The British Empire Library

Breath of Africa

by Jessica Allin

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Joy Brinkworth (Tanganyika 1954-1963)
Jessica Allin went to Tanganyika as a Government secretary in 1951 with the intention of marrying a young bank official she had met briefly with whom she had fallen passionately in love. Their first meeting and subsequent long and happy marriage is told in great detail and deeply romantic language. (His pet name for her is "Charley Boy" and hers for him "Michaelangelo").

The next 32 years were spent in Dar es Salaam, Moshi, Zanzibar, Nyeri (during Mau Mau), Khartoum and Rhodesia where they bought a property. Despite their obvious affection for Africa they have retired to Javea and the final chapters include vignettes from their life in Spain and an account of a family reunion in South Africa. One leave from Rhodesia took them to Cyprus in 1974 when the Turkish Cypriot war began and Mrs Allin describes the situation of tourists caught up in the conflict and having to be rescued. (Curiously this story is told twice, in different parts of the book!). There are memories of her social life in Dar es Salaam and a very emotional account of her wedding and honeymoon there. Zanzibar is remembered with great affection but Khartoum, with its dust and flies, she did not enjoy.

The vicissitudes and fun of family life in different parts of the continent, the pain of having to send children to boarding school, a brief, unsatisfactory return to England, holidays abroad and life aboard the ships which used to carry expatriates to and from East Africa are all faithfully chronicled with a profusion of colourful detail. The author sees herself as having been a lively, popular person who enjoyed pretty clothes, some of which she describes with evident pleasure.

Mrs Allin has obviously led an interesting and varied life, has a sharp eye for detail and excellent recall. Nevertheless, she has a somewhat naive style of writing and there is much repetition and flowery language. The sequence of events is sometimes hard to follow as the chapters, each covering a separate reminiscence, are not all in chronological order. The poem about evacuees and the short story add nothing to the book and could well have been omitted.

Mrs Allin's memories are clearly genuine and her love of Africa quite sincere but the way she expresses herself does not recommend itself to the general reader: "The point of survival I found to be a very tranquil situation." "The tears drenched the handkerchiefs I was ironing." "There came upon me a feeling of sinking away from the earth."

For anyone who has memories of the places she describes or has lived a life in any way similar to hers, however, "A Breath of Africa" may be a pleasantly nostalgic read.

British Empire Book
Jessica Allin
The Pentland Press Ltd.


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