British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Kenneth J. Forder
A Vignette of Africa, Past and Present
Watering Hole
Whether it be famine, hunger, pestilence, tribal wars, destruction of the environment or extinction of species, many members of the former Colonial Service find it frustrating to see so many commentaries in the media (even Government inspired documentaries) putting over a variety of causes and explanations; anything other than the true cause - the removal from the scene of dedicated Officers of the Colonial Administration.

I wonder how long it will be before even South Africa becomes a semi-desert like most of the rest of Africa where Imperial rule has been removed? Will environmental degradation see South Africa a few years hence holding out its begging-bowl for overseas aid like much of the rest of the contintent.

Critics will not unnaturally demand that we justify our view that the rot set in with the phasing out of Colonialism. What indeed were those features of our administration, the absence of which, we might argue, have led to the present (and continuing) desolation of Africa?

The only way I can see of answering these critics in a way which is comprehensible without being vague or too generalised, is to give a thumb-nail sketch (a vignette in fact) of how it worked on the ground. Only a few days ago I came across some of my old District Note-Books and what emerges from them will serve the purpose. This is the way we handled things - subject heading by subject heading.

1. Arms. (Potentially the most important single heading).

A Vignette of Africa, Past and Present
Gaboon Viper
A visitor to any African village might be intrigued by the display of spears or bows and arrows he might see. I once saw a villager take aim at a Gaboon Viper (one of the most poisonous snakes on earth) with a bow and arrow from a distance of not less than 20 yards. He skewered it straight through the head - a remarkable shot, which I do not for one moment suggest was the norm. Villagers were, even so, remarkably skilful with their spears, on which they relied heavily to obtain the inyama (meat, usually from a wild buck) to supplement their diet of maize or cassava.

Guns were virtually unknown among villagers. The procurement of a 12 bore shot gun by one resident of a village made him what would virtually be a television personality in our society. In most villages there would be no firearms at all. This was not for want of asking. District Commissioners operated one of the most rigid regimes imaginable so far as shotgun licence applications were concerned. I did it myself. I remember being posted to a Government outpost and inheriting there a whole pile of box files from my predecessor containing hundreds of shotgun applications going back over 30 years in some cases. Every application was expected to be supported by many testimonials from a variety of directions - and would in any case stand no chance of success without the endorsement of the applicant’s tribal chief. Even the District Commissioner did not have the last word; each year, out of the hundreds submitted, I would forward to the Provincial Commissioner my recommended list of 20 shotgun licences for the year; he would send back the 12 new approved together with the 8 rejects (which would go into the pool for the next year; I have known such applications to be shunted on for 10 years). What a celebration there was for one greybeard who at last received his approved application after waiting since he had been a young man!

Today there is virtually no limitation on the possession of arms of all sorts; not only do those villages have arms, but almost every house has a gun. Res ipsa loquitur ("the thing speaks for itself"). You don’t have to resort to myths about the ivory trade or outside poachers to find out why the numbers of elephants have decreased. Elephant meat is tasty - I know, I have tasted it.

2. Hunting.

A Vignette of Africa, Past and Present
Lions in Masai Country
During the period I was in Africa, far from species being rare, the Government officially offered bounties for shooting them. Anyone who could produce a lion’s tail to the appropriate Government office received 2 pounds in cash. A similar sum was paid for the head of a wild dog, while a jackal head produced only 50p. In fact, there was considerable correspondence from Government to District Commissioners telling them it was suspected that some villagers were doing a roaring trade in actually breeding wild dogs and then cutting their heads off to claim the bounty.

The picture was slightly different with crocodiles. There were many thousands in every river, but a fact which rendered bounties unnecessary was that the crocodile skin was valuable and could be sold. Not all the skin, mind you; just the soft underbelly and that was where the problem arose. If crocodile hunters did a night’s shoot they would be interested only in the underskins, and this meant that anything up to a dozen fetid corpses would be left to rot in the wild. For this reason we had to issue crocodile hunting licences, making it a condition of each licence that any corpse remains must be disposed of by fire.

And tbe picture today? No more need be said than that 25 years ago if you took a landrover across the Kafue plain you went through massive herds of buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, eland and kudu. Today I am told you will see nothing apart from a few lechwe.

3. Drought.

A Vignette of Africa, Past and Present
Zambesi Floods
To judge by continuing horror stories, one would imagine that drought was something new in Africa. Western governments pour money into a so-called relief situation, which in fact has always been there and has always been surmounted without any great difficulty so long as the instructions of the local District Commissioners were properly followed. One has always had to cope too with such things as deforestation and overgrazing; increasing urbanisation has not helped.

It has always been a fact of life that the Zambezi river is 50 miles wide in places during the rainy season; 100 yards wide during the dry season. One of the glorious features of life is to see the first rains after the long dry season; we used to go out and stand in it fully clothed and get drenched to the skin. But of course if one does not follow the rules, then disaster may well follow.

One example of such a rule is always to plough on the contour; I wonder how many do it now? But the matter with which I was most directly concerned was keeping cattle alive during those long dry months. Now along the Zambezi valley, there grows a type of tall lush reed which is well known for its enduring properties as cattle-food. There is no scarcity - it is in plentiful supply. What has to be done, however, is that cattleowners must cut it in large quantities when it is wet and stack it rather in the shape of a haystack. It is so rich that it can be used as cattle-food right through the dry season and keep the cattle alive until the rains come again. We used to run propaganda campaigns among owners of some 80,000 cattle in my District telling them to cut this grass for their own use. No expense was involved - just the effort of making the stacks. Never did Nature provide a more accessible solution to a problem. Do you think the locals would cut the grass of their own accord? Never in a thousand years!

Instead, after a month or two without rain, they would come to complain that their cattle were dying and that the Government should help them. I suppose today some relief agency will be throwing dollars at them.

Officers of the Colonial Service have so often been vilified (sometimes with justification); the tragedy is that they are not normally given credit where credit is due. In due course the world is going to learn the hard way that famine, pestilence, hunger and extinction of species go to make up the price of dispensing with Colonialism.

map of Nigeria
Maps of Africa
Continent Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 65 (April 1993)


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe