The British Empire Library

Into Africa: Uganda Diary: The Life Of A Forester In The Years Before Amin

by James Lang Brown

Courtesy of OSPA

J Brasnett (Uganda 1953-65)
In this delightful book, based on letters home and personal diaries James Lang Brown gives a detailed account of his time as a Forest Officer in the ten years leading up to Uganda's independence. It covers his work, leisure activities and relations with the country and its people. His enjoyment and appreciation of these are plain to see. It seems to me that his experiences and approach to the country mirror those of any colonial officer working in the bush in Africa. He worked mainly in the west of Uganda, in Toro, Ankole and Kigezi with their areas of tropical forests and also in Karamoja, much drier and even less developed.

His narrative is backed up by an excellent and wide ranging selection of beautiful colour photographs which illustrate the themes covered in the text. The diary details his day-to-day activities and the opportunities, challenges and drawbacks inherent in the work and the country. He does not dwell on the latter but it is obvious that malaria represented a serious threat to health with other tropical diseases such as bilharzias lurking in the background. Money was another problem. No one joined the Colonial Service to make a fortune and times could be hard with debts presenting a real problem.

Local conditions presented a constant challenge - heavy rains, floods and swollen rivers, black cotton soil, often a sea of mud and rutted tracks all hindered communications. Living conditions with poor food, oil lamps and the ubiquitous long drop could be discouraging but Lang Brown took all this in his stride and made the best of his job and of the country. Above all he was devoted to his work developing the forest estate and his accounts of establishing and regenerating plantations, demarcating forest reserves, introducing new species and new techniques of management and building access roads to remote areas are absorbing. Allied to this is the sense the reader gets of shared loyalty at all levels and by all staff to the work of the Forest Department. The staff are given their role and expected to take responsibility and get on with the job. The Department was well to the fore in its programme of training African officers and handing them greater responsibilities and promotion. In this the Forest school was a vital resource.

But that was not all. Lang Brown seized the many opportunities which Uganda offered for enjoyment. He was obviously a keen and experienced climber as is evident from the spectacular photographs of the Ruwenzori Range, Mount Elgon and the mountains of Karamoja. Another bush pursuit available in remote parts of Uganda was game viewing and photography. He was fortunate in working in and around some of the prime game areas in the west with the Queen Elizabeth National Park as the jewel in the crown. Karamoja was also good game country, notably in the north and his account of his visits to the camp at Opotipot built by the Game Ranger, John Blower, and safaris to the Kidepo Valley reminded this review of times gone by.

The book reminds us also of more communal enjoyments - regattas and country shows with stalls of all sorts led by those publicising the work and policies of a range of government departments. These formed the background to the races, fruit and vegetable classes and livestock judging. The activities brought people together to enjoy themselves, to socialise and extend their lives. The canoe races and swimming at regattas gave great pleasure to the African public, as did the tugs of war at country shows. Participation by European terms heightened their enjoyment.

One singular activity which deserves comment and which will, I think, be regarded by future social historians as quaint is that of the fancy dress party which was an essential part of the life of the expatriate community, starting on the passenger liners passing through Port Said and continuing in clubs and parties all over Uganda. They were an integral part of the community and were enormously enjoyable as Lang Brown relates.

How will history judge then, if at all? Interestingly the question of race does not really raise its head. Lang Brown, without dwelling on it, notes the contributions made by all the races - the African Chiefs, askaris, rangers and foresters, the Goan clerks, Sikh sawmillers and artisans, the Indian shopkeepers and European officers - medical, forestry and agriculture - with the odd settler or hotel keeper thrown in all working without any real friction. He also points out to the lack of any real need for security even when the Governor comes visiting.

Finally he records the comments and prints the letters of those Africans who regret the departure of Lang Brown and his ilk. With hindsight and knowledge of the imminent arrival of Idi Amin on the scene this is sad in the extreme. All in all this is a book worth reading by anyone with an interest in our Colonial past. It records, as pointed out in the introduction a story of an emotional tie that is half love story and half sense of duty.

British Empire Book
James Lang Brown
The Author
978 095 710 910 0
From the Author:
Willow Cottage
Mill Lane
BA12 6DA


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