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Tanzania’s vanishing Greek community is a parable of the failures of modern Africa

At last, an author who grasps how strange and sophisticated the continent really is

By on Friday, 31 August 2012

The sun sets over Mawenzi Peak on Mount Kilimanjaro (AP Photo/Laura Rauch)

The sun sets over Mawenzi Peak on Mount Kilimanjaro (AP Photo/Laura Rauch)

Shelby Tucker’s excellent book about Tanzania is to come out shortly in paperback. It is entitled The Last Banana. I reviewed it when it came out in hardback in 2010. I consider it one of the best books I have read about Africa.

I have read lots of books about Africa, for when one lives there one has plenty of time for reading, there being no television worth watching, and travelling at night not being advisable. And one always wants to read about Africa, because though on the surface Africa looks easy to understand, simple, even primitive, it is in fact enigmatic, sophisticated and defying simple analysis. The reason why most aid projects fail is because they may provide an answer, but they do not ask the right question in the first place. And similarly, some missionary activity has been less than successful because it has failed to understand the culture it had been trying to evangelise.

I once had to review a book about the Rwandan genocide which was written by a British lady (it would be unkind to mention her name now) who flew into the country after the genocide and then flew back home one assumes after a week or two, to produce her book telling us all just why the genocide had happened. Shelby Tucker avoids this pitfall because he has been going to Africa all his life, and the book draws on a wealth of lived experience. Moreover, he has chewed over what he has seen, and the result is pleasingly personal, possibly even a little eccentric, just the sort of thing that avoids the usual bland analysis and opens up the reader’s mind to new vistas of understanding.

Tucker gives us, for example, an in-depth analysis into the internal politics of Ethiopia in the 20th century, which is something that few people outside Ethiopia know much about. Indeed, I think Tucker must be the best authority on the subject in Britain today, if not the only authority, now that Evelyn Waugh is dead. Likewise, he tells us all about the Mahdi. Most of us have heard about the Mahdi and know a bit about General Gordon, but Tucker really unpacks this piece of lost imperial history for the modern reader.

But his real interest in this cornucopia of a book is the history of the Greek settlers in Chaggaland. Greeks, ever since the time of Ulysses have been great travellers, but even so, their settlement of Chaggaland (which is the area around Mount Kilimanjaro) is somewhat neglected. Well, not any more. This book puts the Chaggaland Greeks firmly on the map – not that there are any of them left in Chaggaland any more. They have cultivated and eaten their last banana. And the story of how this small community contributed so much to the Tanzanian economy, and how that contribution was destroyed, makes sobering reading. Indeed, it provides us with a parable about the failures of modern Africa.

Everyone who knew him liked Julius Nyerere, the first president of the United Republic of Tanzania. There is even a movement to have him canonised. Shelby Tucker liked him too, but he is brave enough to point out that this revered leader embraced disastrous economic policies which reduced Tanzania to poverty. Those policies have now been reversed, and Tanzania is developing once more. But for all who love Africa the tale of the Greeks in Chaggaland makes sobering reading.

Everyone needs to read this wonderful book. It delighted, informed and entertained me when I lived in the Ngong Hills in Kenya, and it will bring Africa home to you now, wherever you live.

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    Nyere canonised?!?!


    He reduced Tanzania, as you say, to utter poverty through decades of State-imposed MARXISM which destroyed the country. The effects can still be seen in Zanzibar, which is the word “poverty” writ large*.

    Still, one can expect any insanity from the post-Vatican II nu-Church.

    *   (Except for the Italian-owned five star beach hotels of course).  

  • Fides_et_Ratio

    one can expect any insanity from the post-Vatican II nu-Church.

    Oh please. The chaos of the late-1960s and the 1970s was very grave, yes. But things are much better now. Benedict XVI is a theological genius, the the bishops are generally orthodox (even if, sadly, many of them lack the courage to discipline dissident priests). The last dissident priests are quite old, and the current seminarians are much better.

    Please stop with the pessimism.

