'We were miserable as sin, wondering how I could break my contract and return
to somewhere where there was something better than rusted tins of corned beef
and weevily ships biscuits to survive on. The local people seemed dour and
suspicious, and so, so different from the exuberant Bantu.'
So begins John Pitchford's description of the second half of his colonial
career, in the Pacific rather than, as previously, in Northern Rhodesia /
Zambia. He was not the first 'African' to have that reaction to the Gilbert and
Ellice Islands, to whom he had just been appointed as 'Senior Health Adviser to
administer a family planning programme'. Where John differed from most was
that he overcame that beginning, and was as strikingly successful in the GEIC
as he had been in Africa. This is because, as it says on the back of the book,
John was indeed 'a highly unusual colonial administrator'.
This magnificent book traces John's life, philosophy, both pre-, post-, and
throughout, these two postings. It details his dislike of formal academic
qualifications, which stalked his career. This also meant any job which was
about bureaucracy, offices, or 'post beer-time meetings'.
It is full of pithy comments: from insects and snakes to be avoided, to the state
of the Anglican Liturgy, to the endorphins to be obtained from running, to
restricted gene pools, to how it feels to hold a corpse in your arms (on three
different occasions). We have sadistic marine educators; we have racists (about
whom John quotes a Zambian friend 'I feel sorry for people like that', we have
corrupt Zambian officials ('If you don't like the way we do things in Africa...get out', we have Nuns who, before it was condemned by the Roman Catholic
Church, thought that the pill was a miracle; we have mad medical officers; we
have the Maire who was reluctant to provide a permis de construire for the
family's ruin in mid-France, because, as it turned out, he could not handle the
computer system to apply for it!
John's career was eclectic: he started in the Royal Marines, then found
employment abroad, initially as a Customs Officer in the Central African
Federation, posted to Northern Rhodesia, and then (because of his voluntary
work) in the Colonial Service, as a Social Welfare Adviser (Youth) in that same
territory. Here he organised a National Choir and Drama Festival; developed
multi-racial Outward Bound Courses, which meant, inter alia, exploring a
'seemingly mandatory rock climbing site' at Kapiri Mposhi. He nearly met his end
there when the rock crumbled, and brought it down with him. He was saved by a
After Zambian independence in 1964, John was seconded to the Zambian Youth
Service. But with a physical breakdown which started with malaria and was
followed by malta fever, mumps, and hepatitis he and his family left Africa.
There followed two years of running a guesthouse in Cumbria ('not my metier').
John continued to seek work through the Overseas Resettlement Bureau; but he
did not have the right academic qualifications! He and Judy acquired the 'vital bit
of paper' at Loughborough; and, armed with this, John became ' maybe the only
the only person in the UK able meet all [the] requirements for a Senior Health
Adviser to administer a family planning programme' in the then Gilbert and Ellice
There then followed his glory years. 'We became an example to the Pacific and
the world. The Population Bureau could not believe our statistics; our data was a
world-beating reduction in the total fertility rate from 6.82 % to 4.39%.' John was
able to achieve this by his ability to win over the 'dour, suspicious people' firstly,
by going to live amongst them, and secondly, by harnessing their, and his, love
of music: what got the message about family planning across was a cultural
triumph: a song competition. How many would have thought so laterally?
After Kiribati's independence in 1979, John, by now fluent in I-Kiribati, stayed on
at the personal request of the new President. This was when he formally
became a District Officer, before he personally oversaw the replacement by
more democratic forms of local government. In the end, John and Judy chalked
up 20 years' service before retiring to France, and now Wales.
I thoroughly recommend this book. Do not be put off by the odd typo where the
publisher was careless with the final proofs; it is a great read.