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Tuesday, 29 December 2009


Africana Votes & Views #12

  Men have this fascination with war. The noble pursuit of one’s fellow-man with lethal intent must have a similar fascination to driving a thundering behemoth of a machine down the railway or racing track, launching oneself into a melĂ©e consisting of thirty grown men and one oval ball with possible fatal consequences, scaling impossibly high pieces of frozen rock while suffering semi-permanent damage to extremities from cold and to the brain from anoxia – or sneaking up to elephants’ backsides in the bush to tweak a hair from their tails and chalk a cross on their haunches (I kid you not – I know such a band of foolhardy knaves). So what is it that so enchants the male persona with dangerous pursuits? The presence of testosterone is popularly blamed for this thraldom to the pursuits of Mars – is it then the presence of periodical quantities of progesterone or estrogen that leads the fair sex to queue up for their dose of Mills and Boone romances?
  For those putative warriors who have either laid down their armoury or have never been fortunate enough to get within smelling distance of burning cordite, there are books on the ‘Art of War’, such as written by one Chinese sage, Sun Tzu in the 6th century BC – and still acclaimed as one of the most influential works on military strategy; in addition to tens of thousands more volumes, offering the vicarious (and safe) enjoyment of the thunder of battle, the niceties of strategies, glorious feats of courage and self sacrifice – all without the attendant stench of death. As the good Horace wrote Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori... – yeah, well tell that to the fatherless children and the widows – not to mention the scarred souls and bodies that survive the turmoil. My one parent had survived the Russian campaign as a mental and physical wreck; the other had squeaked through the relentless bombing of the German cities; I remember living in a cellar in an entirely flattened suburb of Hamburg just after the end of the war. During the next half century or so, I was part of a relatively fortunate generation, most of whom did not have to go to war. Even that grizzled old warrior, Papa Hemingway, conceded that ‘he knew how boring any man’s war is to any other man’ (Across the River and into the Trees, Scribner 1998), and so it was with me. I must confess to having lost my taste for war-books of any kind by the time I was about fifteen, which is not to say that I haven’t read the odd volume touching on the genre every now and again.
  So how about the conflicts that have raged about this continent of ours? One could start at the very beginning of the European presence at the Cape, when the august Viceroy of India, Francisco D’Almeida, conqueror of Kilwa and Mombasa on the east coast, got more than a bloody nose from the local Khoi tribesmen. Despite their armour and superior weapons, his trading/raiding expedition ran into trouble in a village near the estuary of the Salt River when they tried taking stock and hostages. The unsportsmanlike Khoi retaliated using their cattle as living shields, and managed to stone, spear and club the good Viceroy and some fifty to sixty of his men (depending on which source one takes) to death. Apparently the 1510 episode left a bad taste with the Portuguese, and they tended to give the Cape a wide berth, so leaving a vacuum which the Dutch and English were prepared to fill. 
  Fast forward a couple of hundred years during which period the Dutch had established themselves at the Cape (not entirely unopposed by the Khoi tribes), and the wars and alliances between the European powers started to make themselves felt as the French, Dutch, Spanish and English took irritating turns at allying themselves with each other and against each other. Saldanha Bay became the theatre of a number of such confrontations, which are ably chronicled in Jose Burman’s Saldanha Bay Story (Human & Rossouw, 1974), but none of these skirmishes were battles in the true sense – except to those few unfortunate souls that perished in them, and the main loss was ships and cargo. The next battle worthy of the name was in 1806 when the British under Baird and Popham sailed into view to wrest the Cape from the Dutch under the command of Janssens. This was a properly planned, well executed expedition consisting of a whole fleet with some six and a half thousand men, and was focussed on a stretch of sandy coast a few miles north-west of Cape Town. Here the Brits landed at Lospersbaai (nowadays Melkbosstrand) and a short, sharp battle followed, lasting about half the day. The motley aggregation of German, French, Dutch, Javanese, Khoi and burghers, numbering less than two thousand souls, was outgunned and withdrawn by Janssens, little knowing that he actually had the upper hand in that the British were in dire straits from the heavy going in the deep sand and lack of water. According to a number of accounts I haven’t read, like D W Krynauw’s Beslissing by Blouberg (Tafelberg, 1999), which is a very thorough archivist’s take on the event, and M R D Anderson’s Blue Berg – Britain takes the Cape (Privately published, 2008) which comes complete with dialogue; this conflict had all the elements of classic battle, and it certainly was one of the deciding moments in the history of European involvement in the subcontinent.
