By Julie Albers
Profile: Maarten Diederix
He was born in a family with four boys. He spent almost his entire youth in Africa. He enjoys tinkering around his old English cars or reading books about serial killers. You really thought you knew our housemaster? Do read on.
When he was two, Maarten Diederix’ family moved from Leiden to South Africa. His father worked as a geologist in the diamond mines in the Orange Free State. After a brief period in Botswana’s gold business, work in the copper belt caused the family to settle in Zambia, where they stayed for seven years.
In Zambia, Maarten attended The Sacred Heart Convent School. Only four out of 2000 students were white, but this never caused any negative experiences.
The school was run by strict nuns. Students had to sing the national anthem daily and a fight for chairs broke out every single class. Besides the corporal punishments to keep students off the wrong track, a small jail was stationed next to the school. “You could hear the whiplashes, drenched in sambal.”
Maarten was an excellent student. He once even won a prize for being among the 50 best students in the country. He chuckles: “The president himself, Mr. Kukunda, gave it to me.”
“I wish everyone a youth in Africa”, Maarten smiles. “You’re always outside – it’s bare-feet weather.” After school, the four brothers would practice sports or go to the cinema for only a couple of cents.
The Diederix family did not get carried away in the expat culture. “We did have a gardener, something Dutch people later disapproved of. But we offered him a job, an income and a house!” Their good name safeguarded them against any burglars.
For two years, Maarten attended the Box Hill School in England. His mother insisted on him going to a mixed school – at that time there were only four in the UK. “It was a fantastic time. I didn’t know the word homesick.” He even shared a room with the son of Persia’s minister of oil.
Maarten and his brother would always bring a huge trunk with English goods back to Zambia. “We never went hungry, but there wasn’t much variation in the food. When you saw a queue standing somewhere, you’d join without knowing what it was for.”
In 1978, the brothers and their mother left for Holland with only three suitcases. Without any writing skills in Dutch, Maarten entered secondary school in the small village of Hardenberg.
“On my first day, the whole school was waiting to spot the people from Africa. They were deeply disappointed.” Maarten had some trouble fitting in the Dutch environment. “I had travelled all over the world, while my classmates’ biggest adventure was their paper route.”
Upon finishing school, he had to join military service. “Stupidly enough, I decided to join the commandos. After a year, only 18 out of 140 soldiers were left. Ministers started to ask questions.”
Still, Maarten enjoyed his 14 months there. They had to walk 400 km a week, but travelled all over Europe and participated in NATO-practices.
After a sidetrack in an Oil & Gas education, Maarten graduated in Logistics. He soon met his wife, working as a nurse, and they moved to Utrecht.
He started working in the mail room of the UU and slowly made his way up. “One day, I met the founders of UCU and convinced them that they needed me.”
“Those first years at UCU felt like pioneering,” Maarten commemorates. “Students had to create their diploma’s value themselves.” Voltaire was not yet in use and some students slept at the military base. Dining Hall was still downstairs, in the old military kitchen, and students would break into every space.
Maarten believes UCU offers an excellent education. “Except for [students’] mothers. Most students leave the country afterwards – there are no limits here.”
Two things have really changed in the 15 years since he started working here. “While 80 percent of students used to stay here during holidays, they now treat campus more as a hotel.”
Also, academic fanaticism has increased – only an A makes us happy. “I consider chatting [with students] as a vital part of my job.” Maarten genuinely tries to monitor the general well-being. “But if you’re always in your room and never complain, I won’t know you.”
Maarten often makes extremely long working days. This is mainly due to the large number of students. “It’s no big deal if you lose your keys once a year, but it is if every student does so.”
He also struggles with exceptions: “I like to do people a favour.” But after rumours started buzzing around, he soon discovered the key terms to controlling an entire campus: clarity, consequence and zero tolerance.
Luckily, Maarten also has some positive observations about us. “You are extremely kind, almost too kind, towards each other. Some more bloody noses might be illuminating.”
Besides, mostly outsiders are responsible for stealing and vandalism. “You can enter buildings almost all day long! At the UU, they would’ve been plundered. Very refreshing.”
Maarten’s three children (8, 13 and 17) love living next to campus and often enjoy our sports and music facilities, but he has never taken them back to Africa. “My memories haven’t changed, while the countries have. There is no point in visiting anymore.”
Most importantly, if not here on campus, where did he celebrate his 50th birthday? “My wife had organized a surprise party, so our house was packed with unexpected guests.”
A final relief for all: there is no black list of people and units. But think twice next time you call Maarten about any inconveniences: he might just be enjoying a nice meal with his family.