Back Story

Back story to the book: The Slope of Kongwa Hill


The country now known as Tanzania, lies on Africa’s East coast. Back in the 1950s and prior, the country went by the name, Tanganyika. It had become a German colony in 1885 during an era when the European powers were scrambling to build empires by colonising territories elsewhere on the planet. Shortly after the end of the First World War, the winners, through the League of Nations, negotiated the Treaty of Versailles which included provisions for the annexation of Germany’s overseas territories and assigning them to other countries as protectorates. In 1919, Great Britain was awarded Tanganyika for a non-specific period of time before, it was anticipated, the country would be judged ready to assume its independence.  

The British household products company, Unilever, had personnel buzzing about East Africa looking for business and saw Tanganyika as a massive farming potential … if only someone would develop the country for them. To this end, in 1946, Frank Samuel, Chairman of The United Africa Company (a subsidiary of Unilever) drew to the attention of the British government, through the person of John Wakefield, a colonial civil servant who had been exploring the area, of the land mass that was the interior of Tanganyika and its potential for farming. This was a most effective hot button in post war Britain and Europe, still starving – or at least still suffering food shortage – as a result of the war effort; not to mention labouring under the Malthusian predictions to do with population outstripping a country’s ability to feed itself. Food rationing didn’t end in Britain until 1949.

John Wakefield, in turn, was successful in awakening John Strachy to this potential. Strachy was Minister of Food for Britain’s post-war Labour government, led by Clement Atlee. He became an arch enthusiast for the notion of farming, perhaps millions, of acres of groundnuts, (peanuts, monkey nuts) in Tanganyika, both for the food benefit for Europe that would result, but also due to the massive economic benefit that would accrue for the Africans and their Independent future. To this end, with a hungry Government Cabinet behind him, on Friday, September 27th 1946, on the 8:15am train from Euston to Colwyn Bay it is believed, Strachy made the decision to proceed with development of a massive, agricultural program, with a goal of 3,250,000 acres under the plough. It was known as, ‘The Groundnut Scheme.’

Multi-millions of pounds sterling was ploughed into the establishing of the Scheme which had three locations: Kongwa, Nachingwea and Urambo. Kongwa was selected as the primary operation, mainly because there was already established a line of rail, (built by Greek labour under German contracts) that ran from Dar es Salaam on the coast, to Kigoma, some 780 miles West, North West, on Lake Tanganyika. At a point by name of Msagali, some two hundred and twenty miles from Dar es Salaam, was established a junction with a spur line to Kongwa.

Kongwa presented a massive area of hitherto wasteland of aloaceous scrub, baobab trees and a rich, red, sandy soil, until now completely undeveloped from time immemorial. Just short of being called a desert, the ground was dry as a bone, with only minimal water courses close by. There were many large regions that had, in former times and long ago, been lake beds. They were known by the locals as ‘Mbugas’ so identified for their fertility. The general region was populated by one of Tanganyika’s smaller tribes, the Wagogo, of around 250,000 souls. These people were subsistence farmers at best.

The Wagogo population growth was kept in check by frequent and severe droughts as well as a relatively well-populated bunch of wild animals, insects and reptiles. Puff adders, for example, are responsible for more deaths by snake bite in Africa than all other snakes put together. Puff adders thrived – and still do - in Kongwa.

Lion and rhino roamed with impunity as did most of Africa’s big game, if not with the abundance to be found in places like the Serengeti to the North of the country. Among the plethora of deadly insects were to be found the original Killer Bees. Not to be confused with the hybrid version now found in South America, these are the originals, un-moderated by the genetics of the gentle honey bee. Killer Bees proliferate in Tanganyika.

Then of course there were malaria-carrying mosquitoes, tsetse fly that causes human sleeping sickness which abounded over two thirds of the country and a large variety of spiders, some extremely poisonous. 

Notwithstanding all this, Strachy was not big on feasibility studies although brief agricultural studies were undertaken. Europe was hungry and there was no time to be lost. Environmental and ecological impact studies was a concept yet to be invented and as for an engineering study – the most important of all because this was to be mechanized farming like the world had never seen before – no one considered that because the fact that they were faced with an engineering problem, far more so than an agricultural one, wasn’t yet understood. So, with the green light given by government, The Overseas Food Corporation (OFC) was established and this became the controlling body that would implement the program. The program, alas, lacked a real plan. The government plopped a bunch of sterling into the OFCs bank account anyway and the largest mechanically-driven agricultural program ever devised by mankind at that time, was off and running.

