. It was together, that they embarked on the life defining mission to India and Nepal in 1959. 

Travelling by a rusty post war troop carrier ship in the second to bottom deck, the young couple ventured from Australia to Singapore, from Singapore to Columbo (Sri Lanka), up to the formerly called Bombay (now Mumbai), to get off then continue the journey via train.

From Bombay to Delhi.

“That was a scary trip, we were so young and naïve, we were told ‘whatever you do, don’t open the door on your carriage’, the Indians travel on the roof and hang off of the sides of the train, and if they can put their hand in they will grab your bag or whatever belongings you have.”

“So, we shut and locked the door and didn’t open it for anyone, and I mean not anyone… so we missed our lunch and dinner service, we were starving!” 

Firstly, living on the eastern side of Nepal in India, the Nepali speaking town of Karlimpong, Brian and Patricia learnt the language and were allowed to travel into Nepal when performing medical work. During that year they conceived and gave birth to their first child, their daughter Heather, in 1960. 

I will hesitate in this story from divulging the extensive and complex history of the control and politics of Nepal, in which Brian is highly educated and knowledgeable. We spoke on this day for near three hours, in which he taught me geography, history, language and religion. Although I feel that his knowledge in this rich history is worthy of another story, I do not want to take the focus away from what I am here to tell, which is Brian’s life story.

However, to outline the significance of the presence of Brian, Patricia and the mission in Nepal, a small excerpt of history needs to be noted. 

In 1951, Nepal saw the end of Rana rule (The Rana Dynasty that ruled the kingdom of Nepal from 1846). The Rana Rule is considered one of the most extreme forms of authoritarianism.Once sovereignty of the Royal Crown was restored and the government is reformed by anti-Rana rebels, the ban of Christianity in Nepal was lifted, and foreign missionaries were permitted to enter, however, only to perform service work. But not permitted to practice conversion. 

So, after passing their Nepali language exam, and working in between India and Nepal, two months after the birth of their daughter. Brian and his family were permitted to enter Kathmandu, where they would spend the next four years full time working.

During the next four years amongst performing significant work, a lot of personal life milestones and events took place.

Brian’s wife gave birth to their second child, in 1962, in the hospital which they both lived, and she worked within. The hospital was a children’s and maternity precinct located in one of the Rana son’s palaces, Surendra Bhawan in Kathmandu. Brian practiced as a pharmacist in another palace Shanta Bhawan.

Brian tells me an unfortunate story of contracting Hepatitis, admittedly a common consequence of living and working in such countries.

“I think I actually contracted it from the hippies, of course drugs were available, legal and easy to get in Kathmandu. The hippies would come to the bazaar for drugs and lived around there, they were up to all sorts of things. Then they would come to the hospital to get treated, and I think that’s how I got it.”

“They were coming to the bazaar for morphine or whatever was available. There would be signs in the bazaar, translated to some American English to read something like ‘real good drugs can be gotten’ and ‘get hashish here’.” 

There was an upside to Brian falling ill however, he was granted the special privilege of flying home instead of jumping aboard that second to bottom rusted deck of an ex-military ship. Flying from Kathmandu to Calcutta (now Kolkata), on an old Dakota DC3 Royal Nepal Airliner. The three- or four-hour trip showcasing incredible views, right along the length of the country, passing Mt. Everest (which is truly called Sagarmatha by the Nepali or Chomolungma in Tibet). 

“The Dakota’s have only had a 10,000ft ceiling, so they’d have to fly through the valleys of the mountains which was exhilarating.”

“So, from Calcutta, I flew on the British Overseas Airways Corporation, which flew me into Singapore and believe it or not, Qantas had just started running the flight from Perth to Singapore, so I took a Qantas flight home.”

At this point in time Brian was travelling with his first-born daughter Heather, his youngest son Steven, who was just under two years old and his pregnant wife (soon to give birth to the third child, Paul in 1966).

“Our son (Steven) hadn’t even started to crawl or walk yet; he had been looked after by a Nepali lady who helped us around home. She used to carry him around everywhere.”

“We were so embarrassed, nearly two years old and he couldn’t even walk, but believe it or not, in the Perth airport waiting for our flight, he pulled himself up and started to walk, just.”

The mission requirements for Brian and his family were to return to Australia after 5 years, to then travel our nation, reporting on the missions work to gain donations and support for further participation in India and Nepal.

“In my job you don’t get any salary, you just get the gifts that people give, to keep you going.”

Heather and Steven, children numbers one and two began school in the second trip back to Kathmandu, after a British Primary School opened in Kathmandu. 

Prior to this Heather had been participating in Correspondence School in Adelaide, all the way from Nepal via radio school. 

