Robert P Lee was posted to Tanganyika on first appointment to the Colonial
Veterinary Service. As this was in wartime the port where he had to change ships,
Durban, was coded as Destination 5: hence the title of this very enjoyable book. His
journey by sea in a slow convoy took six weeks to reach Durban. He sailed on from
Durban to Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam and thence by train and lorry to Veterinary HQ at
Mpwapwa, where the laboratory had in fact been built by the Germans for their own
veterinary services before World War I.
The book is, as Professor Armour says in his Foreword, '... compulsory reading ...
for nostalgic expatriates and indeed all those interested in Africa'. Thankfully the
membership lists from Tonbridge indicate many surviving 'nostalgic expatriates'. There
is no index or reference notes and my own background of veterinary and African history
make me feel that some of Lee's text is misleading. For instance Dr Koch is described as
'... the father of veterinary science in South Africa' and there are others who better
deserve this title; but this need not trouble the general reader, though not altogether
useful to academics.
Nineteen of the twenty four chapters are about Tanganyika; but other parts of Africa
where Lee served are mentioned - Nigeria, Northern Rhodesia/Zambia and Tanzania's
island of Pemba. The book is best read as a continuous narrative: two hundred and fifty pages of an autobiography dealing with the professional, but less of the personal, life of
Lee's parents were Protestant Scots who had adopted the Irish Free State as their
home and lived in Cork. So, while Scottish by birth, he is an Irishman by inclination and
shows this by sundry comments on colonialism.
Robert Lee is my contemporary. We studied and qualified as veterinarians in the early
years of WWII; Lee in Dublin and myself in London. But my service was unbroken
while his was interrupted by periods of distinguished academic work which qualified
him well to serve as consultant in Africa for the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, and
to attain the status of Professor.
At least four veterinary surgeons have written about Tanganyika, but without naming
Lee. Their descriptions of the country and the work involved are however very similar.
The illustrations, over half of them in colour, are excellent. They show the African
scenery, the personalities, the lake steam-ship and the typical colonial style buildings to
perfection. In contrast to the illustrations there are only two small maps which are not
even adequate to show the many extensive and dramatic journeys Lee made in the course
of duty. This practice of including poor maps occurs in many non-fiction works; Lee's
publishers are not the only ones to fail in this respect.
It was commonplace in those days for officers, then mostly bachelors, to spend more
time under canvas touring than in their homes. The domestic and social affairs at the time
followed very much the same pattern as elsewhere in Africa: oil lamps, mosquito nets,
house 'boys' and garden 'boys', bats in the thatch and sundowners on the veranda. There
was always tennis, an irrigation tank for swimming and a spare bit of land for a golf
course. However life was both hardworking and hard as those who have experienced it
and readers of this book will know. His descriptions of the work of the veterinarian in
Africa are very clear and emphasise the veterinary philosophy that disease is inseparable
from nutrition and husbandry and all matters relating to domestic livestock.
Of Lee's consultative services for the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, he mentions
his return to Tanganyika (now independent Tanzania) 31 years after his first job there. He
found much had changed; the old veterinary set up at Mpwpawa had gone and the rather
desolate remains of the ill-fated Groundnut Scheme, started in 1946, marred the scenery
of the nearby plains. The well meaning attempts at socialism made by President Nyerere
had impoverished the country; the currency was devalued, Dar es Salaam was rundown
and roads were bad. The dairy scheme he ran on Pemba, however, was successful and run
on much the same lines as those by the British in Kenya and Malawi.
The final chapter is called Looking back and forward and sums up the successes and
failures of the colonial period in Africa in a very fair manner. In particular he points out
the great advantages to agricultural and veterinary services of the old methods of direct
rule because full authority was handed to go ahead directors who had served first as field
officers travelling extensively on safari and getting to know country and people. They
knew what best to do and were able to initiate policy without the involvement of
inexperienced politicians. His thoughts on the future of independent Africa are not
without hope, and the lessons learnt from the failure of socialism in Tanzania will, he
thinks, result in the long run in a happier tomorrow for that country.