Saturday, 24 July 2010


I first met Father Phil when he came to give Midnight Mass in Utengule-Usangu in 1980. He arrived in the village on his pikipiki (motorbike) in the late afternoon of Christmas Eve, and I immediately went off to find him. Some months earlier I’d been told to look out for this geologist-turned-botanist and White Father, and this was my first chance to meet him. It was also the first time another white man had visited Utengule since I’d been there. To my pleasant surprise I found myself greeting an Englishman, a gaunt northerner (a “tallish, thin, frail-looking man, with circular spectacles”) whose voice and humour reminded me of home. We spent about three hours lost in lively discussion before the local Catechist and the Village Secretary both came to tell him that the congregation was waiting, and that Mass should begin. But it was far too early to start (about two and half hours before midnight), and Padre Philip tried to resist their pleas. Finally he gave in, threatening not to come to give “Midnight” Mass again.

I’ll never forget sitting at the back of Utengule’s small brick-built Roman Catholic church hearing him welcome the congregation in Swahili with a thick northern accent. I struggled through the rest of the service – the first Mass I’d ever been to – trying to conceal a broad grin. It was a wet and windy night and he berated the villagers for not turning out in greater numbers – most of those present were women and children. But afterwards he joined them singing and dancing in the mud outside the church, before we slipped off for yet another cup of tea in the small bare room that was reserved for visiting priests. We resumed our earlier conversation by the flickering light of a small kerosene lamp, until eventually he asked the Christmas revellers to stop (they’d been singing and dancing for about an hour), and retired for the night. I went back to my mud hut and after midnight began writing a letter that included details of our meeting, which I described as “my Christmas present”.

Father Phil gave me a potted account of his life, including his academic and religious conversions. If he could find time he’d arrange for me to come and stay in the White Fathers’ mission at Irambo (in Imbwila to the south-west of Usangu), and then we could spend longer talking about the natural and cultural history of the Southern Highlands. Alas this never came to pass. We didn’t meet again in Utengule until the following June, when I came across him preaching in one of the village drinking clubs. No wonder that the villagers -- many of whom weren’t Christians -- thought that he was something of a character (churchgoers themselves would sometimes gleefully mimic the characteristic way in which he gesticulated with his hands and arms while giving Mass). We spent more time together that day, and among other things he went through the plant names in my shoebox file of Sangu vocabulary, suggesting scientific identifications that I can still read in pencil on the paper slips. The next day, 28 June, was a Sunday, and he gave Mass in the morning and then sped off towards Igurusi and the Tanzam Highway in the afternoon.

Although I always wanted to, I didn’t get chance to talk to him again. For some months he was on leave in England, and other priests came to Utengule in his stead. I was back in Cambridge when I heard, more than two years later, that he had died. Mutual friends in Kidugala, Sarah and Christoph Jaeschke, wrote telling me that he’d been killed in an accident in Mbeya on 7 December 1982. Apparently he was overtaking a bus on his pikipiki and didn’t see an oncoming car. Christoph and he had talked about hiking together from Kidugala over the Kipengere Mountains and down to Usangu in the vicinity of Chimala, but like my own dream of spending more time in his good company, this wasn’t to be. I wrote a belated letter of condolences to his brother in Lancaster, and asked if he knew the whereabouts of the detailed notebooks that Father Phil had kept of his hikes and collecting in the Southern Highlands (when he’d shown me one of these I’d implored him to make sure that they ended up one day in a library or archive). In return John Leedal sent me a copy of the booklet – Welcome to Mbeya – that his brother had extensively rewritten and that had been completed and printed by friends after his death.

I’ve treasured this for many years, tracing the footsteps of Father Phil whenever I dip into it. It’s a wonderfully succint guide to the landscape that he loved, more substantial than the article on ‘Places to Visit in Mbeya Region’ that he published in Tanzania Notes and Records in 1981. There’s more of the same in the introductory chapter on ‘Highways and Byways of the Southern Highlands’ in the book on The Mountain Flowers of Southern Tanzania (1982) that he co-authored with fellow botanist Phillip Cribb, in this case woven together with references to the plant collecting trips of Mary Richards (cf. Condry 1998). And more recently Welcome to Mbeya has itself been expanded and updated by Liz de Leyser as A Guide to the Southern Highlands of Tanzania, with a dedication to Father Phil. Some of the information from these different texts has since been picked up by the standard tourist guides to Tanzania, and so his knowledge of the region continues to be passed on. His experience of its plants is, of course, preserved in the collections that he made and the botanical designations of the species that are named after him, and ultimately in the protected areas that now cover parts of this landscape (Kitulo National Park and Mpanga/Kipengere Game Reserve).

