Two Good Men in Africa

By Parris, Matthew | The Spectator, May 11, 2013 | Go to article overview

Two Good Men in Africa


Parris, Matthew, The Spectator


Beyond the Malachite Hills:

A Life of Colonial Service and Business in the New Africa by Jonathan Lawley I.B. Tauris, £18.99, pp. 315, ISBN 9781780764160 Last Man In: The End of Empire in Northern Nigeria by John Hare Neville & Harding, £20, pp. 252, ISBN 9780948028038 In post when the curtain came down on Britain's African empire, there survives today a generation of colonial officers whose numbers are dwindling fast. Many were fired by an idealism already out of fashion when they chose their career. Most came to love their adopted continent. Some can write. Two of these are Jonathan Lawley and John Hare.

Each has an incredible tale to tell. Here is a pair of books that, placed with a decanter of whisky on the bedside table of any Spectator reader's guest bedroom, will have the reading-light burning late into the night.

Yet they are very different stories, quite differently written. Beyond the Malachite Hills is a businesslike account of the last days of colonial government in Northern Rhodesia, and the first years of African self-government in its successor state, Zambia.

Here Jonathan Lawley was asked to stay on as a colonial officer (and African linguist) in the wild and beautiful country above the Zambezi river. Bitten by the African bug, he went on to train up black workers in the copper mining industry in the Congo. And he was invited by HMG to supervise the first general election on a universal franchise in Rhodesia: signalling the end of Iain Smith's government.

Lawley has made himself an expert on training and management in what he perceptively calls the New Africa: postcolonial, post-revolutionary, post-basketcase bombast; a continent we're only just beginning to notice, where economies are growing (regardless of, and sometimes despite, the corruptions of politics) and a new African generation is getting its teeth into making things work.

Lawley has an optimistic story to tell here; but this reviewer loved best his tales, told more in the workaday prose of a Wilfred Thesiger than the poetry of a romantic, of a young bachelor bashing his lonely way through bush hardly trodden by whites since David Livingstone passed by, trying to keep in repair a vast and overstretched net of fairly nominal administration, his authority sustained by little more than bravado; and determinedly acculturating himself to the life and language of the people he oversaw.

At one point he ends up - a British district commissioner- as interpreter for Kenneth Kaunda, the new President of Zambia being unable to speak the language of the tribe he was visiting. …

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