Taking a breath at this point, Brian feels the need to apologise to me about “rambling on” and when I reassure him that I am listening, interested AND keeping up he is stunned.

“Oh, you’re bad for me you are, I could just keep waffling on, I am going to be exhausted after this…”

But onwards we plundered, I think I may have been more enthralled than he expected. 

We picked back up conversation talking about how Brian’s wife was a Methodist, he was a Christian and somehow it came to be that they met through the Anglican church. The demand for workers in the Anglican Bush Church Aid society was far too large to place concern on denominations. 

This brings us back to Ceduna, a little more detail of what those early years were like for Brian. 

“I didn’t even know where Ceduna was, I had to look it up.”

“We didn’t have (own) motorcars then or anything, I just had no idea.”

“Back then I had to take a ship Port Lincoln and then a train, which came right down on to the wharf.”

“The train takes a long time to get from Port Lincoln to Thevenard (the closest station for Ceduna), you didn’t get in until about nine o’clock at night and it was dark.”

“They (people from the mission) don’t leave to come pick you up until they hear the train blow the whistle.”

“Now I was expecting the train to take me all the way to the end of the line to the township of Ceduna, so when the train pulls up between Thevenard and Ceduna and they tell me I’ve now arrived, I’m looking around in the dark to no streetlights, just a little half tin shed as the station.”

“I didn’t have a clue what was going on, no one came to meet me for fifteen minutes, I just remember thinking, where am I and what have I done!”

“It was a beautiful place though, however very primitive, no roads, only dirt.”

“I was an umpire for the Ceduna football league, they had four teams, two aboriginal teams and two ordinary teams.”

There were other mission hospitals on the peninsula at the time, but not many with pharmacists. Brian would take trips to different towns and dispense medicine for them.

“We thought nothing of travelling 150 miles and spending a day dispensing medicine for them.” 

“Were a long way from Kathmandu now, I’ve gone backwards here!”

So, we move back in to talking about Nepal with Brian educating me on correct names and pronunciation of Nepali and Indian words and places. By this time, I have given up on writing notes and Brian is now using my notebook to write words in Nepali for me!

“It’s a phonetic language, which is wonderful, once you have learnt the written word, you can pronounce every word even if you don’t know what it means – very different to the English language.”

Brian speaks many languages, ranging from English, Latin, French, Nepali and he even learnt Newari in order to give out medicine.

“There was one whole group of Japu’s, who were women, low caste farmers (living in Kathmandu valleys), that didn’t understand Nepali.”

“I had to learn basic instructions like morning, afternoon and night, take one tablet.”

“In Newari there is two different ways of counting too, just to make it even more fascinating.”

A very hard challenge for Brian was realising all of his pharmacy experience was useless in Nepal. This was a place with no running water and barely any electricity. 

“There’s no sanitation, no water. We managed to get some form of drop toilets and some basic hygiene over the years, but a lot of the meds were useless.”

“They (the sick) would come to us full of worms, you would give them a dose of medicine outside the pharmacy window and then they would go home and just get infected again.”

The well-known Dr. Bethel had a vision for running health education clinics. 

“My wife was involved in a lot of that, she would go out with Dr. Bethel sometimes teaching the people about washing hands and things like that, boiling water to use for sanitation.”

“It makes you realise how fortunate we are, we take it for granted that if we want clean water all we have to do is turn on a tap.”

As we reflect on some of these stories Brian rummages through his draws to see if he has any photos or information that he can show me, he finds his monthly newsletters from the UMN (United Mission to Nepal) which he gracefully allows me to take with me. 

Before parting ways, Brian tells me one more story that comes to mind, and this is one of mateship and Aussie spirit. 

At one point in Brian’s career he was required to fly over to Bangladesh (from Nepal) to help the American Public Aid. This occurred after the Partition of India. American aid was building a hospital and during this time Bryan met a group of Aussies.

Now if this isn’t one of the most Australian things…these guys happened to be from Adelaide, from the Repat! 

They were there to help with prosthetic limbs, design, application and education. 

The Australian government were paying these guys to stay there for six weeks or so and they were accommodated in what you would call a first-class hotel. 

A stark contrast to the accommodation Brian was in and had been used to.

The heat in Bangladesh was sweltering, and every night these Aussie blokes would invite Brian over, so that he could swim and cool off in their pool – a luxurious and welcome relief.

I look forward to Brian locating the photos of these guys and himself, at the pool and another photo he says standing in front of a huge line up of prosthetic limbs. 

“You’ve learnt a lot of things that nobody knows about, except you and me.”

There are some things that I have kept out of this story that Brian directly asked me to exclude, and some things I have kept out that I think I would like to hold private. Having these chats with residents isn’t always about finding a good story to write, sometimes it’s just about being a good friend.

And a good friend, Brian is.