The British Empire Library

No Place For Me:
A Memoir of an Indian Doctor in East Africa

By Leo J. De Souza

Leo’s book charts the story of his own family spanning almost the entire period of European colonisation through to the euphoria of Independence and then into to the hangover of post-independence realities. It is very much a book that spans a century of upheaval and challenges but seen primarily through the prism of his own family’s experiences. Having said this, Leo does provide context for the period before European colonisation took place where, through creative writing, he tries to empathise with the plight of African slaves brought from the interior to the coast by Arab slave traders. Of course, he is attempting to give voice to the voiceless but sadly we can never know for sure the words and thoughts of the victims and the perpetrators of these centuries old practices. Leo tries his hardest to empathise and make a best guess at what motivated the various actors or how they would have responded to their situations. He does take on multiple perspectives from the Arab Slaver to the African Porter Head through to the slaves themselves. It is a compelling narrative that attempts to shed light the duplicity, unscrupulousness and horror of the trade and yet he also portrays how it was an accepted part of the culture and economy of East Africa.

The second chapter takes on a similar ‘factional’ account of the arrival of Europeans weaving fact with fiction and taking on the stories of those introduced in the first chapter. It is something of an irony that the Germans were able to muscle in around this part of Africa partly with the promise of stamping out the excesses of the Arab slave trade and yet their earliest form of colonial government was barely better than what it replaced. And truth be told there was little difference in the duplicity of Carl Peters in gaining the signatures of African tribal leaders to consent to their colonisation than the duplicity of the Arab slave traders in entrapping their victims as they took on the appearance of innocent traders. The early years of German rule were indeed ruthless and uncaring but it is telling that even the German government was wary enough of public opinion to dismiss Peters when accusations of their harshness were made public. Berlin duly installed new rulers who realised that technology transfers and infrastructure investment would allow the raw materials of Tanganyika to serve the growing industrial German economy far more profitably. Trains, port facilities, plantations, schools were constructed in a way that no local leader could possibly have achieved. It is in this German period that the first De Souza appears in Colonial Africa. The Goans had ancient connections to Africa via their Portuguese colonial experience of their own which had led many to working in Mozambique. When other European nations arrived in East Africa they often found Goans as knowledgable intermediaries who were familiar with local customs and languages but also connected to the older trading patterns across the Indian Ocean and up to the Gulf region. The author explains the mechanics of the German Empire through the Usagara Company Limited importing German industrial goods and exporting the products of Tanganyikan plantations. It also highlights the interactions of the three main racial groups of Europeans, Indians (including Goans) and Africans as they worked with one another but within their own specific spheres of responsibility and their own communities. It was a complex relationship that entrenched division from an early stage but it was not entirely devoid of interaction and learning from the cultures of the other groups did indeed take place. Africa, Europe and India all melded to a certain extent however much each may have tried to insulate themselves from the influences of the others. Just the realities of geography, economic opportunities and the power dynamics forged these complex new relationships that would echo down the subsequent decades of history. Food and language were perhaps the most obvious byproducts of this new cultural creation occurring in East Africa, but by no means the only merging of cultures.

Of course the German influence was not to last long in East Africa due to the arrival of World War One. The author explains how the German Commander Lettow-Vorbeck was far more in tune with the demands of his soldiers than the British were with their Indian troops and was able to hold off a far larger British and Indian force for the entire period of the war. I have to say that Lettow-Vorbeck may well have been unusually liberal for a German in the treatment of his own soldiers but he had little love and respect for the privation he was forcing on the wider African communities as he fought his guerrilla warfare tactics through Central and Eastern Africa. Indeed he probably was responsible for the deaths of far more Africans, all be it indirectly, than any other single direct acting European in history. Most of the deaths were due to famine and disease rather than on the battlefield but it was a conscious choice by Lettow-Vorbeck to extend the war despite it having little or no strategic use to Germany whatsoever. It is interesting that the author has an uncommonly positive view of the German period of colonisation compared to most. Now this must be due to his own family’s personal recollections handed down to him over the years. This is not to criticise him, but it is actually quite a rarity to come across positive attribution of the characters of the German colonisers in any shape or form. The author is less forgiving of the British who replaced them who he felt were more offhand and detached than the Germans they replaced. An interesting and valuable insight and one that goes against many other accounts.