As for Father Phil’s notebooks, I wrote last week to Phil Cribb, asking if he knew of their whereabouts. There are, he said, assorted notes, maps and sketches in the archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. I don’t know whether these include the detailed notes that I saw in Utengule nearly three decades ago. I hope so, because that kind of knowledge is irreplaceable.

Geoffrey Philip Leedal was born in 1927 in Shipley, Yorkshire, and studied at the University of Leeds, where he wrote a Ph.D. on the geology of the NW Highlands of Scotland. He subsequently went on geological surveys and expeditions in East Africa, and all of his early publications are in this field. He joined the White Father’s Missionary Society in 1953, and was ordained a priest in 1961 and appointed to Mbeya. He wrote a number of (now hard-to-obtain) booklets on the natural history of the area, and collected more than 7,000 botanical specimens for the herbaria in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Kew. For these and other details of his life and work readers are referred to the obituary written by Phillip Cribb in the Kew Bulletin (1984).

Afterword, 27 July 2010

Phil Cribb writes:

When Phil Leedal joined Chris Grey-Wilson and myself in the Southern Highlands in 1976 he expounded his plant hunting philosophy. "You will never find new species by walking along tracks in the forest, always walk at right angles to established paths". At that moment he abruptly turned right into the forest and fell down a small cliff. Believe it or not we found a new species of Impatiens, subsequently named Impatiens leedalii, where he landed! He had four orchids named after him: Angraecopsis leedalii, Margelliantha leedalii, Stolzia leedalii and Ypsilopus leedalii, but he discovered many more novelties over the years and became an important source of herbarium material for Kew's work on the Flora of Tropical East Africa.

He adds that another plant named after Father Phil was Aloe leedalii S. Carter.  Phil Cribb has also kindly sent me this photo of his friend and colleague, taken on Mount Rungwe in 1976.


Condry, William 1998. Wildflower Safari: The Life of Mary Richards. Llandysul, Ceredigion: Gomer Press.

Cribb, Phillip 1984. Rev. G. Philip Leedal W.F. (1927-1982). Kew Bulletin 39 (1): 156.

Cribb, P. J. and G. P. Leedal 1982. The Mountain Flowers of Southern Tanzania: A Field Guide to the Common Flowers. Rotterdam: A.A.Balkema.

Leedal, P. H. [sic] 1981. Places to Visit in Mbeya Region. Tanzania Notes and Records 86-87: 77-81.

Leedal, G. P. (and others) 1983. Welcome to Mbeya. (No publication details).

de Leyser, Liz (Undated) [2002]. A Guide to the Southern Highlands of Tanzania. (No publication details).

Saturday, 17 July 2010


One of the most puzzling reports that I heard when I lived in Utengule-Usangu in the early 1980s was that a meteorite had fallen to earth somewhere to the east of the village. This event was supposed to have taken place in the early hours (around 2.30-3.00 in the morning) of Thursday 12th November 1981. The first I knew about it was later that day when I joined my usual kikao or drinking group in the main village club and listened to intense speculation about what had happened. Was it really a meteorite that had fallen out of the night sky? Could it have been a plane crash? Or an explosion of some kind, a bomb perhaps? No one was sure.

The next day the Village Secretary (the CCM-appointed Katibu wa Kijiji) came to the kikao with the news that the cause of the loud noise that people had heard was indeed a “star” (Swahili nyota) that had fallen in the vicinity of Rujewa, the administrative centre of what was then Mbarali Sub-District. Needless to say on Saturday 14th debate in the kikao continued. The most detailed account I could obtain was from Paulo, a young Sangu man who had relatives in the area in question. The meteorite had fallen at Uyelevala, beyond Ubaruku village, and it was now being guarded by soldiers. People as far away as Luhanga, the village to the north of Utengule, had seen the earth light up at night, and some of them had thrown themselves to the ground, thinking that the world was coming to an end.

