Oranges, lemons and a dash of …

The British Library blog on the illicit history of booze reminded me of the the rise of Godfrey Moloi, the Godfather of Soweto. He wrote My Life telling of how he became to be a night club owner in Soweto despite the restrictions placed on black empowerment in the 1950s and 60s. I had the honour of meeting Moloi in about 1988 in Soweto when I did a St John Ambulance first aid duty for a funrun he organised. I remember him as a down to earth gentle man who had no concern for colour differences. Reading his memoir a few years later was quite an eye-opener and showed what could be achieved when one set one’s mind to do something.

Illicit booze, or beer or wine is still a feature of life in Africa, although it does seem to be more accepted given the village life I’ve experienced. I can’t say I’ve tasted it being tee-total but I have witnessed the brewing of banana wine and banana beer and smelt sorghum beer. It is an acquired taste by all accounts and a liquid which doesn’t always look that appetising. But then, I wonder, is the texture any different to a fruit cocktail?

The dash of… dealt with, there is nothing, in my humble opinion, to beat the fruit which originates in Africa. In both South Africa and Tanzania, I have been absolutely spoilt with the quality and variety of fruit which grows in the immediate neighbourhood. Talking to a colleague shortly before Christmas made me realise, once again, how priviliged I’ve been growing up in Africa and having the chance to go back as often as I do. We were bemoaning the commercialisation of Christmas during which she noted that as a child Christmas was a time of anticipation as fruits such as oranges became available in the shops. What a treat to get one. Now we get them all the time. It also made me realise the significance of the Christingle service I had become aware of in the UK.

However, this wasn’t always the case as a persusal of World War 1 stories and accounts demonstrates.

Nurse A Hills (IWM archive) who served in East Africa at the South African and East African Hospitals at Voi and Tanga, the 19th Stationary Hospital based at Moschi, Korogwe and Kilwa (March 1916-December 1917), and later at the 2nd South African General Hospital in Dar-es-Salaam complained that there wasn’t the variety of fruit at Voi as there was elsewhere – oranges popular. Yet, not too far away in Taita, Missionary Verbi was growing strawberries, apples, pears and plums.

An old Mzee (man) I met a few years ago in the Taveta-Holili area recalled the troops coming back after the war desperate for bananas. We worked out the old gentleman must have been about four years old in 1917 when the South Africans started coming back. His family had hidden in the hills so they could avoid service. CW Shackleton notes in his East African Experiences (1940) that they spent the night in a banana plantation but…

Hardly had the first streaks of dawn appeared in the sky when hundreds of men searched the plantation for a bunch of ripe bananas.

We were unlucky. Green bananas – yes, but the thousand, but not a solitary ripe one.

A while later, Shackleton noted that:

Hunger was the enemy. And thirst and exhaustion and the eternal fever.

In a large clearing near the river bank we found guavas, bananas, lemons and a patch of growing sweet potatoes.

‘I call this real luck!’ exclaimed Somers enthusiastically, beaming and digging energetically with his bayonet, prying the SPUDS [my emphasis] from the soil.

Other fruit included sugarcane, wild berries, coconuts

The closest one got to fruit in a hamper was in jam and Christmas fruit cake – items that would last a little longer than a few days. The forthcoming memoir of Norman Jewell, a doctor in East Africa supports the absence of fruit during the war. He mentions fruit a few times from 1918 with the flu epidemic and before 1914 when he had been in Seychelles.

Rose’s Lime Juice was available most of the time (broken bottles have been found in Tsavo) as was quinine (ok, it’s not quite a fruit, but it does come from the bark of a tree). Returning to the ‘dash’ theme, Shackleton illustrated the point visually – a drop of rum (not compulsory) vs a bucketful of quinine (compulsory).




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