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”.
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.
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
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) . A Guide to the Southern Highlands of