The British Empire Library

The Last District Officer

by John Pitchford

Courtesy of OSPA

Michael Walsh (Economic Adviser, GEIC/Kiribati 1971- 76; Kiribati Honorary Consul in UK since 1996)
'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 District Officer.

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 Islands.

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.

British Empire Book
John Pitchford
Librario Publishing Ltd
978 1 9092 3806 0


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