The British Empire Library

Kilimanjaro Tales: Saga of a Medical Family in Africa

by Gwynneth and Michael Latham

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by P.C. Duff (Tanganyika, Kenya 1942-1963)
In 1971 Michael Latham inherited his mother's journal. Gwen, wife of Don Latham, a District Medical Officer in Tanganyika (Tanzania) had written it there in the '20s and '30s. Her son has reshaped it for publication, adding background and describing his own contribution to development in East Africa.

The result is uneven. Michael's chapters are out of key with Gwen's bubbling reportage. She and Don lived a fairy story life, enjoying hugely all they did for people's health and welfare in the days before trade unions and politics might come to shade their enthusiasm. Nor is there any hint of pressure from HQ to do things differently. District life in those days was pleasantly insulated from the big city; the only link, a single telephone line vulnerable to a nudge from an elephant, could often be ignored. This reviewer finds several points of contact with the Lathams. He lived subsequently in the three room bungalow in Kilosa where Michael had been born in 1928 and with the same spartan furniture. The domestic water supply was still delivered on prisoners' heads. He also saw something of Michael's energy and vision during the '60s in getting the Dar es Salaam International School off the ground.

For many readers the book will be highly nostalgic: breakfast on foot safari, the pitfalls of bush latrines, porters' gossip around camp fires, the hasty borrowing of neighbours' crockery for unexpected guests, the evening meal kept hot and unspoilt for hours on a cracked Dover stove and the unstressful pace of life where everybody spoke Swahili. The Lathams' caring enthusiasm rubbed off onto their domestic and hospital staffs, their patients and their colleagues. Such relationships may today sound paternalistic but they were in no way patronizing. After all, Livingstone wrote of "his boys".

Those with no colonial background will also delight in the vivid, sometimes balletic, descriptions of game, of the Lupa prospectors panning for gold, seasonal invasions of lake flies, deaths from blackwater fever, crocodiles trained to kidnap nubile women, the kaleidoscopic wares of village shops and endlessly varied enterprise in DIY entertainment. They may, however, find Gwen's criticism of bickering among rival missions over the latest headcount of converts (not generally a problem) somewhat tedious. Michael's philosophisings on the problems and consequences of colonial rule may not much concern them. But he is right to bring out the tensions between Africa's traditional pace and that of neo-colonial modernisation, though he overlooks the fact that the pressures for jet age technology come from the local governments themselves, which will not install a more appropriate haybox cooker if a microwave is on offer.

Before his arrival in East Africa Don was already an experienced mountaineer, able to negotiate the crags of Mawenzi in the days before organised porter safaris climbed Kilimanjaro. It was Don in 1926 who first found Hemingway's frozen leopard. His son's expedition forty years later shows as much enthusiasm for the climber as for the mountain.

The book demonstrates the contrast between the thrusting son, who had to reach the peak against the advice of his guide, and his parents, who fitted naturally into a multicultural society, improving where they could but avoiding heartbreak where there was no cure.

One admires the son and acknowledges his industry but comes to love his parents.

British Empire Book
Gwynneth and Michael Latham
The Radcliffe Press


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