The British Empire Library

One White Man in Black Africa: From Kilimanjaro to the Kalahari, 1951-91

by John Cooke

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by C.G.R.
John Cooke is himself the 'one white man' and his book gives in lively detail the various areas of work through which he made his own contributions to the development of two African countries. He began in Tanganyika in 1951 as a District Officer (cadet) at Biharamulo, eventually becoming District Commissioner. The life of an administrative officer is all here. Happenings in and around the boma; interpreting and enforcing the rule of law - in the court house or under a 'big camelthorn tree ... from early morning to dusk'; safaris on foot or in the Landrover. Although not in the administration myself my work in one of the Services of the East Africa Community provided the privilege of visits to many of Tanganyika's centres of government and education and the occasion of hospitality in many homes. Following Cooke in his progress from one responsibility to another around the country brought back to me, as his book will to other readers, many memories of places, events, and people. But Africa provided opportunity for other things as well as work. Although I would not have shared his interest in hunting I could follow him, though at a more modest level, on Kilimanjaro (Kibo and Mawenzi) and Mount Kenya.

Cooke's contribution to Tanganyika was not confined to administration. Independence Day came in 1961 and the following year he found a new career - teaching. After a short time at Mwanza, he moved to the seaport town of Tanga. As before, work provided new opportunities; sailing, and exploration of the limestone caves and gorges: of these there are some astonishing photographs.

Some notable figures appear and are well portrayed. An impulsive support of Julius Nyerere in the early days of his political career might have caused Cooke some bother, but this was characteristically dismissed by Sir Edward Twining. Naturally the author expresses his views on the British Government's policies and decisions. He is critical of the abruptness of relinquishing control: he calls it 'cynical abandonment of major responsibility'. He uses the word 'colonial' more often than one would expect: Tanganyika was never a British colony; it was administered under a mandate of international authority. I was sorry he did not see eye to eye with a Social Development Officer with whom I enjoyed working, in Nairobi when he was an Army Education Officer and in Tanganyika in adult literacy. David Livingstone's vision for the peoples of Africa, as he travelled across the continent during the last century, was that they would become part of 'the body corporate of nations'. Cooke's feeling is not one of optimism about the new nation states of Africa. He sees great possibilities, however, in the changes taking place in South Africa, 'where a great experiment in racial harmonising is about to take off.' His vision is that if the talents of every population group could be harnessed and combined. South Africa could 'become the power-house' for the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. 'Africa might thus pull itself up by its own efforts, rather than through the suspect philanthropy of others.'

Political trouble between Britain and Tanzania in 1968 caused a break in Cooke's service in Africa. These were spent teaching at Manchester Grammar School, but by July 1971 he was back to 'black Africa' to take part in the growth of the University of Botswana over the next 20 years, becoming Professor of Environmental Science. This enabled him to continue to contribute through his main interests - teaching, exploration and research. Here, as elsewhere in the book, it becomes evident that although the book is about 'one white man', in his case as in the service of many others, there was one white woman, Sylvia his wife, who helped to make it all possible and enjoyable as well as making a distinctive contribution of her own.

Another conclusion is that while Cooke did much for Africa in what he gave, Africa, as is often confessed, gave great gifts in return.

British Empire Book
John Cooke
Tynron Press


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