British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Robert Wise
A District Team in Action
Songea District
The work of the Overseas Civil Service is frequently denigrated in the popular press and amongst the politically correct, as being part of a shameful colonial heritage. It is fitting therefore to recall many of the small contributions to local African welfare made by dedicated officers.

Tanganyika adopted a District Team approach to local problems. The Team was comprised of all the senior government officials in a district under the chairmanship of the District Commissioner. Their remit was to keep the different departments informed about their projects and policies within the district and also to put forward problems which might be dealt with by joint action.

In 1958 the District Medical Officer (DM0) reported to the Songea District Team that there was a small area (about the size of Oxford), in the centre of the district, where malnutrition was a serious problem. Before 1958 most questions about diet and malnutrition had been approached from the point of view of a single expertise. Songea District Team decided to try a multi-disciplinary approach. The DM0 was to produce a medical analysis; the Agricultural Officer to analyse the farming practices; while a District Officer was to produce an anthropological description of factors Influencing the incidence of malnutrition. Their reports were to be drawn together into a symposium with agreed recommendations for discussion and action by the Team.

An initial visit to the area showed it to be suffering ill-health, under-productive fields and an apathetic, poor population. The officials decided to use the subordinate staff of their departments to collate questionnaires to provide basic information about the extent of malnutrition as an aspect of their normal extension work. Government provided no additional funds for this project.

The report of the DM0 showed that the area under examination comprised 98 families totalling 378 people living in 88 homesteads. His clinical survey concentrated upon all the children under the age of 15 since it is they who show the first and most obvious signs of dietary deficiencies. The DM0 underlined a basic fact that while his research could reveal the trouble the local people could not accept that malnutrition existed when there was no hunger. Symptoms of malnutrition were conditions to be expected in childhood, or due to spells cast by a witch or just the will of God.

The Agricultural Officer (AO) showed that the target area was about three miles square, that it was well watered with numerous perennial streams and that while the soils were moisture retentive they were worked out, subject to sheet erosion and over-cropping. Slash and burn cultivation was practiced but while in the rest of the district the resting period of bush fallow was twenty years in the study area the rest period was only between seven and ten years. It was clear that a proper crop rotation plan needed to be taught as part of his department's usual extension work.

Using history recorded in the District Book and observer participation, the District Officer showed firstly that there were problems with land allocation due to rivalries between traditional leaders. Secondly that many local people were dependent upon low wages paid by a large local Mission. He formulated a hypothesis for further examination that the traditional authorities, in particular the land-allocating sub-chiefs, were compensating for their loss of former prestige and opportunities for advancement (largely due to German repression after the Maji Maji campaign 1905-07) by restricting the amount of land allocated both to strangers and to the descendants of former captives and others who still lived in the area. In this way the sub-chiefs by keeping large fields for themselves were able to maintain an economic, and social, ascendancy.

A District Team in Action
Tilapia Fry
The symposium concluded that there was little that could be done in the short term but that in the long term education would help to lead to a solution. Nutrition leaflets were prepared and distributed, as were vegetable seeds and fruits. The primary objective however was to encourage greater protein intake in an area where the availability of game, cattle and goats was limited. In the light of the available water it was decided to try to encourage fish farming. This proved to be a most successful Innovation. The Local Authority agreed to establish a breeding pond, agricultural staff were instructed in the building of ponds and passed this knowledge to local people who when they had built a pond would contact the DO. He would go out to inspect the pond taking with him a small churn of Tilapia fry. If the pond was satisfactory the fry were poured in. Tilapia are very quick growing; keep in mind that they were the primary fish in the Sea of Galilee.

The symposium was later published in the East African Journal of Nutrition and it was good to learn in 2005, at a Britain/Tanzania Society meeting, from a lady working in women's development in Songea district, that fish ponds had become so popular that the example had spread throughout the whole district, an area the size of Wales.

British Empire Map
Map of South-Western Tanganyika, 1949
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 103: April 2012


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