  Although the first three ‘Frontier Wars’ in the Eastern Cape occurred during Dutch rule between 1779 and 1803, these were relatively minor affairs occasioned by European farmers expanding eastward and being resisted and raided by the various Xhosa-related tribes. The forces deployed were mainly burgher commandos, and their effectiveness was not decisive enough to put an end to tribal excursions for any length of time. The nineteenth century imposed the pax Brittanica on the Cape, as noted above – on the other hand, maybe it didn’t, since the Eastern Frontier continued to be a festering sore on the flank of the colony. The 4th war broke out in 1811, bringing British troops and military science into the fray alongside the commandos, and a number of forts were established. The conduct of these wars, the military manoeuvres, the fine soldierly activities (interspersed with hunting episodes) have been written about in great detail. A few books I have read include some material on these wars, such as J E Alexander’s Voyage Round the West Coast, and a Visit to the Colonies of Africa… in which he includes some of his war experiences on the frontier, before departing up the West Coast through Namaqualand; E E Napier’s Excursions in South Africa (William Shoberl, 1850) which work embodies the author’s experiences as a supernumerary officer in charge of irregulars during the War of the Axe; T J Lucas’s Camp Life and Sport in South Africa (Africana Reprint Library, 1975) in which he relates much ‘exciting work’ which enlivens the lot of a colonial officer in the thick of the fray. On a more serious note, A J Smithers’s work The Kaffir Wars 1779–1877 (Leo Cooper, 1973) tries to put all nine wars into perspective, including the lamentable episode of Nonquause’s prophecy and the cattle killing, which led to untold misery, starvation and the breaking of the power of the Xhosa nations, as well as the last insurgency of Kreli and Sandile, which brought to an end a century of war.
  Also during this period, the Koranna wars raged along the northern frontier of the Cape. Very little glory accrued to any one during these obscure cattle-raiding skirmishes and reprisals, and once more the forces consisted mainly of burgher commandos and policemen, opposed by a bewildering array of tribal and clan alliances. The only work I have seen which endeavours to present the whole history of the eleven years of conflict between 1868–1879 is T Strauss’s War Along the Orange (UCT, 1979) – a fiendishly difficult book to get hold of – and I wrote a chapter on the main outlines of the wars in Life & Travels in the Northwest 1850–1899 (Yoshi, 2008).
A noteworthy war followed hard on the heels of the frontier wars. The Zulu War was no sporting skirmish, nor a cattle-raiding expedition. It was a full-on challenge to the might of the British Empire by a numerous and warlike nation that still had vivid memories of its military genius-founder Chaka as precedent. Some forty thousand trained warriors proceeded to give the Brits a bloody nose at Isandhlwana by overwhelming the garrison. The famous defence of Rorke’s Drift followed – where the redcoats held at bay an overwhelming force of Zulus, winning eleven VCs for gallantry. In another clash at Hlobane Mountain, the Zulus repulsed the British as well as a Boer commando, but at Kambula the fortunes of war went the other way. Finally, the battle of Ulundi, the burning of the royal kraal and the capture of King Cetshwayo signalled the end of this conflict. There are a number of works by military historians who have analysed the war in detail; or if a blow-by-blow account is required, who better to consult than the Illustrated London News of 1879. Of the more modern works, D R Morris’s Washing of the Spears (Jonathan Cape, 1966) gives some background to the rise of the Zulu nation and its fall after the war, and in a similar vein is R B Edgerton in his book Like Lions they Fought (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1988). For detailed accounts of the two heroic battles, R Furneaux’s The Zulu War – Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1963) is probably your best bet.
