British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by John Cooke
First Footsteps
Sybil
Biharamulo was my first station as a District Officer in Tanganyika. On arrival in Mwanza, the headquarters of the Lake Province, in late September 1951, as a very green DO (Cadet), I was informed by the Provincial Commissioner that he was sending me to one of the "last lingering corners of ancient Africa", as he put it. So off I went by the lake steamer Sybil to Bukoba on the west side of the lake. There I was met by my District Commissioner, Ronald Smith, and we travelled for four hours in his landrover the 113 miles of rugged earth road to my new place of work. I noticed that a single line of telegraph wire bordered the road, and was informed that this was the sole means of communication to the world outside, apart from the road we were on, and that there was a morse key and receiver at each end. Apparently elephant frequently put the line out of action!

First Footsteps
Biharamulo Government Offices
Biharamulo was a fairly large district of 4500 sq miles, at the south-west corner of Lake Victoria, but with a population of only about 50,000 people, and these were concentrated into sleeping sickness-free enclaves. It had only merited a single Administrative Officer, the DC himself, but Smith reckoned he needed an assistant, and I was the fruit of persistent badgering of the PC. My first task was to supervise the building of my house. This was built of raw local rock, held together by mud mortar and with a thatched grass roof. It was entirely innocent of any form of plumbing. While this was being built I enjoyed Smith's generous hospitality. I quickly got down to my work as a DO, functioning as a Magistrate of the Third Class and as the coroner; supervising the Accounts Office and answering Treasury and Audit queries, overseeing our small prison and Police Force, out in the district visiting Native Authority offices and Local Courts, checking case records and local treasury accounts, and visiting schools and clinics. As my Swahili improved I began to deal with a host of petitioners of one sort or another, both in the office and out in the district. Social life was limited by the fact that the station was so small. We were the DC and myself; a District Assistant; a Settlement Officer; an Agricultural Field Officer; and an African Police Inspector, none of whom were married; and also the McGregors, man and wife. They had gone out to Nyasaland pre-1914 to grow cotton. They were as tough as old boots, and his task was to try to teach the Bazinza to grow fire-cured tobacco. Most of the subordinate staff were Bahaya from Bukoba. Incidentally, our Police Inspector, Saidi Maswanya, eventually became Minister of Home Affairs in Nyerere's first government after independence in 1961. I met him again in Dar es Salaam at the tenth Independence Anniversary celebrations in 1971.

First Footsteps
Biharamulo Boma
I began to get just a little bit restless, and pestered Smith to let me out on some foot safaris. He was very understanding and so I was able to get out quite a lot. I was particularly eager to see some of the huge wilderness areas of the district at first hand. So one weekend I got a lift to Nyakahura, and the next day, a Sunday, walked back to Biharamulo cross country with Daudi, a District Office messenger (or tarishi in Swahili), a very competent and cheerful companion. It was a trip of about 35 miles and I was thrilled by this magnificent country. But the elephant we met at close quarters I found rather intimidating, especially as we were quite unarmed!

My first longer working safari was to the neighbouring district of Ngara. Here I went with the DC, George Gordon, by bicycle to a new road he was building northward towards western Biharamulo. I was greatly impressed by what could be achieved by hand labour. New lands were being opened up and it pleases me greatly to see on modern maps that that track has now become a main road going north.

A rather unusual safari was occasioned by a request from the War Graves Commission that someone should visit and inspect some Belgian 1914-18 war graves out in the bush in the east of the district towards the lake. I took five porters and tarishi Musa and we did the round trip in four days. It had been raining and we walked for miles through water about one foot deep, viciously assaulted by tsetse and mosquitoes. We found the graves, and cleaned up the site. Over the four Belgian graves there had been erected grave-stones on which were engraved the name, rank, and birthplace of each officer, and the words MORT AU CHAMP D'HONNEUR The askaris were buried under a large pyramidal cairn. The Belgians and their askaris had been wiped out by a German ambush, and buried on the spot. I made a note of the names and we left in a rather sombre mood.

First Footsteps
Rusumo Falls
A longer ten-day foot safari took me into the western parts of the district. The area was remote, and seldom visited and at each camp large numbers of people had gathered to meet me and discuss their affairs. Eventually I reached the very impressive Rusumo Falls on the Kagera river. Here we crossed the river and marched from there up to Ngara. Crossing the river in dugout canoes with the roar of the falls close by was a trifle disconcerting! At the present day there is now a bridge there.

First Footsteps
MV Speke
A safari of a different sort was with Smith in the government launch from Mwanza. We visited the islands in Emin Pasha gulf which lay within Biharamulo district. The people seldom saw visitors, least of all from Government, and they were very pleased to see us. Each night we anchored off an island and we slept on board while the two crew men went ashore.

Apart from work in the office, in court, and on safari out in the district there were other things to do. There were lots of guinea-fowl and partridge close by, and so we had plenty of good shooting. I borrowed an ancient single-barrel twelve bore from the Native Authority for the purpose. I also went hunting after buffalo with a Husquarna 9.3 mm rifle I had bought from Smith. This was an exciting if chastening experience!

There was a series of rocks known as the Bukoba Sandstone outcrops in a long escarpment south of Biharamulo. I found that these were similar in many ways to the gritstone of my native Pennines, on which I had learned the arts of rock climbing. I used to take the long suffering Daudi with me to do some interesting climbing. He must have thought me quite mad but was far too polite to say anything, and was content to watch.

Eventually, with a government loan I was able to acquire a landrover, which gave me greater scope for travel. Apart from getting about my work in the district more easily it enabled me to spend a couple of weekends enjoying the flesh-pots of Bukoba. I was also able to go down quite often to Nyamirembe on the lakeshore, only twenty six miles away, to visit Bryan Cooper, the Game Ranger for the region. He taught me a great deal about wildlife and its habitats.

Biharamulo was giving me much satisfaction. The work, the people, the opportunity to do things I had always dreamed of doing in a fascinating environment were wonderful. But young District Officers were not left for long in one place, and sure enough after eighteen months I got my orders to cross the lake to Musoma. That turned out to be an equally absorbing place in which to live and work.

As a postscript, many years later and after our retirement from Africa in 1991, my wife and I found ourselves living near the Smiths. He gave us a superb leopard skin, which came from a leopard that had been terrorising the Katoke area of Biharamulo when I was there. Eventually it had been trapped and shot, and Smith had had the skin cured and mounted in Nairobi. It is a priceless memento of a very happy time spent in Biharamulo, and of my DC, Ronald Smith, now alas deceased.

Colonial Map
1948 Map of Lake Victoria Region
Colony Profile
Tanganyika
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 86: October 2003


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