Graham Mercer: The International School of Tanganyika's Resident Historian

Graham on a safari with binoculars

During his three decades of work at the school, Mr. Graham Mercer has become an expert in all things IST

After nine years with the Royal Navy - where he worked as a radio and radar mechanic - and three years teaching in a junior school on the outskirts of Liverpool, Mr. Graham followed his passion of teaching and wildlife to Africa. 

“I longed for a more adventurous life,” Mr. Graham said. “After leaving the Navy I went into teaching but wanted to return to Kenya.”

But when a job came up at IST, he accepted without hesitation. 

Working at the International School of Tanganyika

Mr. Graham started teaching at the school in January of 1977, and it wasn’t long before he noticed a world of difference compared to his last teaching experience. 

"I enjoyed being there because of the school's international nature and the rather bizarre situation in Tanzania at the time. I also enjoyed it because most students at IST seemed to love coming to school and wanted to learn. Class sizes were also small, making teaching much easier."

Mr. Graham witnessed the school evolve - growing from a relatively small establishment of Grades 1 to 8 on the original Upanga campus, to a school at one time on three campuses with more than 1,000 students. 

Apart from the growth of the school, Mr. Graham was also a witness to the digital revolution with the introduction of computers in the ‘80s. 

With the introduction of computers came emails, Internet and the decision to embrace the Primary Years Programme

This movement further standardized our curriculum and teaching methodology across grade levels.

Mr. Graham compared this time to before the digital era, when “there was no air-conditioning except in the bedrooms of teacher’s flats, so life for us and for many parents was often difficult, and the sense of shared adversity helped to bring us together as a community.”

Even though those earlier years were sometimes more of a struggle, Mr. Graham looks back at his 25 years - plus nine years in various part-time roles - as a teacher with extreme fondness. 

“I’ve always enjoyed being amongst young people,”  Mr. Graham said. “So that was for me the best part.”

Looking at his time in Dar es Salaam, as compared to North-West England, Mr. Graham outlined the differences between the people he encountered. 

"Apart from the obvious ethnic and cultural differences (IST, throughout its history, had students and parents from as many as 80 different nationalities) we sometimes encountered high-achievers that we would never have met back home,” Mr. Graham said. 

“Among them in my case was Dr. Jane Goodall, Mohamed Amin, President Mwinyi, several Tanzanian Ministers of Tourism, the Canadian author Moise Vassanji and the future president of Finland and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Marti Ahtisaari, whose son was in my class,” Mr. Graham continued. “Plus a variety of high-achieving diplomats, wildlife experts and chief park wardens of the national parks.”

He also met Nelson Mandela “or rather he came over to meet me, though this was accidental”, Mr. Graham exclaimed. “I was largely well-acknowledged and respected and on a whole, I enjoyed working there."

“Even now I am still in touch with quite a few ex-administrators or teachers and a good many ex-students.”

Overall, it meant the world to Mr. Graham to teach at our school

Mr. Graham’s pride is mirrored in the IST alumni association. Want to re-connect with fellow IST alumni? Click here. 

His time as a teacher also allowed him the freedom to explore his interests outside of the classroom, such as going on safaris and experiencing wildlife, becoming a photographer, as well as writing. 

Graham holding a radio outside of a tent

“I took part in four photographic exhibitions, three of them at the school and one at the National Museum,” Mr. Graham said. “It was very fulfilling and largely enjoyable as well as being challenging at times – which teaching ought to be.”

Mr. Graham Becomes a Published Author

Mr. Graham is also a published author of 15 books covering topics, such as Tanzania national parks, Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar and Tanzania in general, plus a history of our school. He has also written many articles - often with original photography - about life on safari and Tanzania's tourist attractions.

He cites his time in junior school as being the moment that sparked his love of writing. 

“One of the teachers in particular, a Northern Irish lady, often praised my work but more importantly introduced all of us – in a very poor area – to poets such as Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Longfellow, Robbie Burns and the Irish poet Thomas Moore, as well as books such as Treasure Island, Lorna Doone, Wind in the Willows and Swallows and Amazons,” Mr. Graham said. “She was wonderful.”

His love followed him through his time in the Navy, his time teaching at a college and finally to IST where he wrote not only about wildlife, but also about Tanzanian tribes-people and history. 

In 1988, Mr. Graham won the BBC Wildlife Magazine’s Award for nature writers. “This was an important breakthrough for me and very encouraging as I had previously been runner-up twice in succession.”

It was this moment when Mr. Graham began writing books. 

A Very Special School 

After the adventure of publishing his first book, the writer in Mr. Graham wanted more and so he wrote, and kept writing. 

Graham teaching a child

Mr. Graham was originally asked to write a book about the school in the ‘80s by our CEO, Mike Maybury. He was asked again in 2008 by Director David Shawver and this time was excited to take on the project. 

“Of all the school’s CEOs/Directors, David was the most cerebral and the one, along with Mike Maybury and Simon Leslie, who was perhaps most interested in the school’s history, which he and I felt to be important,” Mr. Graham said.

The book took three years to put together, but the final product is one that Mr. Graham is proud of. 

“I’m pleased that I did it and hope it gives a fair and reasonably accurate, balanced view of the school and its leaders as I saw them.”

He called the book A Very Special School

A Broader Look at Tanzania in the ‘70s to Now

Starting in 1977, Mr. Graham watched not only our school but also Tanzania evolve into the communities they are today. 

In 1977, there were many shortages in Tanzania; imported goods and foodstuffs were not readily available. At the time, there were no supermarkets or shopping malls and the skyline was only bordered with one story buildings. Though even with the shortages, there was a strong sense of community both in Dar es Salaam and in the school. 

Mr. Graham remembers our CEO Mike Maybury’s time along with Chairman of the Board BK Tanna, Secondary Head Ernest Polack and Elementary Head Marlene Fernandes, as playing a pivotal role in moving the school forward.

“Mike was a doer rather than a talker, a leader rather than just a manager,” Mr. Graham said. “He was followed by the well-qualified Niall Nelson who took Mike's legacy forward.”

In 1985, there was change on the horizon and through all those years Mr. Graham acknowledges the strong sense of camaraderie in the school community. 

“The positive thing is that most of us felt, ‘We’re all in this together, let’s get on with it’, which we did.”

Click here to discover other stories from IST alumni.