Out of Africa Milford’s Dale Riley meets man from Zimbabwe

HARRISVILLE – Dale Riley was ice fishing on a pond in Harrisville last winter on a day when there was a lot of watery glare ice. He was surprised to see a man pulled up in a car, walk to the edge of the pond, and ask if he could take his photo.

The stranger told Riley he wanted to send the picture to friends and relatives, with the caption, “Look – people walk on water in the United States.”

Riley couldn’t resist a jokey reply. “I actually walk on water in the summer too,” said the Milford man, who is well known around Milford for his ice fishing classes, his horseshoe league at Riley Brothers Lumberyard and the hot air ballooning he gave up two years ago.

The two men continued talking, and Riley learned the man with the camera was from Zimbabwe, where he had been an executive in the country’s leading tea company and is now a short-order cook in the Harrisville General Store.

Riley is also an armchair traveler for most of his 75 years and once taught geography, so he knew a thing or two about Africa and its unfortunate political history.

The strangeness of the situation wasn’t lost on Riley.

“On a dirt road in Harrisville, New Hampshire, who do I meet but a man from Zimbabwe?”

The man’s name is Philip Gargan, and he and his wife, Claire, came to the United States two years ago, driven from the country where they were born by civil rights abuses and inflation that made their paychecks all but worthless.

The man from Zimbabwe has a lot in common with Riley. Both are outgoing and adventurous, both love the outdoors and love flying. Gargan was among the first people in Zimbabwe to experience hang gliding. In his free time he was a licensed guide, escorting groups on 10-day camping excursions down the Zambezi River by canoe, tying canoes together at night on the riverbank to protect them from crocodiles.

But for the Gargans, leaving Africa for the U.S. was the biggest, and most difficult, adventure of all.

During an interview in the ranch-style house on a dirt road in Harrisville they share with their son and his family, the Gargans talked about their life in Africa and what brought them to America.

In Zimbabwe they lived on a huge tea plantation and had servants. But inflation of 6.5 million percent a month was wiping out pensions accumulated over decades.

The moment they stopped working they would have had to rely on “children and charity to survive,” Claire said.

And there was violence. Claire, a boarding school principal, came to work one Monday morning to learn that 14 of her staff members had been severely beaten.

Police had a habit of arresting and locking up people on Fridays so they couldn’t get lawyers over the weekend, Phil said.

He had traveled to the U.S. before, and they decided to take the plunge. In July 2012 they arrived here with two suitcases and “four cubic meters of precious belongings.”

Obtaining residency and work permits was a long, difficult process and their age – they are in their mid-50s – was against them.

Zimbabwe, said Phil, “was a wonderful, wonderful country, and it’s been run to rack and run by the government. A lot of people ask, what brought you to New Hampshire,” he said. “We were firmly entrenched in Zimbabwe, but gradually things became so run down” during the time of President Robert Mugabe that medical care, police protection and utilities deteriorated.

The Gargans were instrumental in the establishment of a private clinic to take the place of a government hospital that lacked bandages and blankets.

But more and more of their friends and associates were leaving the country – mostly to Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom – and leaving the ones who stayed with heavier and heavier loads. The good life was gone. Weeds overtook the golf greens and the tennis courts and white Zambabweans like the Gargans were treated like the enemy, they said, by government officials and police.

But now they don’t have much time to dwell on the past as they struggle to make ends meet. Along with the job at the general store, Phil works for a local caterer and Claire works as a special needs tutor and a seamstress to supplement her pay as a teacher at the Harrisville Children’s Center.

The Gargans now have 10-year residency and work permits and can apply for citizenship in two years and intend to. And Dale Riley says he intends to be there in Manchester when the Gargans swear their allegiance to their adopted country.

“I am humbled by him,” said Phil about his new friend.

He was here for his son’s citizenship ceremony five years ago and said it was the most moving experience of his life. And he is amazed at how interested in them everyone around here seems to be.

When the Keene Sentinel ran an article on the Gargans, he said, “World Cup results were below our story!”

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at kcleveland@cabinet.com or 673-3100, ext. 304.