  The next lot to take a swipe at the hapless Brits were the Transvalers. They had been unceremoniously annexed through Shepstone’s machinations, and despite trying to get the decision reversed through diplomatic channels, this was not to be and the burghers decided besiege various British units to prevent them from getting reinforcements from elsewhere. Engagements at Bronkhorstspruit, Laing’s Nek and Ingogo caused heavy losses to the British, and presidents Brand of the OFS and Kruger of the Transvaal, pressed their advantage by diplomatic efforts to gain some concessions with regard to their independence while offering some face-saving clauses in exchange. Unfortunately the correspondence ran into some delays which led to the Battle of Majuba – a decisive loss and blow to the colonial power, which was now forced to back-pedal, un-annex the Transvaal within six months and leave the Boers to plough their own furrows. T F Carter’s work A Narrative of the Boer War (Remington, 1883) is probably one of the best early works, though I found it considerably more indigestible than Oliver Ransford’s Battle of Majuba Hill (John Murray, 1967). 
  Then came the second Anglo-Boer War. No half-hearted regional scrimmage this time, but instead what was to become the first ‘modern’ war, pitting the military might of the most powerful empire of the age against the local knowledge, bushcraft, speed and marksmanship of the burghers of two small republics. The conventional phase of the war was soon over. The republics just couldn’t defend their towns and cities, nor could they consistently defeat the ‘Khakies’ in pitched battle, and their laying siege to a number of towns occupied by British forces just diluted their efforts. The latter phase of the war, the guerilla-war, was to become an epic struggle between will-o’-the-wisp bands of ragged and ill-supplied men, and the ever-growing forces that tried to shut them down. I don’t know just how many books have been written on this war – and are still being penned or revived, or excavated out of old diaries and reports; it could run into the thousands. I have no intention of reading them, so you, good reader, are on your own. There are regimental histories, there are officers’ accounts of their exploits, there are military experts who dissect every tactic and deployment, there are voluminous histories which attempt to cover every phase and every theatre of the conflict, there are technical treatises on munitions and armaments, on communications, or medical advances – and then there are some truly touching personal documents.
  One of these is Deneys Reitz’s Commando (Faber & Faber, 1929). A remarkably well-written personal experience of the entire war from the perspective of a callow youth, scarcely off the schoolbench, straight into the barrage of shells at Talana. From then on the reader follows almost every major event of the war, often under some of the most charismatic and able leaders, like Smuts’s great ride across the Cape, and the war in Namaqualand in the company of berserkers like Maritz. Certainly the work deserves its reputation as one of the best narratives of war and adventure in the English language. A number of young foreigners joined the ranks of the Boers, mainly for the adventure a war promised, one suspects. One of these was the Frenchman Robert de Kersauson de Pennendreff, who was sworn in as a burgher of the ZAR by the old president himself. Though full of enthusiasm to get to grips with the war, he was soon disillusioned as he failed to gain acceptance from his co-belligerents until he managed to learn the taal. He took part in many of the major battles and was even entrusted with a personal mission to inform president Kruger in exile in Holland of the state of the war back home. No great literary work this book, Ek en die Vierkleur (Afrikaanse Pers Boekhandel, ca. 1950) but rather a day by day diary of a young adventurer. A slim volume, Woman’s Endurance by A D L (A D Luckhoff), published by SA News Co, 1904, brought home to me the horrendous conditions in the Bethulie concentration camp for women and children, where the author was chaplain to the inmates. The worthy padre recounts the suffering of mothers and their dying offspring with such empathy that I had a hard time getting through the sixty-odd pages, even with a wad of tissues to hand. No wonder then that the poor man couldn’t last longer than six months in his position. There are several other good books on the same subject, but I haven’t felt an urge to tackle them. Bill Nasson’s work, Abraham Esau’s War (Cambridge, 1991) examines the lot of the ‘coloured’ people in the Western Cape, who tended to be used as auxiliaries by one side – and as traitors by the other. They lost out during the war, and they did not benefit by the peace. I can claim to have read all books that were written about the war in Namaqualand, Bushmanland and the West Coast, but that is because of my general interest in the history of the region.
