The British Empire Library


The Nyasaland Survey Papers 1938-1943, agriculture, food and health

Edited by Veronica Berry and Celia Petty

The Real Paradise: Memories of Africa 1950-1963

by Ann Davidson


Courtesy of OSPA


Review by A.H.M Kirk-Greene (Nigeria 1950-66, lecturer in Modern History of Africa, Oxford University)
If Nyasaland and female authorship are the connecting threads, they are about the only thing these two important books have in common - or that the writers themselves might, with respect, wish to see as linking their vastly different concepts, focii and readerships. Even the chronology enjoys a hiatus: positively pre-war colonial government (official) emphatically post-war Colonial Service (personal). Yet to review them together was in no way a case of balancing the rough with the smooth. On the contrary, as long as 1 made sure which hat I was wearing for which assignment, it has been a privilege to read them both.

Readers of this magazine may recall Dr W.T.C. Berry's account of his years in the Colonial Medical Service, in Nyasaland and Gambia, prepared for publication by his widow, Veronica, under the t\t\e Before the Wind of Change (see magazine No. 48). In collaboration with Celia Petty, a Wellcome Trust researcher into colonial nutrition policy, Veronica Berry of the Centre for Human Nutrition has now edited the paper of the 1938-1943 Nyasaland Nutrition Survey, some of which she had typed fifty years earlier for her husband when he joined the Survey's follow-up Nutrition Development Unit. The result represents a superb, arguably unparalleled, resource for the study of food and health in what was then known as the Cinderella territory of Britain's colonial empire in Africa. It is virtually a nutrition encyclopaedia for the Nyasaland state of health. Even if the publishers are unable to spell "multi-disciplinery" in their blurb and identify Nyasaland as "East Africa", they, the editors, and the famous London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are to be congratulated on making this magnificent resource so readily accessible to modem researchers, be they working in nutrition, health, agriculture or socio-anthropology.

As for Ann Davidson's account of her years in Nyasaland from 1950 to 1963, this is undoubtedly one of the finest memoirs by what modem feminists have termed 'the incorporated wife' {"He is living exactly as he would choose to live and doing the work he loves to do ... it is the wives who have to create a life for themselves" - p.77) describing the life of a wife of a member (in the event, two successive ones) of the Colonial Administrative Service in Africa during the final period of British rule. Compellingly observant and tellingly well-read, Ann Davidson has an eye for people and happenings as well as for scenery ("the immense, panoramic landscapes ... suffused with light of a golden quality peculiar to Africa ... I always feel alien and vulnerable in such vastness" - p.23). She is blessed, too, with a rich collection of her chatty yet detailed weekly letters home to her mother to draw on, all the way from Oxford and London in 1949 to Kasupi and ulendo (at first frankly "vowing I would NEVER go on ulendo again" - p.59) to Mlanje, Blantyre ("which is what I imagine a pioneer town in the mid-West was like" - p.28) and, of course, Zomba ("how I loathe Christmas out here" - p.306) with its GH and HE and his ADC ("a silly little man" - p.361).

For me, Ann Davidson combines, to invoke her predecessors in the genre of imperial autobiographical travel writing, the graceful descriptive gifts of Elspeth Huxley and Karen Blixen with the penetrating eye of Margery Perham and the easy momentum of June Knox-Mawer. I do not recall having read a more delightful and absorbing memoir by 'one of us'. As with the best of Rosamund Pilcher, my wife and I were 'desoles' when we reached p.548 and found that it was the end. Or with Aden and the British Solomon Islands from 1963 to 1970, need it be so, if we are lucky?

British Empire Book
Editors
Edited by Veronica Berry and Celia Petty
Published
1992
Pages
300
Publisher
Academy Books
ISBN
0950947024
Availability
Abebooks
Amazon
British Empire Book
Author
Ann Davidson
Published
1993
Pages
556
Publisher
The Pentland Press
ISBN
1858210445
Availability
Abebooks
Amazon


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