This book is about the survival of an Austro-German family in Tanganyika (Tanzania)
between the wars. There are three contrasting personalities; the father, Hans Cory;
Lili, his wife and Edith, the book's author and their only child. The book describes their
interaction and adventures between 1927 and 1939.
Cory was a pioneer sisal planter when the price collapsed overnight, leaving him with
no assets beyond fluent Kiswahili and exceptional empathy with black Africans. These
gifts enabled him to keep together a loyal band of workmen, which built sections of a
new railway and undertook contracts on other men's plantations, providing his family
with a living of sorts.
During this period Cory became absorbed in tribal custom, studying music, dance and
herbal medicine and being invited to wimess many esoteric ceremonies. A chance meeting
led to occasional commissions to advise the Tanganyika Government on local custom
and these, as this reviewer knows, were the door to his later appointment as official
sociologist. He also pioneered the use of African actors in educational films. Whether
earning steady money or unsure of next month's income, he seemed fulfilled, effective
Lili, warm-hearted and sentimental, came from a well-to-do Viennese family and the
appallingly primitive conditions in which she was forced to live must have nearly broken
her. The byplay between the couple is well described. Cory could joke about poverty,
pointing to the riches of the sunset, and seemed to show little understanding of his wife's
pining for a better life. Though often ill and depressed, Lili, a superb home maker, never
let her standards slip. If there were no gracious fabrics, some colourful grass matting was
as good. Tea was a ceremony, poured from a silver teapot, even if the water had been
boiled on a camp fire. Lili never lost her faith in Hans nor her love for him but she
understood less and less of what drove him along.
Edith, the family chronicler, must have been a remarkable and precocious child. Her
memory, with uncannily total recall of incidents and conversations overheard as a very
young girl, is stunning. She grew to realize that she was missing other children and that
her loneliness did not seem to be understood by her parents. If it was, they knew there
was nothing they could do about it. There was no free schooling and, although Hans
could earn a subsistence living, there was no money for school fees. So, to some extent
this book may have been a writing out of bitterness stored from years of denial of a normal
childhood. Eventually, friends helped procure Edith a bursary to an English speaking
school. There, life was tough in a different way and she faced bullying and unhappiness. She came through, however, becoming quite a leader among her peers and at 15 was set
to be an outstanding pupil.
So it is through the mind of a lonely girl, with fluent Kiswahili and in close contact
with Africans, that this remarkable story is told; the ups and downs of the family in the
remote places where they had to live, the intimate gossip of African peasants, the bazaar
chat of Asian shopkeepers, the baking savannah and the occasional health and climatic
crisis. All these are painted in a vivid and convincing style.
This is a gripping book but the end is flawed. As described, Hans Cory seems a failure.
However, those who knew him later remember his ultimate eminence, employed and
revered by Ministers. They know, too, of Lili's comeback as gracious hostess and of
Edith, following her father into a career in anthropology. In the book, in contrast, the
family seems downgraded. And it is not just for colleagues that the story is incomplete.
Readers with no special knowledge may be left itching to know what became of them
all. A short epilogue would have put this right.
The title will do little to attract the bookshop browser. But once hooked, they will find
this a compelling read, stylishly written and full of incident.