BY FR. WILLIAM BURRIDGE, W.F. Leper Country, by Electra Dory (Muller, 25s.).
'THE IMAGE of Africa presented through television, news-reel and Press 2is steadily changing. The constant flow of pictures and accounts of sharp, bloody skirmishes and ambushing tribesmen has happily ceased with the end of the prolonged conflict in the Congo; the BBC documentaries on " primitive " Africa, less frequent, leave the impression of a scoop by some clever reporter who has penetrated the hidden haunts of a small, confined clan surviving as a museum-piece in a now transformed continent.
The reporting now is of elegant statesmen arriving by air for conferences at Lancaster House. of international gatherings held on African soil, of the panoply of the first great assembly of African heads of state at Addis Ababa or the energetic intervention of the African delegates at Geneva.
This is all indicative of the firm emergence of the new independent African countries. But we must not allow that to make us lose our sense of reality. We must not forget to look beyond the modern machinery of rule and administration.
If we do, we shall see the African countries merely as new arrivals in the field of international politics and world economics, and we shall overlook the humanitarian pleas, the spiritual distress, the abysmal poverty of so many areas of that vast Africae continent.
If you read Leper Country, you will see what I mean. And. I promise you, you will never forget it.
It is not a survey, it is not a book with a theory or a platform, it is not written with the elected pessimism and the sour moral indigestion of Graham Greene's Burnt-out Case. It is a straightforward, chatty, everyday account of the author's experience. It is a sad, hard tale, told with the deep happiness of consecration rendered fool-proof by the worldwise folly of Christian motives and ideals.
What that had to be proof against in Electra Dory's ten years with the University Mission to Central Africa in Nyasaland (note in passing that 'Father' refers to Anglican missionaries) is set down on every page; the appalling material conditions of work (the shack of a dispensary, mud floors, smoke-filled. fly-infested) the unhygienic (the word is too choice) state of the sufferers from a full gamut of diseases and disorders, the unpredictable and disastrous crises of a mission kitchen.
We see here, too, the inability
of people to distinguish between magic and medicine, their obdurate attachments to customs that defeat medical attention and bring defects and deformities and mortality in their wake, the persistent lack of co-operation on the part of patients, as exasperating as the innocence of a wilful child, the failure of essential food crops through weather, insect invasion or neglect, above all the implacable, wearing, numb emotional strain of pity paid out round the clock in the face of steadily advancing physical fatigue and the frustratmg consciousness that both time and medical supplies are dolefully inadequate.
Do you leave a throng of sick people to answer a distress call away in the jungle ? Do you turn away from a pleading sufferer and force yourself to keep the last dose in the medicine cupboard for a still worse case ? What do you
do when a leper mutely holds out an almost non-existent hand to silence your remonstrances of neglectful behaviour ?
We are glad that Miss Dory's activities were not confined to the leper colony and the four miserable walls of the dispensary. For the many calls to jungle hamlets make her give a fuller picture with sounds and colours and smells and fears, the village scenes, the dire want, the profound moral problems arising from the traditional pattern of domestic life, the swamp with the laughing bunch of children at the end of the tricky line of stepping stones.
There is the soft, swift answer to the quest for a store : "There is nothing in the country, only hunger." the bogged-down jeep. the pathetic merriment of the Biblical play, the silent waiting on the brink of half a year of starvation.
All this is portrayed without artifice. The scenes change so rapidly that you may think you have turned over two pages by mistake. In a faithful off-the-cuff narrative of mission life it must be like that; the most liberal planning collapses before the myriad unexpected demands and contretemps; a broken, angular rhythm that goes on and on through the years, only hatted, abruptly, in the pang of farewells and departure.
There is here and there a sentence which could more suitably have been omitted in a book for general readership. as in the passage dealing with tribal initiation. But the close-to-the-bone description of the dispensary work, however unpalatable to the squeamish, is indispensable to the utterly realistic character of this book.
Yes. 1 know this is not the whole of Africa. But, I repeat, it is more nearly an accurate picture than is that of the unlimited area of modern development. For many readers it will bring a new meaning to the term 'underdeveloped countries'. If, in addition, it gives the reader some sneaking sense of personal involvement in them, it will have achieved a great deal.