From this point on faction gives way fully to non-fiction as the author weaves the story of his parents and then of himself into the story after he was born in 1926. Now we are discussing defined people and places that he can fully vouch for and whose words he heard and aspirations he knew. He does however return to India for his later education and it is there that he trains to become a doctor. There is a hiatus in the account from the late 1930s to 1952 when he returns as a fully fledged doctor. Of course much had changed politically whilst in India as it transformed itself from a British colony to an independent nation in 1947. This must have been a hopeful period for many Indians but Africa had yet to catch up with the decolonisation train when Leo returned there in 1952. He comes across multiple occasions where the ‘Mzungu’ (Western) doctors were favoured over Indians like himself. There is still something of an apartheid in medical treatment as hospitals and wards are divided by race and colour and also by the doctors and nurses who attend them. An Indian treating Europeans is still a rarity, although it was acceptable for one to treat an African. There is a hierarchy of pay, esteem and treatment that the author highlights throughout the book. Indeed, you could say that it provides much of the author’s energy and ambition to overcome these hurdles that drives him professionally for the rest of his life. For example, he is disgusted at how a Dutch doctor’s lackadaisical approach to surgery on African patients. Even more so as he explains how so many Africans often held the white man’s medicine in awe. Leo bristles at the slights and colonial mindset that entrenches these institutional weaknesses. He vows to train in Britain so that nobody can second guess his qualifications and his right to administer medicine. It should be said that although Leo is very critical of the Colonial mindset, he does come across many individual British and Western doctors who do not conform to the colonial stereotypes and who do their best to encourage and empower doctors like Leo. I would say that there was a new generation of colonial servants who went out to Africa in the Post-War World who were not encumbered by the long history of Colonial certainties and perceived superiorities. Many of those going out in the 1940s and 1950s were inspired by Left Wing ideas and wanted genuinely to make the world a better place and especially those who they felt needed their help the most, namely poor Africans. Obviously there were still some old timers out there who resisted change, but there were many new faces who wanted to shake up the system and do their best for their patients. Leo definitely comes across both kinds.

I do want to interject and point out that the author adds some very clear definitions of African or Indian words at the bottom of the relevant pages as and when he comes across them. This is very helpful. However, there is one particular definition given in the same light that jarred with me. On page 116 he defines “Colonial Policy” as: “A policy by the British or any country that has invaded another country, giving them the right to enslave and exploit people through military, political and economic coercion.” The fact that it is given as a statement of fact is a little disconcerting. You could certainly argue that colonial policy could occur in this way but it also occurred in many other ways. Indeed colonial policy was merely the policies implemented by the colonial government whether good, bad or indifferent. And of course those colonial governments could be in place through a variety of means and not necessarily by invasion. Indeed the British presence in Tanganyika was as the result of a League of Nations and later a United Nations Mandate to prepare the previous German colony for self-government. Hardly an invasion. The problem with such a glaring statement is that it makes you question other sentiments expressed which hitherto you had felt had been made without an overt agenda. I am the first to accept all his criticisms of the colonial government through his own experiences and those of his family, but to state that it was inevitable due to some kind of Marxist-Leninist imperatives over which nobody had any control seemed very out of character with the rest of the book.

