In 1971 Michael Latham inherited his mother's journal. Gwen, wife of Don Latham, a
District Medical Officer in Tanganyika (Tanzania) had written it there in the '20s and
'30s. Her son has reshaped it for publication, adding background and describing his own
contribution to development in East Africa.
The result is uneven. Michael's chapters are out of key with Gwen's bubbling
reportage. She and Don lived a fairy story life, enjoying hugely all they did for people's
health and welfare in the days before trade unions and politics might come to shade their
enthusiasm. Nor is there any hint of pressure from HQ to do things differently. District
life in those days was pleasantly insulated from the big city; the only link, a single
telephone line vulnerable to a nudge from an elephant, could often be ignored.
This reviewer finds several points of contact with the Lathams. He lived subsequently
in the three room bungalow in Kilosa where Michael had been bom in 1928 and with
the same spartan furniture. The domestic water supply was still delivered on prisoners'
heads. He also saw something of Michael's energy and vision during the '60s in getting
the Dar es Salaam International School off the ground.
For many readers the book will be highly nostalgic: breakfast on foot safari, the pitfalls
of bush latrines, porters' gossip around camp fires, the hasty borrowing of neighbours'
crockery for unexpected guests, the evening meal kept hot and unspoilt for hours on a
cracked Dover stove and the unstressful pace of life where everybody spoke Swahili.
The Lathams' caring enthusiasm rubbed off onto their domestic and hospital staffs, their
patients and their colleagues. Such relationships may today sound paternalistic but they
were in no way patronizing. After all, Livingstone wrote of "his boys".
Those with no colonial background will also delight in the vivid, sometimes balletic,
descriptions of game, of the Lupa prospectors panning for gold, seasonal invasions of
lake flies, deaths from blackwater fever, crocodiles trained to kidnap nubile women, the
kaleidoscopic wares of village shops and endlessly varied enterprise in DIY entertainment.
They may, however, find Gwen's criticism of bickering among rival missions over the
latest headcount of converts (not generally a problem) somewhat tedious. Michael's
philosophisings on the problems and consequences of colonial rule may not much concern
them. But he is right to bring out the tensions between Africa's traditional pace and that
of neo-colonial modernisation, though he overlooks the fact that the pressures for jet age
technology come from the local governments themselves, which will not install a more
appropriate haybox cooker if a microwave is on offer.
Before his arrival in East Africa Don was already an experienced mountaineer, able
to negotiate the crags of Mawenzi in the days before organised porter safaris climbed
Kilimanjaro. It was Don in 1926 who first found Hemingway's frozen leopard. His
son's expedition forty years later shows as much enthusiasm for the climber as for the
The book demonstrates the contrast between the thrusting son, who had to reach the
peak against the advice of his guide, and his parents, who fitted naturally into a multicultural
society, improving where they could but avoiding heartbreak where there was
One admires the son and acknowledges his industry but comes to love his parents.