My fieldwork in Usangu was drawing to a close, and I left Utengule at the end of the year none the wiser about this seemingly apocalyptic event. Was it a meteorite that blazed its way to earth in a fireball? Thousands of meteorites are thought to fall to the earth every year, but only a small proportion of these are observed, located, and officially recorded and reported. The 5th edition of the Catalogue of Meteorites (Grady 2000) lists a mere 1,005 meteorite falls (the technical term for meteorites that have actually been seen falling to earth) and 21,502 meteorite finds (meteorites discovered on the ground but not observed falling). Only nine meteorites are listed in current databases for Tanzania, eight of them observed falls, and one a find – the famous Mbosi (= Mbozi) Meteorite, one of the largest iron meteorites in the world (Sassoon 1967). But only two meteorite falls have been reported since national independence (one in 1963 and one in 1988), and none are recorded in Usangu.

It is possible, I suppose, that a meteorite did fall but wasn’t reported to the wider scientific community: after all the Tanzanian state in 1981 wasn’t the most open of societies. Otherwise I find myself continuing the lively speculations of my drinking companions in Utengule. Was it a plane or even a piece of military hardware that had dropped out of the sky? Is that why soldiers were guarding the site, and was the meteorite story merely a cover? Or was something more sinister going on? Is Uyelevala Tanzania’s Roswell? And should I start writing more creatively (von Däniken-style) about Sangu cosmology; the belief that pangolins are sent down to earth by the ancestors, the complex of ideas about chiefship and fertility that this connects to (see Walsh 1995/96; 2007; also 2010), including the announcement of the death of a chief with the statement that “the sky has fallen down” (Sangu uwulanga wagwa)? Turn my ethnographic knowledge into a cross between The X-Files and The Gods Must Be Crazy? Answers in a bottle please.

The photo of the Mbozi Meteorite (above) is from the Maisha ni Vita blog.


Grady, Monica M. 2000. Catalogue of Meteorites (5th edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sassoon, Hamo 1967. Guide to the Mbozi Meteorite. Dar es Salaam: Department of Antiquities.

Walsh, Martin 1995/96. The Ritual Sacrifice of Pangolins among the Sangu of South-west Tanzania. Bulletin of the International Committee on Urgent Anthropological and Ethnological Research 37/38: 155-170.

Walsh, Martin 2007. Pangolins and Politics in the Great Ruaha Valley, Tanzania: Symbol, Ritual and Difference / Pangolin et politique dans la Vallée du Great Ruaha, Tanzanie: Symbole, rituel et différence. In Edmond Dounias, Elisabeth Motte-Florac and Margaret Dunham (eds.) Le symbolisme des animaux: L'animal, clef de voûte de la relation entre l'homme et la nature? / Animal symbolism: Animals, keystone of the relationship between man and nature? Paris: Éditions de l’IRD. 1003-1044.

Walsh, Martin 2010. Red Velvet from Heaven. East African Notes and Records, 13 June 2010.

Saturday, 10 July 2010


In October 1986, hunting for books in Nairobi, I wandered into a store on Kimathi Street that had clearly seen better days. There, on its dusty and understocked shelves, my eyes alighted on a rare work that I’d seen references to but hadn’t previously been able to get my hands on: William Frank’s Habari na Desturi za Waribe (“History and Customs of the Ribe people of the Coast Province of Kenya”), published in London in 1953. Better still, I was looking at a pile of ten or eleven copies of this slim volume, an ethno-book collector’s treasure-trove that was evidently of little value to the failing shopkeeper. The price was cheap and I bought the whole lot, reasoning that they’d otherwise be lost to scholarship when this dismal shop was closed down (as it subsequently was).

The Swahili and English title pages of the booklet emphasised that William Frank was himself a Ribe (the autonym is arihe, singular murihe). A couple of months later I came across a quite different book by him, a collection of Swahili poems entitled Diwani Yangu (“My Anthology”). Frank’s preface was dated July 1975, but he died the following year and the collection wasn’t published until 1979. The back cover summarises his life and work:

The late William Frank was born in 1922 in Kilifi District on the Kenya coast. In 1949 he joined the publishing department of the East African High Commission and worked there until his death in 1976. When he was there he composed many poems which were published in [the newspapers] ‘Taifa Leo’ and ‘Baraza’ and he won a number of prizes for his poetry. In addition he translated ‘Emil na Wapelelezi’ [Erich Kästner’s 1929 novel, originally published as Emil und die Detektive] and parts of ‘Kenya Farmer’ [Journal of the Agricultural Society of Kenya]. He also wrote ‘Juma Mtoto Yatima’ [“Juma the Orphan-child”, a fiction published in 1974 under the pseudonym Tonge Nyama]. (my translation of the Swahili blurb)

