The British Empire Library

Nswana - the Heir: The Life and Times of Charles Fisher, a Surgeon in Central Africa

by Monica Fisher

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by E. C. Greenall (Northern Rhodesia 1944-69)
This book spans the whole history of Northern Rhodesia from the Boundary Commission of 1913, of which the author's uncle. Sir Stewart Gore Browne, DSO, was a member, until the recent pictures of Greystone Park on the Kafue River, where the author and Charles Fisher's descendants now live in a country called Zambia.

It is very moving and personal, containing the seeds of an immensely erudite volume of commentary on tropical medicine circa mid XIXth/XXth century. The African journeys are supported by historical maps illustrating the routes taken by The Heir and his predecessors, one of whom was a youthful neighbour of Dr. Livingstone, Fred Arnot. On Arnot's second expedition he was accompanied by Walter Fisher, who met and married a fellow missionary, Susanna Darling; Charles was their youngest child. By the turn of the century the Fishers had established a mission station at Kavungu in Angola by the capital of the Lovale Chieftainess, Nyakatolo.

When Charles came along, born in Ireland in 1905, the transport system of Central Africa had been revolutionised by t^e extension of the railway from Cape Town to the Victoria Falls, and the construction of a bridge across the Zambezi. Instead of using the Old Slave Trail from the port of Benguella in Lobito Bay, baby Charles travelled with his mother using the new route to Victoria Falls, where they were met by his father and his future nursemaid, a freed slave called Kamona. The bridge incompleted, they made their way across on foot; Kamona carrying Charles in the fashion of her people slung from the back in a cloth; perhaps the first white baby to cross the bridge.

Walter Fisher had already moved from Kavungu, and was prospecting for an improved site for his mission in Northern Rhodesia amongst the neighbouring Lunda people, by whom the Fishers had been befriended (after freeing the slave Kamona) and with whom they had been invited to make their home. After a while a superb site was located on the peak of a hill overlooking the Zambezi Valley near the Capital of Chief Ikalenge. The Mission was named after him Kalene Hill.

Charles grew up (here with young African children of his own age, from whom he soon picked up the local language, and the elements of bushcraft. When war was declared in 1914 he was living in Nottingham with family friends starting prep school. Afterwards he returned to Kalene 1918/19 to start his secondary education at Plumtree. His wartime adventures included being torpedoed and adrift with his mother and sister in an open boat. He seems to have kept his head, and used his knowledge of bush-lore to help attract the attention of a passing vessel.

In 1923 he began his medical studies at Guy's Hospital, where his father had trained a generation before. He soon found London life too constricting, and with the help of a family friend was accepted at Bristol University. He liked Bristol with its easy access to open spaces; and obtained in 1929 degrees in medicine and surgery (for which like his father he showed a natural talent) and in 1930 he gained his FRCS.

Thus established in the medical profession Nswana (The Heir) contemplated his future career. He obtained a grant from the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene to undertake a research project at the Baptist Mission Hospital at Yakusu on the River Congo near Stanleyville. This made it possible to return home for Christmas making the arduous journey to Kalene through the Ituri Forest, Ruanda, Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika accompanied by his orderly, Bobo, who had been his companion on the research project and who until then had never ventured beyond the equatorial forests. The terrain was rich in game, and the highlight of the journey was visiting a group of pygmies, and observing their legendary hunting skills.

On his return to Britain after Christmas, Charles's interest was attracted by an advertisement for the post of medical officer with the copper-mining company at Nkana in Northern Rhodesia. Realising the medical facilities would be far more comprehensive than anything a mission station could provide, he applied and was appointed. Within a short time of taking up the appointment his Chief Medical Officer went away leaving Charles in charge. Within two years Charles, with his employer's concurrence, was appointed to the post of Chief Medical Officer of the rival mining group (RACM) at Luanshya, which he was to hold for 23 years full time: thereafter practising as a consultant vising mine hospitals for regular sessions in Nkana and Roan Antelope, and on call to Mufulera and Nchanga till he retired in 1969. He even did locums till 1975!

So in 1936 began a lifetime of service in the fields of medicine, politics and agriculture in which he was later joined by his wife. Dr. Monica Fisher, who charms us with this account of their life and work together.

British Empire Book
Monica Fisher
Mission Press


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