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

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.