‘Units,’ as they became known, were demarcated. A unit consisted of 30,000 acres, each Unit, ten times the size of the average British farm. Heavy duty equipment was brought in from around the world. Before you could say, “Hamjambo bwana,” storage depots from around the world, especially in places such as the Philippines, India and North Africa, were emptied of their war surplus heavy duty earth moving equipment, especially bulldozers and the like, even Sherman tanks, modified - with bulldozer blades attached – were taken apart, crated and shipped to Dar es Salaam and thence by rail to Kongwa where they were re-assembled. Along the rail route, many cuttings had to be widened to accommodate the extra width of some of the earthmoving equipment being carried. Lorries, or trucks if you prefer, most of which were in some stage of falling apart, were imported from North Africa where they had seen action in the Western Desert.

Europeans, with the skills of engineers, administrators, mechanics, drivers, nurses, doctors, cooks and sundry other skills were soon on the move. Likewise, within Tanganyika, Africans were on the move, heading for Kongwa or one of the other two locations, where, it was understood, there would be work for all.

The Europeans, usually males, with family to follow once they were settled, often found themselves, on arriving in Kongwa, billeted in shacks that did not even live up to the standards of the local natives, while houses were built for them.  These houses, once complete, were not what you and I might prefer as accommodation. They were shoe-box shaped for the most part, enclosing approximately six hundred square feet. They included a bedroom, a kitchen, a living room and a tiny bathroom. The floor was of red ochre concrete. The bathroom boasted running cold water but not hot – and no toilet - that was an outhouse. Hot water came from a forty-four-gallon drum lying on its side over a mud and wattle fire pit located some fifteen feet or so from the house. Hot water was conveyed to the house, by bucket.

The house walls were also of a mud and wattle mixture with a touch of cement thrown in for good measure. The workers referred to the mixture as Landcrete; the buildings as dog kennels. These houses did have a roof though – sheets of corrugated iron. As Kongwa lay in the heart of the tropics you could be sure never to be cold. A number of houses of superior quality were built for the leading lights of the Groundnut Scheme. They were built of stone, with an upstairs as well as down and with water-born sanitation. They could be found on a strip of roadway colloquially known as Millionaires Row. There was also another collection of houses of the smaller variety but with indoor plumbing built for supervisory levels and the like. The bulk, however, were as first described. The houses without toilets were positioned fifty yards apart from each other, the better to keep at some distance the twinned and smelly outhouses set at the mid-point mark between them. Electricity was supplied to the houses, but not the outhouses, by a power plant that ran on diesel and was run by the Public Works Department (PWD.)

Offices were built. These comprised creosoted wood, the better to protect it against termites, built on concrete slabs. The wood that was on the buildings outside was also the same that comprised the inside walls.  These constructions also boasted tin roofs.  There were few conventional windows, as with glass for instance or windows that opened and shut, but there were window spaces filled with diamond shaped, wrought iron, burglar bars and a thin mosquito-wire mesh. The newly built hospital was of the same construction but it did boast all mod cons, including an iron lung. Polio Miletus was the big scare back then.

This then was Kongwa; and it serves as the setting and the location for what was to follow.

The Groundnut Scheme failed. The costs ran away with themselves. The terrain was murder on the machines, with typically, two thirds of them being in need of repair at any given time. The blades of the world’s toughest steel ploughs of various kinds would be bent out of shape like they were made of tin. Nowhere in Europe or North America had machines been built that could successfully handle the soil conditions. The heat could be indescribable and the dryness was like the Sahara. Dust devils, a hundred feet or more in height were a constant. The red sand kicked up by the churning of bulldozer tracks, made the air thick and orange and sometimes, barely breathable and if that wasn’t enough there were periodic full-scale sand storms.