  Sieges tend to form the subject of some interesting writing – possibly because adversity brings out the best in humanity. The Siege of Kimberley by T Phelan (M H Gill, 1913) is such a title; chronicling the lighter humorous moments and disasters that afflicted mainly the civilian population, while the technicians and engineers of the diamond mines cobbled together the Long Cecil cannon, with which they could reply to the Boers’ artillery. P Burke’s Siege of O’okiep (War Museum, 1995) is more of a military evaluation of the Boers’ siegecraft, though not devoid of its lighter moments, such as Maritz attempting to blow up the whole town with the aid of a train loaded with dynamite (which derailed and burnt instead of exploding), or the boys having a little fun with jam-tins full of dynamite being lobbed onto blockhouses’ and forts’ roofs. The siege of Ladysmith was also the subject of a whole shelf of books, of which I have only read one a while back, by H Watkins-Pitchford, Besieged in Ladysmith (Shuter & Shooter, 1964). The author was a renowned veterinary surgeon, and the book offers a different view in his letters from the besieged city to his wife; an interesting personal document.
  A few novels dealing with aspects of the war have also come to my notice. C L Leipoldt’s Stormwrack (David Philip, 1980) portrays the ramifications the war has on the different elements of the population in the Cederberg village of Clanwilliam, which was only quite peripheral to the main conflict. W C Scully was so enraged at the treatment meted out to townspeople in the Cape by their own government who saw rebellion and collaborators round every corner, that he went on a crusade which bordered on treason. He wrote a thinly disguised novel, The Harrow (Nasionale Pers, 1921), the MS of which he hung on to until almost twenty years after the end of the war – because of his bitterness against his own countrymen and government. But enough of this war – there are plenty to follow.
  1914 was the year the world went mad; and for very confused reasons, not quite evident to my unmilitaristic mind. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany went to war against his cousin George V of England, because some crazed bloke had shot one of his Austrian archducal buddies in a foreign country, i.e. Serbia. Before you knew what was happening, the entire extended family of both monarchs had joined the fray on one side or another, as well as a gross of other countries who weren’t even related by marriage. So it was on this subcontinent; a portion of the populace supported old Blighty, while the other half harboured grudges from the Boer War and reckoned we should have joined hands with the Germans in South-West. Before you know what, you have the 1914 Rebellion going at full tilt and men are shooting at brother, father or uncle along the northern border. Strangely enough, only the Afrikaans writers seem to feel strongly about this domestic squabble, and I have yet to find a book which gives all the details in English. So I am left at the tender mercies of the doughty Gen. J C G Kemp, who is not exactly an impartial observer in his book Die Pad van die Veroweraar (Nasionale Pers, 1942) to guide me through the sands of the Kalahari towards the German forces. Once the South Africans have been committed to wresting their colony from the Germans, there is much more material available – some of it quite readable if one likes to hear the whine of Mauser bullets and feel the grit of sand between the teeth. Books like E M Ritchie’s With Botha in the Field (Longmans Green, 1915), H F Trew’s Botha Treks (Blackie & Son, 1916) and W S Rayner & W W O’Shaughnessy’s How Botha and Smuts Conquered German South West (Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co, 1916) should satisfy the most ardent war historian’s appetite, especially since they cover the southern as well as the northern campaigns.
  Once South-West had fallen, our local generals turned their attention to Tanganyika, where the renowned general P E von Lettow-Vorbeck was showing more talent than was deemed prudent to be on the loose in the East African bush. Although his book My Reminiscences of East Africa (Hurst & Blackett, 1919) consists of mainly the military niceties of his campaign, it is eminently readable, and I suspect that many of his opponents appreciated reading of his exploits as I did. There are a number of semi-arid to dry histories of this part of WWI, and I can only claim to have read two small contributions entitled inaptly On Safari by one F C (F Cooper, Juta, 1917) in which he sketches the discomforts of bush warfare as a gunner under the generalship of Smuts, and C Martin’s Corporal Haussman Goes to War (Privately published, 2000) in which charming little account said corporal betook himself and his Triumph motorcycle to ride in the war against the Germans.