Leo and his family did know tragedy on their journey highlighted by the death of their first child at just one day old. Sustained by their Catholic faith in this tragedy, it does not undermine his desire to study surgery in the the Metropole of Empire: Britain or as he says: “The land of cricket and the Championships, Wimbledon, of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, and the BBC. It is also the land of the Mzungu”. He is not used to seeing white people as bus drivers, cleaners, waiters etc…. He saw that Colonial East Africa had little in common with Metropolitan Britain. He ended up studying in Edinburgh where he came across whites criticising whites for the first time notably through Scottish Nationalist Party politicians. Now unfortunately I found his second glaring mistake at this point when he said that over half the country of Scotland were supporters of the SNP. This is demonstrably untrue and has never been true (as the 2014 referendum proved) and was even less true in 1960 when the SNP were a tiny subset of the political spectrum. In fact in 1960 the entire SNP had only 2000 members and not a single parliamentary seat. Indeed they did not win their first seat until 1967. Again, this seems a needless statement to include. If it was to highlight that there were divisions in the white community then this had long been proved by the frequent changes in government in Britain from Liberal to Conservative to Labour, etc…. He does seem as if he wants to separate the English from the Scots but he forgets that the Scots (alongside the Irish) were the most enthusiastic colonisers of all - far more than the English. It may be easier to blame London for all that was ill in the Empire but the people on the ground were likely to come from Scotland and Ireland! In general though Leo had his preconceptions challenged by studying in the land of Mzungu as he readily admits. He was sponsored by the British Council to study but political events accelerated faster than his studies as Tanganyika was granted independence whilst he was still training in Edinburgh. He celebrated becoming a citizen of a new nation at the Tanganyikan High Commission in London. He notes that the Europeans, Indians and Africans seems to mix more freely in Britain than they ever did back in Africa. Indeed, the author’s enthusiasm for independence would soon collide with the harsh realities of post-colonial life.

In the next part of the book he discovers it is not just Europeans capable of racism as the new leaders push for the Africanisation of posts that he has trained so diligently to fulfil. The new generation of Tanganyikan politicians barely hid their contempt for Indians as they could no longer blame their failures on their colonial overlords. In many ways this part of the book demonstrates how change is not always positive like some Whiggish paradigm forever advancing onwards and upwards throughout history. Sometimes history hits speed bumps and things can and do get worse from time to time. He believes he can escape the difficulties by taking a new role in neighbouring Uganda. Little does he realise how he and his family are merely moving from the frying pan in to the fire. At first, Uganda makes a delightful and welcoming change in his medical career. He takes a role in the homelands of President Obote which will later pay handsome dividends as his growing reputation gains the ear of the President and ultimately rewards him with a much sought after Consultant’s role. Sadly, it will also be his undoing when Uganda undergoes its transition from model independent nation to dictatorship. The first clue to Leo was when he was invited to a prison to treat 5 government ministers taken into custody and beaten severely. The alarm bells should have rung loud and clear at this point but as so often in history people are loathe to give up their comfortable lives and careers and friends. And sometimes they pin more store in hope than in despair. Praying that things will get better rather than worse. Sadly in the case of Uganda things went from bad to worse alarmingly quickly. In many ways this was the most interesting part of the book as you see a society disintegrate around the author’s comfortable and satisfying life. President Obote is shot, Leo is even called to the hospital to treat him. Idi Amin takes control and Leo’s wife Dolly comes into contact with the would be dictator in her role as a Casualty doctor as he visits his wounded soldiers. We see the rapid disintegration of civil society as friends disappear, fear takes hold, bodies are discovered based not just on political differences but tribal and ethnic ones also. The straw that breaks the camel’s back for Leo and his family comes when Dolly is warned that Leo may become ‘food for crocodiles’ over an anonymous phone call. At 45, it must have been agonising decision to make for someone who had finally reached the esteem and position in his medical career he had always sought. But it was the racism of an African and not that of a European that upended their lives and forced him to restart his career on the other side of the world. Fortunately his education, credentials and the many contacts he had made over the years allowed him to find a new life in the USA and Canada. The title of the book is “No Place For Me” and undoubtedly this was true in East Africa but fortunately he could find a place of safety and sanctuary for himself and his family if ironically in the land of the Mzungu.

This is an invaluable account of a family's journey through East African history. It would have been a story familiar to many other Goan and Indian families who would recognise many of the same loves, challenges and beauties of life in East Africa. It is so important that these memories are recorded and not lost to history. Leo has done us a great service in putting down his experiences and his memories not only for his own family to enjoy and read but for a wider public also and indeed even for future generations to learn about a world that has all but vanished.

British Empire Book
Leo J. De Souza
Beaver's Pond 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