But what really finished off the Scheme, was the absence of rain. Kongwa, in fact most of Tanganyika, is poorly served by moisture and is bone dry most of the time. Back then, maybe still, two thirds of the country unpopulated due to the lack of water. And there simply was insufficient precipitation, most of the time, to make grow the groundnuts that were planted. A feasibility study may have established this before the Scheme was got under way. But there was no such study – unless you counted the fact that the local Wagogo were able to grow subsistence supplies of groundnuts in their shambas.

Now, don’t get it wrong, thousands of pounds of nuts were harvested during the life of the program, but, alas, a tiny percentage of what had been envisaged, or what would have justified the financial investment. Meanwhile, there were other concerns …

Tanganyika lacked schools suitable for the children of the increasing colonial population. Residents who lived in the then capital, Dar es Salaam, had some local, private school choices, working to their own curriculum, but in most cities and towns in the country, schools were hopelessly inadequate … more often than not, not present at all. What did you do if you found yourself living in Tanganyika, with no schooling for your children? Well, you shipped them off to boarding school.

Now, it has to be understood that the British held few reservations in regard to boarding schools. They were, and still are in some circles thought most respectable institutions for one’s children to attend, at least by the moneyed classes, so the notion of sending children to one was not, in and of itself, seen as a negative. Indeed, in their homes, photographs of their young ones in school uniforms, set on a mantelpiece or some other promontory provided a talking point at cocktail parties and a test of status, depending upon which particular institution those uniforms represented. What did cause concern for Tanganyika’s Europeans, was the need to send their children out of the country. Nairobi, in the British colony of Kenya, did boast good, purpose-built boarding schools, run to the best British tradition. So did Salisbury in Southern Rhodesia. But they were other countries and far away. The costs in sending one’s children there were substantial and frankly beyond the means of many. So, there had been for some while, pressure on the Tanganyika legislature to establish a good, boarding, co-ed secondary school in the protectorate. It must be fully accredited by the British school system of course in regard to teaching standards, curriculum, examinations, qualifications-of-the- teachers and so forth. However, there had been an absence of money available for this. Tanganyika did not manage a large budget being the poor country it was. And it had been populated, hitherto, by relatively few Europeans who could and would pay both the taxes and school fees required to finance such an institution.

By 1948, the European population of Tanganyika was growing by leaps and bounds. Not only was Kongwa, Nachingwea and Urambo over-flowing with recently arrived European families but the Groundnut Scheme created ripple effects throughout the economy. Europeans were converging on Tanganyika from around the world, not necessarily for jobs with the OFC, but to build or run businesses that became viable as a result of the population growth. In Kongwa itself, in 1947, sufficient numbers of Europeans, with young families had agitated for some kind of local schooling for their junior or middle school children. So the OFC, in the person of the local chief administrator, Major-General Desmond Harrison, formerly British Army, Desert Campaign, started a schoolroom, in a tent. Some ten or twelve small boys and girls quickly enrolled but a few of them were pushing up to nine years of age. They clustered together in the tent and were schooled to the best ability of doting mums who had nothing else to do while their husbands were out trying to tame the land.

By October 1948, Harrison, who by this time had recruited a Chief Education Officer by name of Dr. James Welch, had built the first classroom; and under Welch’s close guidance, Kongwa’s official elementary and middle School opened for business for day students. The good doctor promised there would be more classrooms and soon they would cater to borders as well. Three accredited teachers had been dispatched from Britain, one, Mr. Whitehead, the first official head master, to bring a formal schooling presence to Kongwa. With the building not quite finished the first school enrolment took place in the Kongwa Club amid the aroma of spilled beer and stale ash trays.

By the second half of 1950, the groundnut scheme was clearly failing - just not delivering the volume required. New funds were withheld, financing was drying up. There was talk of calling it all off. Some engineers and others, seeing the writing on the wall, resigned and moved along to find jobs elsewhere in Tanganyika or return to Britain. Emptied buildings were becoming available in Kongwa and were readily taken over by the school which was, by now, expanding in numbers of students and teachers and in the process of application for secondary school accreditation. The first few boarders were by now ensconced. Then two things happened more or less concurrently in the January of 1951. The British Government officially pulled the plug on The Groundnut Scheme - and Kongwa School happened to receive full accreditation as a Secondary school.