  World War II was an entirely different kettle of submarines. Yes, we do believe some German subs cruised off our shores, and it was rumoured that German seamen came ashore for smokes and a drink now and then, but that was about as close as the action got. Our troops were shipped off in large numbers to East and North Africa, where they fought talented generals like the Duc de Aosta and Rommel, among other redoubtable warriors; got hammered at Tobruk; flew in the Battle of Britain and escaped from various Italian concentration camps. Naturally there is a large body of literature concerning such important events; however, since I had a brother-in-law who had been party to some of the above actions ‘up north’, I was quite happy to listen to his tales of hair-raising escapades and improbable anecdotes, and I have somehow never had the urge to read a single book on the South African involvement in the war. Once again, gentle reader, you must pilot your own way through this literary minefield.
  Lastly we come to what I classify as the ‘Bush Wars’ in my catalogues. They include everything warlike from the beginning of the end of the colonial era in Africa until the present civil wars raging up and down the continent with monotonous regularity. A number of my schoolmates could hardly wait to finish their matrics before they rushed off to join some bunch of ‘dogs of war’ led by one or other psychopath; to make unreal amounts of money in return for unspeakable deeds – or so I had it verbatim from one I met after he returned a haunted and shivering wreck from the Congo. Then, too, I had colleagues at work later on, men who had been sent to the Caprivi, and on into Angola – who would confide in me after a few drinks, some of the inhumanities than men do to other men in the heat of battle or in the cold fever of revenge. None of these encounters awoke any interest or vicarious enjoyment of what they had experienced, so I have read none of the Contacts, nor Mr Stiff’s offerings, nor ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare’s or dozens of other worthy additions to the genre – with one exception – a little book entitled Pionne, by one Bertie Cloete, who happened to be a neighbour of one of my friends. He relates his experiences as a young ‘Troopie’ in training camp and at the front in the north of Namibia; the traumatic Bush War against unseen enemies, and the horrendous things that were witnessed. A gripping read – but quite sufficient for my needs.
  This was a difficult subject for me to write on and I hope any shortcomings will be excused. I have chosen to end this year, the first twelve numbers of Africana Votes and Views, with a subject I do not appreciate, but which will be with us as history and possibly future fact unless mankind undergoes a fundamental change.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


Africana Votes & Views #11

The ills that afflict the human condition must be an eternal subject of interest to most people. Just listen in when a bunch of ‘mature’ people get together – first up on the agenda are the aches and pains that are experienced, as well as the miracle - or other cures that have been found.
So we’ll have a look at medicine in the Dark Continent, as well as a few related matters. I’ve always thought of the personage who used to be known as the District Surgeon, as a romantic figure who drove a clapped-out Ford or Studebaker sedan over unspeakable tracks in the Bush, with a black orderly/assistant next to him, and a rifle handy on the back seat among the paraphernalia of his profession. This was the Bundu Doctor, and I met a number of these worthy gentlemen in the flesh during the mid 1950’s.
It was with great delight that I actually found a book with just that title only a month or two back, written by a pukka sahib, Colonel (Dr) J Whitby (R Hale, 1961) covering his experiences in Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, whence he had been posted after extensive duty in the Far East. I immersed myself in the book without further ado, expecting a bizarre array of cases, circumstances and humorous anecdotes. Despite the title, I was a little disappointed. Although the good doctor had a truly sympathetic touch with sufferers from a host of maladies, his writing is infused with racial stereotyping, generalisations ad nauseam, military and colonial attitudes and a fine disregard for the spelling of place-names. His chapter on witchcraft and the results on the affected tribespeople is of interest, and his description of setting a patient’s broken leg via radio instructions to a panicky wife, is an absolute howler, while one or two episodes described smack of being ‘bundu legends’.
The author spent time in his mobile surgery in the ‘doctor’s bogie’, a special wagon hitched onto the train that traversed the country from south to north. It would stop at every small station and the ailing populace would flock in for treatment, often necessitating the bogie’s being left behind in a siding to be hooked up by the next train. Altogether the book is a fair reflection of life in the colonies in the late 1940s, and it paints a good picture of the little settlement of Maun in the Okavango, as well as the Zambian Copperbelt.