  • Parasum

     “There is even a movement to have him canonised.”

    ## Canonisation seems to be in serious danger of being devalued; these days, you need only be a passable specimen of humanity, and when you pop off, the cry goes up: “Canonise !”

    A good question for Trivial Pursuit:

    Q. What do: Julius Nyerere, JP2, Jean Monnet, Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King & Isabella the Catholic have in common ?

    A. All of them have been suggested for numbering among the CC’s Saints. 

    A leader who is deficient in wisdom to govern and lead, may be admirable in other ways, but is no Saint. This is why it is absurd to suggest JP2 should be canonised: he lacked virtues a holy Pope must have to be *holy as a Pope*. Rulers – including bishops of every rank – are not private individuals – they *must have* those graces that make them good at the practical tasks that go with ruling or governing for the benefit of their subjects; purely individual goodness is not enough.

    No doubt Saint Tone the Bliar will be the subject of similar requests. I blame this silly  habit of referring almost reflexively to even half-decent clergy as “holy”. People would be much better advised to hold off saintifying Fr. X or Bishop Y or Pope Z – or politician A for that matter – until they are dead. Rather than being flattered, they need to be prayed for.

  • Parasum

    One of the signs of the degeneracy of the “post-Vatican II nu-Church” is that Popes are lionised and praised as “theological genius[es]“, not because they are, but because uncritical adulation of the current Pope is the usual way nowadays. If he were still a university professor, those who now exalt him as a theological genius would have no qualms about criticising him – but because he is the current Pope, their critical faculties have gone on sabbatical, and what would otherwise be criticised – justly or not – as theologically dodgy, becomes flawless doctrine. A “theological genius” would not mistake his own “Ratzinger formula” for the Catholic Faith, nor would he invent a doctrine that replaces the teaching of Christ with his own bright ideas.

    This uncritical adulation of  Papal utterances, however dodgy, simply because they are Papal utterances, is one of the unhealthier legacies of Ultramontanisn; it is an unhealthy idea grown even more unhealthy. If Popes can say no wrong, the Church is doomed to applaud their every word, no matter how unwise or unorthodox. They might as well be incarnations of the Holy Spirit if they are beyond all criticism no matter what. But that is not Catholic doctrine – it is elephantiasis of Catholic doctrine, of doctrine misunderstood & misapplied.  It comes from the same stable as the myth that the Holy Spirit chooses the Pope.  

    Almost 1600 years after his death, people are still reading St. Augustine, still learning from him even despite the many flaws & deficiences in his work. It is reasonable to  doubt whether the last two Popes have any such staying power. Origen (d.253) is still read – is Ratzinger remotely comparable to one of the most fruitful of the Greek Fathers ? 

  • Ælfrid the Mercian

    The young priests (other than SSPX and others Traditionalist groups) may be more reverent, but they have imbibed long and deep at the poisoned wells of Modernism. Realism is not pessimism. Other than the growing numbers of Traditionalists, the Crisis continues unabated, because it is doctrinal.

  • Kakasimba

    As for poverty in Tanzania. You need to do thorough research before coming to simple conclusions that it was Nyerere who caused it. The matter is not as simple as has been put here. After all, who said that only a capitalist society can prosper while a socilalist one cannot?

    Just look at the current affairs of Europe, Greece in particular, which somehow is at the centre of the discussion of the book being introduced here!

    So, my advice is that don’t rush into conclusions about the causes of poverty in Africa, or elsewhere for that matter.

    Humanity still has a long way to go!

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Mr Shelby Tucker has done thorough research, in my opinion. Neither is he blind to the failures of capitalism, as he shows in his new book, a novel called Client Service which is about unbridled capitalism. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Client-Service-Shelby-Tucker/dp/1906768927

  • Fides_et_Ratio

    Just look at the current affairs of Europe, Greece in particular,

    The European countries are mixed economies, and they are often closer to socialism than to capitalism.

    The USA, which is also a mixed economy but is a bit closer to Capitalism, is doing much better than Europe.