Ex-primary school principal writes children’s book after extraordinary African experience

Charlie Graham takes an elephant ride during his time in Ethiopia
Charlie Graham takes an elephant ride during his time in Ethiopia

A former primary school principal who “felt a sense of loss and loneliness” after his retirement has found a new lease of life having travelled to Ethiopia and worked at a colony for people with Aids and leprosy.

Charlie Graham’s time in Africa led him to write a children’s book which married the feelings he was experiencing with some of the animals he saw while on the continent.

Charlie Graham with a child who was fascinated by the colour of his skin

Charlie Graham with a child who was fascinated by the colour of his skin

The Londoner who has spent much of his life in Northern Ireland said: “I was a teacher and principal of Bridge Primary School in Banbridge.

“I was glad when I retired. I didn’t miss it, but then there’s a psychological aspect when you stop working that you don’t feel as valuable. I felt a sense of loss and a sense of loneliness.”

Charlie, who had been a teacher for 35 years, said that an advertisement looking for a principal for a school in Ethiopia’s capital – Addis Ababa – took him on a journey that would prove vital.

He explained: “Although I didn’t want to be a principal again I did want to help out at the school.

Charlie Graham in Addis Ababa where he taught young adults who had either Aids or leprosy

Charlie Graham in Addis Ababa where he taught young adults who had either Aids or leprosy

“I went there and I advised teachers in Addis Ababa on different things and I also ended up going to Kenya to a school right up at the Equator, a place called Nakuru.

“I taught and advised for nothing more than my board and keep.

“Before I came back home I did a bit of teaching in the poorest part of Addis Ababa where the young adults had either Aids or leprosy. It was the most rewarding teaching I’ve ever done.

“I also travelled to the southern part of Ethiopia where there are loads of wild animals. The giraffes were the most elegant, and they gave me the idea of writing a story.”

Charlie Graham (left) with illustrator Martin Kenny

Charlie Graham (left) with illustrator Martin Kenny

Having focused his energy on writing a children’s book, Charlie is now the author of an intriguing publication entitled ‘The Giraffe With The Chocolate Bellybutton’.

He said: “I wanted to do something for kids that was different. The giraffe had to be different but the same. I gave him a strange name. I made him an orphan.

“The idea of that came from global warming in central Africa where almost every species is under threat.”

Charlie, who lives in Annalong with his wife, said: “When I went back to my old school to launch the book I asked the kids if they ever felt lonely or alone or lost or in need of friends or in need of help – so many put their hands up.

“The book touches gently on the concept of bullying though it’s not overtly about bullying. It’s more about inclusivity and friendship because the giraffe gets help and assistance from a strange source.

“It’s about the idea of never giving in, of always striving.”

Charlie added: “The people I stayed with in Addis want me to return with 40 books. It looks like I’m going to be going back in the autumn.

“I’m thankful to east Belfast artist Martin Kenny for the illustrations. They are absolutely wonderful.

“I got a few rejection letters and then I decided to do this myself. People were telling me you need an editor, a publisher, an agent.

“I didn’t. I’ve got 1,000 copies printed and I’ve sold 400 copies in three weeks.”

About coping with depression Charlie said: “Going to Ethiopia was one of the best things I did.

“I’ve been to other places since. Travelling is one of the best forms of education.

“I’ve been to South America, North America, Asia, all through Europe. People are just so good and helpful wherever you go.”