The British Empire Library

Letters From The Swamps: East Africa 1936-1937

by C. Kate Bertram and Janet Trant

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by G. Clay (Northern Rhodesia 1930-1961)
This book consists of quotations from the letters to their families from two young authoresses who, having taken degrees at Cambridge in the Natural Sciences Tripos, took up a fortuitous invitation to visit the Gore-Brownes at Shiwa Ngandu in the then Northern Rhodesia, and went on to investigate the fishes of the Lakes and Swamps in that part of Africa. In 1936-37 they visited Lake Shiwa and Lake Bangweulu in Northern Rhodesia, Lake Rukwa in Tanganyika, and Lake Tanganyika itself, before returning to the United Kingdom by way of the Belgian Congo, Uganda, and down the Nile. Your reviewer only knew the Bangweulu Swamps and Lake in the years 1930-32 and 1946, and had visited Lake Shiwa and the south end of Tanganyika.

Many readers like him will be given back memories of days gone by, assisted not only by the written word, but by many fascinating black and white photographs. And these memories will include the sound of the paddlers singing as they paddled, of the scrape of paddle on the side of the canoe, of the sight of the paddlers' backs covered with a mass of flies, and of lechwe, pigmy geese and ducks and herons, and weavers' nests by the hundred. And memory will bring back the smell of the sun-dried fish, and of the swamps themselves, and especially of those tiny islands on which the inhabitants spend months in the dry season every year. And then there is the taste of the fish and duck that we ate, and the mixed taste and smell of the camp fires. Happy memories....

It is certainly a tribute to the administrations of all those countries that these two girls could travel safely through these wild places - which they certainly could not have done forty years earlier, and would be rash to do today. They came out to study the fish in these lakes and swamps, and that too brings memories: I remember on Lake Bangweulu seeing the Africans netting fish by the hundred in the middle of the lake and wondering at the extraordinary fish that they were catching. I was sufficiently interested to buy one fish and let it go, so that I could see how it swam away when released. I wonder if the authors of this book ever heard of the findings of the Schomburgh Photographic and Scientific Expedition to the Bangweulu Swamps? The Germans passed through Luwingu, where I was serving as a cadet, and told me that they had discovered specimens of mussel shells which proved indisputably that Bangweulu was a genuine lake as old as Mweru and Tanganyika and possibly older.

I liked the report on the authors' first sight of Lake Tanganyika: "It was one of those moments when it is difficult to believe that you are an ordinary person down on earth; but that is absurd, because what could be better than being any sort of person on such a heavenly earth!"

For anyone interested in the Bangweolo Swamps, this becomes the third book which should be compulsory reading after Livingstone's Last Journals and Eighteen Years on Lake Bangweulu by J. E. Hughes, published by 'The Field' in 1933.

I greatly regret that I must end up by stigmatising the very careless way the names have been written down, for many of them - and I only speak of those in Northern Rhodesia - are spelt wrong, and that includes the maps. The worst example is on the map at the back of the book where the Province known in my day as Barotseland is labelled Angola. The same map has Tukuyu spelt Toukuyu, and Chinsali spelt Chinsala. Even European names are mis-spelt - Bowgois and Co. on page 73 should be Bourjois. Again and again a's and u's are mixed up, with Nsumbu Island on Bangweulu being mis-spelt Nsamba - which is another island in the swamps. These careless errors may well spoil the value of the book for future generations.

British Empire Book
C. Kate Bertram and Janet Trant


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