The British Empire Library

A Scorpion for Tea: Or, to Attempt the Impossible

by Rosemary Hollis

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Anthony Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-66)
This is an amusingly written, but serious and non-fictional, account of the life of a District Officer's wife in Northern Nigeria in the 1950s. If it is, in an implicit sense, a memorial to Rosemary Hollis's husband, who was killed by a train one foggy morning in early 1979, it is also an explicit reminiscence (the term autobiography is far too formal for this light style of presentation) of what it was like to be the wife of a colonial official in upcountry Nigeria.

But this is not merely a 'view from my verandah' book, for all its useful insights into the work and leisure of colonial officialdom. It offers at the same time the far less common perceptions of just what that job meant for the official's wife. And it is here that A Scorpion for Tea will have a special appeal, not only for those of us who want to relive our own experience in the printed word, but above all the younger ones who have no idea of the discomforts as well as the delights of colonial service in Africa and who, in this day and age, feel that the missing element in the literature is the woman's view of what was very much a man's life. To the mind of this reviewer, a regretted lapse is the inadequacy of names and the frequent omission of any clue to the identity of the friends and colleagues whose lives intersected with that of the Hollises: Tom and Marjory are simply not enough! Potential buyers as well as historians of the Nigerian Service may be disappointed by such silence.

Mercifully, not all wives experienced the series of disasters which seem to have been Mrs. Hollis's lot. Like the necessary fool in King Lear, her sense of humour comes as a relief to the readers as calamity follows catastrophe: being bitten by mad dogs and bruised by even madder dentists, sewing up the abdomen of an attempted suicide with violin string, stink-bugs by Mehitabel's "billion times a billion billion", a snake which "dropped out of the roof and bounced off my head into my lap", and the inevitable thunder-box tales. But undeterred by this apparently commonplace accumulation of mishap and miscarriage, all endured without a word of self-pity or a whisper of complaint, Mrs. Hollis typically made the most of whatever she found on the credit side of being a DO's wife in Bauchi and Bomu, In Wamba and Kontagora. Much of the quiet conviction in her reminiscences lies in the fact that for many Colonial Service wives this is just how it was. The one thing that could be guaranteed about the colonial life, m. or f., was that even the routine would be remarkable. Whether today's spousely reaction would echo that of Mrs. Hollis's London office boss, "a very self-sufficient, tough young woman", who, on learning of her fiance's posting exclaimed "Good heavens, I couldn't cope with that life!", is a speculation not likely ever to be put to the test again in the history of British womanhood overseas.

Over and above its merits as a memoir of life in latter day colonial Northern Nigeria, A Scorpion for Tea carries a special bonus for its readers. Some of us may remember Rosemary Hollis's evocative sketches of the Northern Niprian Landscape and its peoples. Others will have seen her attractive paintings in the Voluntary Service Overseas headquarters in London, where her late husband, Michael, worked after his retirement. A Scorpion for Tea is now illustrated with nearly fifty of these delightful sketches. The result is a striking blend of author's black and artist's brown ink, recapturing the nostalgia of colonial life in Africa - nightmarish warts and all!

British Empire Book
Rosemary Hollis
Arthur H.Stockwell Ltd


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