Subsequently he was to enter the services of WNLA as the Medical Officer who checked out the avalanche of humanity absorbed by the Witwatersrand gold mines, only to be spat out when their contracts had expired. He devotes more than a whole chapter to the methods used by this organization, as well as the many benefits that the Africans enjoyed due to the system, which operated from a numbers of centres in the Caprivi, Barotseland, Southern Rhodesia and Mozambique.
A medico of an entirely different calibre is Alberto Denti di Pirajno, who wrote two books: A Cure for Serpents (Andre Deutsch, 1955) and A Grave for a Dolphin (1956), on his experiences. The good doctor starts his first book with charming reminiscences
among the Berber and Tuareg people of Tripolitania. None of the dour medical details, but intimate cameos of a kaleidoscope of patients, interspersed with snippets of local folklore and flavours from the Arabian Nights. While his treatments might not always have had the full endorsement of the British Medical Association, his cure for impotence, to which the title of the book refers is certainly a novel one which smacks of the time-honoured sleight of hand used by quacks to extract demons or extraneous objects from the patients’ bodies. An endearing quality of Pirajno’s writing is the lack of judgmental pontificating – as he cheerfully treats prostitutes, beggars, villagers or pashas, acknowledging their common humanity.
His next appointment was in Eritrea, this time as Regional Commissioner, but he still had to deputise occasionally for the MO. A hunting trip into the inhospitable desert; a bevy of beautiful women weaving their intrigues; tribal feuds and hashish smuggling all feature in this eventful period at Massawa, before he was transferred to the capital of Asmara for a spell before WWII. The book ends on a sombre note as the good doctor had been posted to Tripoli as the city’s governor and he had to surrender it to Montgomery’s forces.
The second book is a strange tale of a foundling Venus, a love story, of dolphins and of magic – very difficult to classify as to genre – but not really particularly relevant to the author’s medical career. Nonetheless, a most readable offering, which left me with more questions than answers.
A little less colonial, but still a chronicle of pioneer doctoring in the wilds, is Con Weinberg’s Fragments of a Desert Land (Timmins, 1975). He was decanted fresh from Medical School into the small village of Gibeon in 1926, where he was installed as relieving District Surgeon. There was one automobile in town; alternative transport being horseback or on foot. The nearest hospital was in Windhoek, over three hundred kilometers away, and he notes that while there was a telephone in town, one had to shout very loudly into it to make oneself heard in Windhoek!
Weinberg also had his medical caboose, still of pre-war German vintage, which would be hitched onto the passing trains and he would be transported to hold clinics, or to attend to emergencies up and down the line between Keetmanshoop and the capital. While I was reading this, I repeatedly bumped into shadows of my own family history, as my grandfather had been the travelling medic during the construction of the railway line between Luderitz and Keetmanshoop some twenty years earlier – possibly even working in the same caboose, and almost certainly sharing quarters with the author in Keetmanshoop. An entertaining book, full of incident and written with enough skill to let one feel the grit of the sand between one’s teeth.
Medicine in tropical Africa during the 20th century has been overshadowed by the monumental persona of Albert Schweitzer; theologian, musician, philosopher, missionary and doctor. By 1905 he had already achieved great stature as an authority on church organs and music, as well as being a professor of theology. He felt called to become a doctor so that he “might be able to work without having to talk….but (by) this new form of activity I could not represent myself as talking about the religion of love, but only as an actual putting of it into practice”. He qualified as a surgeon and doctor seven years later and wasted no time in departing, accompanied by his wife Helene, for Lambarene on the Ogowe River, Gabon.
Though he had been promised a mission building, this was not to materialize and his first patients were treated in a disused fowl-house. WWI came and Schweitzer and his wife were briefly interned as German citizens by the French, but his deprived patients caused such a furore that they were soon set at liberty. It was during the war years that Schweitzer had time to philosophise, and he founded the concept of ‘Reverence for Life’ as an embodiment of his faith and work. Nonetheless he returned to Europe for a spell and only resumed his work at Lambarene in 1924. He funded most of his work from his own income as a lecturer and musician and the hospital grew to some seventy buildings in the next forty years of his labours. He received numerous honours including the Nobel Peace Prize, and died in 1965 and was buried at Lambarene.
