The British Empire Library

The Shimmering Heat: Memories of a Bush Doctor in East Africa

by David Webster

Courtesy of OSPA

Pascal James Imperato, MD, MPH and TM (Editor, Journal of Community Health, State University of New York)
Few accounts of high adventure in remote corners of the world present profiles in altruism, courage, and denial of self in the service of others. The Shimmering Heat is a rare example that does. The author, born in Kenya of missionary parents and raised in the remote north of the country at Marsabit, later became a physician at St Thomas's Hospital in London. In this excellent book. Dr Webster gracefully and seamlessly weaves memoirs of his childhood at Marsabit and Nairobi with his life as a dedicated missionary physician in back of beyond areas of Uganda and Kenya. The result is a riveting account of high adventure through which courses an inspiring altruism and a deep sense of caring for the African peoples he served.

David Webster's parents, Eric and Ruby Webster, were missionaries for the Bible Churchmen's Missionary Society (BCMS), a branch of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) now known as Crosslinks. In the late 1930s they were posted to remote Marsabit Mountain where Eric had first worked in 1931. This was then one of the most remote areas of Kenya made famous several years earlier by Martin and Osa Johnson, American wildlife filmmakers who lived and worked atop the mountain on the edge of a crater lake which they named Lake Paradise. It was on this mist-shrouded forested mountain, surrounded by scorching deserts and scrub bush, that the author grew up. Accustomed at an early age to privation, the dangers presented by disease, climate, wildlife, and warring ethnic groups, and a role model in his father, he not surprisingly volunteered to join the BCMS in Africa in 1967, along with his wife Rosemary, a physiotherapist.

Their first bush hospital assignment was at Amudat in north-eastern Uganda among the Pokot people, where they succeeded in expanding the hospital and developing clinics that provided medical care to thousands. As the only physician at this outpost, the author functioned as surgeon, internist, pediatrician, and obstetrician, while additionally serving as resident engineer, architect, builder, and jack-of-all trades.

With the onset of the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin in Uganda, life and work at Amudat became increasingly impossible. Eventually, the Websters moved to Marsabit, where the author was placed in charge of the Government District Hospital there. Marsabit was familiar territory for the author. However, much had changed since his childhood, including the presence of armed groups of Somali bandits that regularly ambushed vehicles on the dusty tracks far from government posts. David Webster and his family spent several years at Marsabit during which time he expanded the hospital, updated the skills of its medical personnel, established bush clinics, and maintained a close link with the Flying Doctor's Service.

Anyone who is familiar with the old Northern Frontier District of Kenya, where Marsabit is located, as is this reviewer, can fully appreciate the magnitude of the author's accomplishments when cast against all of the obstacles and challenges he faced. He succeeded because of his courage, dedication, self-denial, sacrifice, and an amazing desire to help his fellow man. After having spent almost a dozen years as a bush doctor in East Africa, the author returned to Great Britain with his wife and children. When this reviewer returned to Marsabit in 1977, shortly after the author's departure, his name had already become legendary among the people he had served so well for so long.

The Shimmering Heat is the splendid story of a medical family that experienced many unusual adventures in rural areas of East Africa. These adventures were often textured by physical hardships, disease, failure, tragedy, and disappointment, which the Websters overcame with faith, commitment, and courage. As a result, this book not only entertains and informs, but more importantly inspires.

British Empire Book
David Webster
Stanley L Hunt (Printers) Ltd
978 0 9550911 1 7
Related Article
The Amudat Story
An account by Peter Cox on setting up and establishing the Hospital in Amudat.


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