The British Empire Library

Twilight Of The Bwanas

by Gordon Dyus

Courtesy of OSPA

Hubert Allen (Uganda 1955-62)
The parents of the author of this study kept their young son with them in East Africa throughout the Second World War, rather than (as happened to many of our contemporaries) leaving him in what was expected to be the temporary care of relatives in Britain, only to be separated altogether for five formative years. Gordon Dyus' father worked successively for the port authorities of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam, and from a very young age Gordon shared your reviewer's experience of being sent off to attend boarding school in Nairobi.

Although informed and animated by numerous personal memories. Twilight of the Bwanas is not so much a biographical memoir as an individual's observation of colonial life at that time and during the postwar period. In this, it is inevitably restricted to some extent by the direct observations of the writer: but there are many perceptive comments and observations -- not least about the colonial "memsahibs" to whom so very many "bwanas" and their children owed so much. Dyus notes, for example, that apart from some sections of the Kenya settlers there was in East Africa very little racism, as it is understood today. Each group -- Europeans, Asians and Africans -- tended to accord full respect to the others, whilst not seeking to intrude upon them, nor to interfere with their habits and customs. Rivalries and "class distinctions", as he points out, were very much more apparent within the various groups. My own father recalled a civil service dinner party at which the host barked: "Seat yourselves according to your salaries!" and relished the fact that it was the wives of the various officers who all knew exactly where to go!

This first half of the book, describing colonial life during and after the war, is evocative and rewarding, even though the author tends occasionally to assume too readily that his readers will share his familiarity with what he is describing: the layout of streets in Mombasa or Dar es Salaam, for example. Moreover, the vivid descriptions in the book cry out for illustrations; and it is odd that someone who became a surveyor with Tanganyika's admirable Department of Lands and Surveys should not have helped his readers by including a few simple maps and plans.

The book's sub-title claims to describe life in East Africa before independence. And, as remarked, the first half does that admirably -- principally as regards Tanganyika. The ensuing chapter about the actual attainment of self-rule is likewise well observed. But sadly in most of the rest of the book, besides describing excellently several more episodes of expatriate life, Dyus devotes too many pages to bewailing what he believes might have taken place if the process of transition had been less rushed. Many of us who were there would agree that these countries suffered -- and continue to suffer -- as a consequence of the unexpectedly abrupt termination of British rule. But any belief that this could have been avoided suggests a failure to understand what was going on at the time in the rest of the world, where Macmillan and McLeod were constrained both by domestic economic pressures and by the knee-jerk hostility to imperialism of their most powerful Cold War ally. What is more, Tanganyika in particular was not a colony, but a former German territory entrusted to Britain by the League of Nations to be prepared for eventual independence. Once the majority of members of the United Nations, the League's successor body, had come to the conclusion -- however unrealistic - that the time for that independence had come, it became very difficult for Britain to argue convincingly that the country should nevertheless continue as a Trust Territory.

Some of us would also challenge Gordon Dyus' portrait of Julius Nyerere. Certainly Mwalimu felt constrained to posture from time to time as a power-hungry demagogue; but the monster described in these pages is very different from the soft-spoken scholar who occasionally took refuge from politics in my parents' home to discuss how best to recast Shakespeare in traditional classical Swahili verse forms. Again, it is easy with hindsight to ridicule Nyerere's socialist economics. But this was the era of Harold Wilson's Britain and Francois Mitterand's France, when various forms of socialism were all the rage; and very many European and American scholars applauded ujamaa as a model for the entire African continent. Similarly, it is easy to mock the follies of the TanZam railway. But -- again with hindsight -- perhaps it may prove to have been quite a shrewd move to be the first African nation to make friends with the superpower that will almost certainly dominate the 21st century. Last but not least, Nyerere set a precedent -- sadly rare in Africa -- by stepping down from power before he was pushed.

Twilight of the Bwanas, then, is a book of two halves -- one impressively and vividly evocative of the period of colonial rule, the other disappointingly prejudiced about the post-colonial period.

British Empire Book
Gordon Dyus
Xlibris Publishing
978 1 4653 6653 5


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