Helge Kjekshus, ECOLOGY CONTROL AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT IN EAST AFRICAN HISTORY – The Case of Tanganyika 1850-1950, Heinemann Educational, London, 1977, £2.80.
Rarely have I read a book on African history which has left me with such a feeling of new and refreshing awareness on matters of the rural environment. Have no doubts about it, Dr Kjekshus’s book is in every way a very important contribution to the debate on Tanzania’s pre-colonial past and the impact of colonial rule. Dr Kjekshus, a past Senior Lecturer in Political Science in the University of Dar es Salaam, has written a social history of Tanganyika from the middle of the 19th century, when European descriptive travel writing really got under way, to the post-World War IT period. ‘The study seeks to restore the people as agents of African initiatives. There will be no great men … focus is on man as a doer, husbandman, industrialist and trader. In these initiatives the individual takes on the anonymity of mere numbers … ‘ But it is not simply social history for its own sake, rather a treatise refuting with admirable style and startling evidence those hoary old sentiments about the parlous state of the African on his land and the sure benefits to be derived from contact with European enterprise and initiative, sentiments so beloved of early colonial administrators, settlers and missionaries alike, and still so prevalent as an attitude today.
Dr Kjekshus first considers population levels over the period from 1850 to 1890 and tones down the sensational reports of mass death resulting from internecine warfare and slave raiding. With a stable if not slightly increasing population over the period, he then shows how, by the 1880’s, if European accounts are to be accepted, the African had assumed virtual mastery over his environment through a very precise and profound knowledge of his surroundings. Strikingly, he had outwitted tsetse in a way no outside agency has yet achieved, tor all Europe’s scientific knowledge. The author states that ‘the pre-colonial economies developed within an ecological control situation – a relationship between man and his environment which had grown out of centuries of civilizing work of clearing the ground, introducing managed vegetations, and controlling the fauna. The relationship resulted in an “agro-horticultural prophylaxis”. (Ford 1971), where the dangers of tsetse fly and trypanosomiasis were neutralized and “Africa’s bane l1 (Nash 1969) was made a largely irrelevant consideration for economic prosperity. The contrast to the twentieth century, when the tsetse fly has been “one of the major obstacles to economic development” (Ormsby-Gore 1925), is clear’.
After examination of the ‘supports’ of the ecologically-controlled environment, both industrial (iron, salt and cotton manufacturing) and commercial (intra- and inter-tribe trade), Dr Kjekshus then most lucidly traces the break-down of this man-controlled system in the 1890s, from these causes: first, and in a devastating way, Rinderpest; then, in quick succession or concurrently, smallpox, a sandflea plague, red locusts, drought, and the advent of Deutsches Schutzgebiet, meaning food requisitions, constant warfare and the ‘scorched earth’ policy.
What did all this mean to the African husbandman? The loss of his ascendancy over the land and his submission, unwillingly-and with resistance, to colonial tampering with his way of 11fe on the land and on what and where he should provide his labour for the regime. The author only briefly deals with the effects of this tampering (which since Independence has expanded to become full-scale ‘social engineering’), but then the wealth of writing on this subject, from Ren6 Dumont to William Allan (1965) hardly necessitates detailed treatment in this book, though what has been done in case study form for Central and Southern Africa (ed. Palmer & Parsons 1977) should now be taken up for East Africa, with Dr Kjekshus’s treatise as a backdrop. From Richard Burton’s descriptions of ‘comfort and plenty’ in the l860s and l870s, we have come a century later to precariousness and uncertainty in man’s relationship with the land. In one decade, 1890-1900, ‘the conditions for economic life deteriorated and brought many tribes back to a frontier situation where the conquest of the ecosystem had to recommence’. In most parts of Tanganyika this reconquest has yet to begin, and, as Dr Kjekshus implies in passing, it may be that settlement in permanent villages, as it is now being furthered, will not achieve that reconquest.
Dr Kjekshus relies for most of his evidence concerning conditions in the last half of the 19th century on descriptive material from early European, especially German, travellers. As this material is central to his argument, it would be intriguing to know whether oral and archaeological research could help substantiate the evidence so that we have a more profound knowledge of the period with which to compare the later scene. Of equal interest would be to know how many of the causes of ecological collapse in East Africa in the l890s, and what other ones, were applicable to British Central Africa, Katanga and Portuguese East Africa, an area where European colonisation began in earnest at about the same time. An interesting comparison could be made between the extent of disruption caused on the one hand by Arab penetration from the northern east coast, Portuguese penetration from the southern east coast and Boer penetration from the south.
I commend Ecology Control to all concerned with rural development in black Africa – it should be required reading for anyone working in the rural field and especially those technical experts and their administrative counterparts in government who have tended to see ‘rural progress’ (and I do not absolve myself) as some inanimate scientific exercise, perhaps hedged about with doctrinaire ideological principles, and still too often larded with an intolerance of and arrogance at what is seen as the backwardness of rural peoples.
Ford, J. The Role of the Trypanosomiases in African Ecology, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1971.
N’ash, TAM. Africa’s Bane: The Tsetse Fly, Collins, London, 1969. Report of the East African Commission, Cmd. 2387, chaired by W. Ormsby-Gore, HMSO, London, 1925.
Allan W. The African Husbandman, Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh, 1965.
Dumont, R. has written numerous books and reports to Governments in Africa on the question of agricultural development, perhaps his most famous book being False start in Africa, Deutsch, London, 1966, and an important report on Tanzania’s agricultural development published by the Tanzanian Government in 1968.
Palmer, R. and Parsons, E.J. (eds.), The Roots of Rural Poverty in Central and Southern Africa, Heinemann Educational, London, 1977.