I have no idea how many books have been written about the man and his work. Two I have worked through are G Seaver’s Albert Schweitzer, the Man and his Mind ( A & C Black, 1948), and C R Joy & M Arnold’s The Africa of Albert Schweitzer ( A & C Black, 1949). The first is somewhat heavy reading, as are Schweitzer’s own books, Civilization and Ethics, My Life and Thought, The Decay and Restoration of Civilization, which cover his philosophical work, his biographical writings: Memoirs of Childhood and Youth, From My African Notebook, as well as his two most popular and readable works On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, and More from the Primeval Forest. Whether one likes philosophy or religion, or one merely stands in awe of the man, his humanitarianism and towering intellect, one should try to read one or the other of his works.
Just as Schweitzer battled the horrendous tropical scourges that afflict the inhabitants of West Africa, so did Michael Gelfand in South Central Africa. He wrote a goodly number of books dealing with subtropical medicine, as well as traditional healing and witchcraft practices among the tribespeople of Zimbabwe. The Sick African (Stewart, 1943) is too clinical for the lay reader, but Medicine and Custom in Africa (E & S Livingstone, 1964) is an account of the 'medical anthropology' of Africa, in which he examines the history of healing and materia medica, as well as occult practices. In another quite interesting title, Livingstone the Doctor – his Life and Travels (Basil Blackwell, 1957) he gives a critical evaluation of the great missionary/explorer’s medical role during his African sojourn. Another work, Mother Patrick and her Nursing Sisters (Juta, 1964) paints a faithful picture of the first attempts at providing a medical service to the new colony that was Rhodesia; as does the book A Service to the Sick (Mambo Press, 1976) in which he relates the development of medical treatment for Africans between 1890 and 1953. Medicine and Magic of the Mashona (Juta, 1956) delves into more ethnographical fields, as does Witch Doctor (Harvill Press, 1964) for good measure. As far as I’m aware, his last book in this vein to appear was The Traditional Medical Practitioner in Zimbabwe (Mambo Press, 1985), but the indefatigable doctor also collaborated with P W Laidler in writing South Africa, its Medical History (Struik, 1971). Gelfand’s books certainly belong onto the shelves of anybody interested in indigenous medicine and ethnography, while all collectors of Rhodesiana should follow suit, more especially since he also wrote a handful of other historical works.
There are a large number of little memoirs written by and about doctors in private practice in small towns and in the cities of the subcontinent. I can’t claim to have read that many, since a little medicine tends to go a long way with me. The best tales are usually those which are light on technical detail and rich in human tapestry. One of the former is D Gamsu’s Adventures of a South African Brain Surgeon (Hugh Keartland, 1967) which is ill-named, since it is more of a whodunit, recalling the most memorable manslaughters, murders attempted and successful as well as fraudulent claims for injuries never suffered. It reads more like Benjamin Bennett than Chris Barnard. Speaking of the latter, one needs to have been born in Beaufort West to enable one to wade through the pages of this flamboyant heart-throb of the female gender (if he is to be believed). Much more charming was the little volume entitled Salt River Doctor by B A Mackenzie (Faircape, 1981), or Dr Dingle’s cheerful memoir And the Doctor Recovered (Timmins, 1959). One of my firm favourites is C Louis Leipoldt’s Bushveld Doctor (Jonathan Cape, 1937) in which he describes his years after the end of the Boer War, ministering to the needs of the poor rural Afrikaner and especially their children in the Northern Transvaal. Many of these waifs were miserably ill-nourished, malaria and bilharzia-ridden, and in some cases scarcely able to assimilate any knowledge during their school hours because of their physical condition. A thoroughly engaging social document of the times.