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the very different character of his later work, Frank’s study of his own ethnic group isn’t mentioned in this bio. He went to work at the East African Literature Bureau soon after it was founded, and his Ribe booklet was published in the series of ethnoethnographies and ethnohistories that the EALB itself initiated and organised: Masimulizi na Desturi ya Afrika ya Mashariki – Customs and Traditions in East Africa. When I first read it in 1986 I was disappointed by the relative blandness of Frank’s text and absence of detail about Ribe history and ethnography. But now I wonder more about the circumstances of its production. Was Frank simply making the most an opportunity presented to him at work? To what extent was he influenced by or responding to Ronald Ngala’s Nchi na Desturi za Wagiriama (“The Country and Customs of the Giriama”) published earlier in the same series? What were his own political views?

Like other works of its kind (cf. Maddox 1995; Topan 1997; Geider 2002), Frank’s ethnographic text dangles awkwardly between the conservative and divisive agenda of its colonial sponsors (the promotion of “tribal unity”) and the promise of a more inclusive future (the “detribalised” political consciousness that the British were intent on countering). It was, we should remember, published during the Mau Mau Emergency. Whereas his editors seemed keen to emphasise his Ribe-ness, Frank himself made a point of referring to the generalised “Swahili” or coastal identity of the Ribe and their Mijikenda relatives (“Wote hawa ni Waswahili maana wanaishi pwani”, p.vii). In his later Swahili poetry, published by the EALB’s successor, the Kenya Literature Bureau, Frank eulogised both Ngala and Kenyatta, demonstrating his nationalist credentials. There’s little here that would lead you to identify the author as a Ribe scribe.


Frank, William 1953. Habari na Desturi za Waribe (Desturi na Masimulizi ya Afrika ya Mashariki). London: Sheldon Press.

Frank, William 1979. Diwani Yangu (Johari za Kiswahili 19). Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.

Geider, Thomas 2002. The Paper Memory of East Africa: Ethnohistories and Biographies Written in Swahili. In Axel Harneit-Sievers (ed.) A Place in the World: New Local Historiographies from Africa and South Asia. Leiden: Brill. 255-288.

Kästner, Erich 1973. Emil na Wapelelezi (translated by William Frank). Kampala: East African Literature Bureau.

Maddox, Gregory H. 1995. Introduction: The Ironies of Historia, Mila na Desturi za Wagogo. In Mathias E. Mnyampala, The Gogo: History, Customs, and Traditions (translated, introduced and edited by Gregory H. Maddox). Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe. 1-34.

Ngala, Ronald G. 1949. Nchi na Desturi za Wagiriama. Nairobi: The Eagle Press.

Nyama, Tonge [William Frank] 1974. Juma Mtoto Yatima. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.

Topan, Farouk 1997. Biography Writing in Swahili. History in Africa 24: 299-307.

Saturday, 3 July 2010


The Zanzibar Revolution is very poorly documented, and its unexpected instigator, the self-styled Field Marshal John Okello, remains its most enigmatic figure. What little we know about his life before the night of 11-12th January 1964 is largely derived from his own unreliable account, written after he had been barred from Zanzibar less than two months later.* Okello’s later life has been the subject of even more rumour and speculation, and the circumstances of his presumed disappearance and death in Idi Amin’s Uganda are still shrouded in mystery (Clayton 1981: 94; Petterson 2002: 176-177).

In his book Okello claimed to have been born in Lango District in northern Uganda in 1937, and to have led the life of an itinerant labourer, micro-entrepreneur, and local political activist in the decade before the Zanzibar Revolution. His search for new opportunities and better conditions took him from Uganda to Kenya and on to Zanzibar, where he spent three and a half years on Pemba before moving to the main island of Unguja. It’s a plausible account, at least the parts that Okello chooses to tell, and is full of detail about particular jobs and incidents on the way. Here he is describing the events that took him from Ramisi Sugar Factory on the south Kenya coast to Pemba:

  On the 2nd of June, 1959 I met Peter Oloo, a Luo, another mason of about my own age, who told me about Pemba Island, its cloves and the prospect of getting jobs easily. I agreed to accompany him there, and we went one day to Shimoni, on the coast, to find out how we could leave Kenya without being arrested. At Shimoni we met seven Giriama also preparing to go to Pemba. A short, stout brown man offered to take us along for Shs. 25/00 a head. We returned to Ramisi to get ready for the journey. On the 11th of June I returned to Shimoni, and decided with my friends that the best way to avoid the Kenya Customs Officers watching for illegal attempts to sail to Pemba was to go first to a small island in the Indian Ocean called Mukwire. We remained in hiding on this island for a week, and were forced to drink and cook with brackish water which we found near the seashore. (1967: 67).

