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
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.