There is no shortage of historical material on the theme. The Victorian medical men – and women – were not reticent about their activities. Some of the good doctors cured men’s bodies so that they could indulge in scientific adventures with the proceeds, as Emil Holub did. He intermittently dosed, patched and otherwise cured prospectors at the Diamond Fields for years before amassing enough funds to be able to lead three expeditions to the upper reaches of the Zambezi, where he made a name for himself as an explorer and recorder of strange peoples, animals and plants; which he ably describes (at some length) in his two-volume work Seven Years in South Africa (various German and English eds). J W Matthews’s work Incwadi Yami (Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1877 & Africana Book Society, 1976) is in a similar vein, based mainly on the Diamond Fields, but the author prefers at least a modicum of the comforts of civilization, so he did not take to the wilds. Still, a lively and entertaining book on conditions in the ‘Wild West’ of South Africa. Another book dealing with this period and region is Lure of the Stone by W M & V Buss (Timmins, 1976), which chronicles the career of our own ‘Lady of the Lamp’ Sister Henrietta Stockdale, who was instrumental in bringing some relief to the diggers who were struck down by the major killers of the time, pneumonia, typhoid, typhus fever and dysentery. Sister Henrietta nursed and taught others to nurse for some two decades, right through the siege of Kimberley, and comes across as rather a martinet from this short biography, which reads something like a medical Who’s Who of the times.
Speaking of those times – the Anglo-Boer War was a period of intense medical activity, on both sides of the conflict. While the British potentially had a well-equipped medical service, with staff, equipment and medicines, they had not reckoned with the far-flung nature of the conflict across the subcontinent. The Boers, on the other hand, were short of trained personnel, which was in part supplied by sympathizers from a number of European countries, many of whom left memoirs of their years in the field. A vast amount of this information has been assembled by Kay de Villiers in his monumental work on the history of military medicine in the Anglo-Boer War, entitled Healers, Helpers and Hospitals, 2 Vols (Protea Book House, 2008). For anybody with an interest in the conflict, these works are an absolute must; the reader interested in medical history will find a feast, and the student and researcher will find much well-researched and documented fact, and even the casual browser will find a wealth of interesting anecdote, to be dipped into time and again – a tour de force in this genre.
There are the stories of the men and women who healed their fellow man. Then there are the stories of the institutions. The South African Institute for Medical Research has a very special place in my heart, because my mother worked there and in the serum laboratories at Rietfontein; so I have spent many hours wandering round the corridors of the august edifice designed by Sir Herbert Baker and built on Hospital Hill, as well as among the animal cages during my youth. M Malan’s book In Quest of Health (Lowry, 1988) traces the history of this world-renowned institution from its earliest beginnings due to fears of infectious diseases among the mineworkers in Johannesburg. During the period between the wars, extensive research was done with plague, relapsing fever, histoplasmosis, sporotrichosis, bilharzia and numerous other diseases, but what brought the institute to world attention was the production of a controversial vaccine against poliomyelitis, that dreaded killer of children in the early fifties. My sibling and I were probably among the first batches of schoolchildren to be inoculated with this virus, so once more it is of personal interest – but more of polio vaccine later. Lately the institute is engaged in research into the immunology of the AIDS pandemic. The book is no easy afternoon’s read, but for the interested layman and medico, a serious contender for their attention.
Certainly there are a number of histories of hospitals and medical schools, but none better to mention here than the definitive work on the history of Groote Schuur At the Heart of Healing (Jacana, 2008) by Anne Digby and Howard Phillips. The authors have written a scholarly yet very human history of this iconic institution and the caring people who staff it from the most menial positions to the top consultants. They trace the rising fortunes of the hospital when money poured in after the blaze of the spotlights had focused on the revolutionary heart transplant successes, and the gradual decline in funding during the latter years, as management struggled to come to terms with the integration of patients and staff in the New South Africa.
Lastly, to return to polio vaccines, and the rumours that it might be an ‘escaped’ plague – an experiment that went wrong. For readers who really love a challenging read, I would suggest you try E Hooper’s medical whodunit entitled The River (Penguin, 2000). The author is a medical sleuth, hot on the trail of the root cause of AIDS - epidemiological detective work; a truly remarkable attempt to trace the possible origins of the world pandemic, as well as its diffusion, from postulated beginnings with a live polio vaccine derived from chimpanzees (who have become acclimatized to their own form of SIV), which was supposedly distributed among Central African villagers. Probably there are huge holes that need to be plugged in the theory, but I have to admit I was hooked from beginning to end, though the medspeak left me bewildered on more than one occasion.

And now I am going off to have a drink to your continued good health!