According to Okello, they finally set sail for Pemba “[s]hortly after midnight on 21st of June, 1959” (1967: 68). The “small island in the Indian Ocean called Mukwire” is almost certainly Wasini Island, to the south of the Shimoni Peninsula. “Mukwire” is evidently a misspelling of Mkwiro, the name of the fishing and farming village on the eastern end of the island whose inhabitants speak a distinctive variety of the Chifundi dialect of Swahili (Walsh 1993).

I stayed in Mkwiro for a number of weeks in early 1986, studying the history and enterprises of Mkwiro Women’s Group, its members and their households, and other aspects of village society and the local political economy (Walsh 1986). I wasn’t asking questions about Okello, and it seems unlikely that his fleeting and furtive presence would have registered in 1959, let alone be remembered more than a quarter of a century later. But I did learn enough to add a footnote or two to Okello’s own cursory account of his sojourn on Wasini.

The fact that he calls the island by the name of Mkwiro suggests that he and his companions were more familiar with this village than the larger settlement of Wasini after which the island is usually named. In 1986 I was told that fishermen and smugglers from Tanzania often hid their boats on the southern side of the island, near a small hamlet called Nyuma ya Maji, literally “behind the water”. I walked there one hot day in January, cutting across the island from Mkwiro to (uninhabited) Bogoa, before following the shoreline westwards. The sandy beach at Bogoa changed into a landscape of coral outcrops and then the mud and mangroves in which it was easy to conceal outriggers and other craft. It may well be that Okello and his fellow travellers laid low in this area, waiting for their onward ride to Pemba.

Wherever they were, it’s not surprising that they were reduced to drinking and cooking with brackish water. Apart from rainwater Wasini island has no natural sources of fresh water: villagers harvest the rain in large cement-lined tanks and when these run dry they are forced to rely on water ferried across from Shimoni on the mainland. The main wet season usually begins in March and can last until June, when Okello was there. When it’s not raining there’s relatively little chance of finding standing water, unless it’s seawater that hasn’t seeped into the ground or evaporated away. Okello doesn’t record what food they cooked with the water they found, whether they had brought it with them or obtained it on the island itself.

At least June is one of the cooler months, and this would have provided Okello, Oloo and their Giriama friends with some relief before their perilous crossing to Pemba. Okello relates that their “dhow” was almost swamped by rough seas in the middle of the Pemba Channel. The southeast monsoon is usually blowing with all its force at this time of year, and it is presumably this that put the wind up Okello and his fellow passengers and threatened to scupper their boat. But, as he tells us in a characterstically messianic passage, he resorted to loud prayer and the waters subsided. It’s common knowledge that Okello wasn’t the only person dreaming of revolution in Zanzibar in January 1964, but who knows what turn it would have taken had he never made it from Wasini to Pemba?

* Okello’s prologue to Revolution in Zanzibar is dated “Kamiti Prison, Kenya / June, 1966” (1967: 26). But at least part of the manuscript was drafted much earlier: the CIA study of the revolution refers to ““Field Marshall Okello’s Story,” written by Okello himself in late 1964” (Hunter 1966: 40).


Clayton, Anthony 1981. The Zanzibar Revolution and its Aftermath. London: C. Hurst & Co.

Hunter, Helen-Louise 1966. Zanzibar: The Hundred Days’ Revolution (ESAU Working Paper XXX). Intelligence Study, Directorate of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 21 February 1966.

Okello, John 1967. Revolution in Zanzibar. Nairobi: East African Publishing House.

Petterson, Don 2002. Revolution in Zanzibar: An American’s Cold War Tale. Boulder: Westview Press.

Walsh, Martin 1986. Mkwiro Women’s Group, Pongwe-Kidimu Location. In Martin Walsh, Interim Report for a Study of Income Generation and its Effects among Women’s Groups in Kenya’s Coast Province (Report to World Education Inc., Boston). Mombasa, June 1986. 77-108.

Walsh, Martin 1993. Mwaozi Tumbe and the Rain-making Rites of Wasini Island: A Text in the Chifundi Dialect of Swahili, Études Océan Indien 16: 60-85.