“Now,” the question is asked, “Why bother accrediting the school if everyone was leaving town?” The fact was that Tanganyika needed a secondary boarding school. A school, however primitive, had been established in Kongwa and all those paid-for buildings were emptying over-night. Kongwa became deserted. There was nothing left there but the Wagogo and the empty buildings and of course the animals, the insects and the snakes.Now, the school could take over all the buildings it needed. The former offices could become the classrooms. The better houses that had been built for Kongwa’s administrative hot shots could be taken over by the senior staff. The bulk of the ‘dog kennels’ would house nine students each, four cots in the bedroom, four in the former living room and one, for the prefect in charge of the house, in what had been the kitchen. Tanganyika’s expatriates could now bring their children home from Kenya and elsewhere and Kongwa School would be the place for their children to attend – for now. “A proper school will be built elsewhere,” it was promised, “this is just temporary.” It proved to be temporary in all, for ten years.

The author arrived on the scene, as a nine-year-old, in the January of 1952. His father exemplified one of those who had been recruited to develop business in Tanganyika. The author’s parents did have a history in West Africa but now they would move to the Eastern seaboard – to Tanganyika’s southern province. And, because Kongwa School had been accredited to full British standards, the parents were prepared to take their young son with them, rather than leave him in some other boarding institution in Britain; as had been the case up to that time. The British schooling accreditation standards were all well and good so far as the teaching was concerned. But it was difficult to imagine that those standards made many specifications on the environment in which children should be housed and live. So, because of this, a secondary school had come into being in a unique location and time, quite unlike anything else that has gone before or since, utilizing facilities that certainly were not intended for school use.

Kongwa School was on its own, alone in the wilds, surrounded only by the African bushveld with not even a small, civilized town close-by. Although the children were subject to the rigors of tough boarding school discipline on the one hand, on the other, they lived in an environment that had a built-in freedom that would never be experienced in Britain or many other places. That freedom brought with it considerable danger from the wilderness of Africa. It was a daily constant that there was no getting away from.

The school was unfenced and the children were absolutely unprotected. They could wander off anywhere they liked into wildest Africa if they chose to, without anyone having a clue as to where they were. Likewise, anyone at all, could wander through and within what became loosely recognized as the school’s unofficial boundary. Wagogo, Maasai and wild animals did so at will. The occasional lion on a nocturnal hunt was watched through the burglar bars as it strolled nonchalantly through a row of houses at night. Boys were forever having to scare away hyenas in the middle of the night in order to get to the outhouse and back alive. The snakes hadn’t gone. In fact, one housemaster made a point of killing and collecting puff adders so he could make his wife a handbag out of their skins. In his yard where he caught the puff adders, his two little girls romped and played. Kongwa school was a rough, tough place as schoolboys know so well how to make a place be, if un-checked – and they were largely un-checked. Shadows of, ‘Lord of the Flies,’ were present in Kongwa. There was no way teachers could patrol the place. The school buildings were spread over two hundred and seventy acres – and beyond them, nothingness.

During this time, the MauMau terrorist war raged in Kenya, requiring all schools in Nairobi and elsewhere in Kenya to fence themselves off with barbed, electrified wire and sporting raised guard towers. The guards were armed and so were the teachers. Before long the MauMau began to run insurgencies over Tanganyika’s Northern border and thus become a threat to the school. There was no protection in place for Kongwa’s school children had the MauMau penetrated far enough south.

This is the why, behind a British, co-ed, secondary school becoming located in Kongwa; that most unlikely East African location.

This book does not tell a romantic story about Africa. It’s not larger than life. It’s quite different in many ways from what you might normally expect. It’s more of a down-to-earth account of those times; more of a ‘Stand By Me’ sort of a feel, for those of you who recall the 1986 movie with such stars as Richard Dreyfuss, Wil Wheaton and River Phoenix.

In fact, one reader in the States, on reviewing the book, wrote that it reminded him in some senses of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer books. Another reviewer, in Canada, wrote, “Think Harry Potter on safari.”

This book sheds insight into the daily life of a young boy, coming of age in a wild, co-ed boarding school, in Tanganyika, in those days.

For those who chose to read it, they should find it quite unlike anything they’ve read before, entertaining and certainly eye-opening! One reader wrote to Amazon, “I read it over two days; found it gripping, couldn’t put it down.”

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