God of Hunger by John Coutouvidis - HTML preview

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Prefatory Notes


God of Hunger takes its title from the street name of Tanganyika’s First Minister and Tanzania’s first President, Julius Nyerere: Mungu wa Nja. The father of the nation, who is justly lauded for creating unity out of a variegated tribal polity, but was responsible for the gross impoverishment of his country.

The book may be read as a string of ancient Anatolian stone worry beads twirled in remembrance of the dead; souls alleviating God’s hunger. The stones are inscribed with names as they appear in chapter headings. As characters, all are drawn from lithomancy.

The beads are strung onto Tanganyika; the thread that binds them together. Having been superseded in 1964 by Tanzania, the country of the book belongs entirely to mythology.

Tanganyika emerged out of German East Africa in 1918 after the defeat of the Central Powers.

It was the Germans who invited the Greeks to their colony to work on the railways inland from Dar-Es-Salaam, on the Indian Ocean, to Mwanza on Lake Victoria and Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika, retracing the slave route from Ujiji, where Stanley found Livingston, to the coast. Whence again, from Tanga, to Moshi beside Kilimanjaro and Arusha beneath Mount Meru.

Greeks, as foremen, were employed on the French construction of the Suez Canal and after its completion in 1869, transferred their skills to the building of Germany’s colonial railways. They were later offered land and settled in Tanganyika to make their living in growing coffee at altitude, or sisal on coastal plains.

In 1921, when Ataturk, in the course of creating modern Turkey, defeated Greek forces intent on resurrecting Byzantium, many exiles from Anatolia joined their kinsmen in Tanganyika, a Mandated Territory under British governance.

To this entity were sent, in 1942, Poles; mainly women and children, the remnants of a massive forced exodus, in 1940, from Eastern Poland which was occupied by the Red Army under the terms of the Secret Protocol of the Nazi Soviet Pact of August 1939.

A census taken in Tanganyika ten years later, revealed that Greeks and Poles made up the majority of its European population, then at its height, when life for most was as good as it was going to get; Tanganyika resembled a ship sailing erratically on oceans of history while its passengers believed that the captain had a true bearing on their destination. Under the tropical sun a few flourished, more wilted, while most simply got by, in a country to which they went with feelings of trepidation, from homelands they often recalled, to a place they never forgot; a land which now bears little trace of them. This book is dedicated to their remembrance.


I was born (1944) in Tanganyika arriving in the UK in 1963 to attend the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology. Finding the fenland winter too cold to bear, I spent much of my first year identifying the college with the best heating system and found it at Keele University where the Nissen hut accommodation was served by the largest radiators in the land. Keele then allowed its undergraduates a Foundation year during which I discovered History, the love of my life after Merrilyn, whom I met at Keele. We married in 1969 and were blessed in 1972 with a daughter, Sophie. The family home of forty years and more is in Staffordshire where, at various colleges, I have taught African Politics and Government, International (European and Non-European) Political History and modern Polish, British and German Diplomatic History.

In writing this book I have relied mostly on memory; on remembered conversations within a family where story telling was the main source of entertainment. We did not listen to the radio. Nor to the gramophone. We also read next to nothing. Perhaps this was because when night fell regularly at 6 (or at 12, by the Swahili clock) the paraffin lamps gave inadequate light for that pastime? Or was it simply because talking in the dim flickering light had the added attraction of shadow play on our lime washed bedroom walls?

There were some two dozen books in the house; a set of Golden Pathway which a slick salesman off-loaded as the best source of knowledge for our betterment. The Wedgwood blue, hardbound volumes, were never consulted save for a look at each coloured frontispiece. Strangely, many years later, I saw a play in Nantwich, in Cheshire, based on the unread contents; it was all very English. There was also a three volume set, in Polish, recording the battle for Monte Casino whose summit was taken by Poles. Next, a book in Greek entitled Hellenes Abroad (Tanganyika), written by John Tsondos, published in Nicosia, no date of publication. It contains material I have long treasured such as mention of every Greek in the Territory, including many photographs, including one of our family. There was also a tome called Greeks in Africa, in English, published by a Greek publishing house in Alexandria, in 1955, listing every Hellene in every corner of the continent. The photographs show men in short sleeved shirts, knee length baggy khaki shorts (kaptulas) and knee high long socks. Women in flower patterned light cotton dresses, and couples often leaning on the bonnets of automobiles, one foot on the running boards, a la Bonnie and Clyde. The American limousines, box-bodies and pick-ups are straight out of fifties movies. My Godfather owned a brown Hudson which had a massive steering wheel on which was mounted a glass globe the size of a small paperweight, enabling the driver single-handedly to swing the wheel within which a concentric chrome ring could be pressed to sound a melodious note of warning. This true limousine had immensely comfortable bench seats where his chickens, flying in through open windows, loved to roost when the limo was static. The designation De Luxe, a hallmark of the age, was proudly emblazoned on the sides of a long bonnet; he loved to use the term which he pronounced as delooxaria. Fords, Pontiacs, Chevrolets and Studebakers there were a plenty. The only Cadillac in town belonged to Mr. Subzali who owned the concession for the marque. My cousin and I would gaze at the chrome hub caps, the size of today’s television dishes, on display in a long glass cabinet in the showroom of Subzali Motors. No ducal silverware, polished to its most dazzling shine, could ever surpass the glittering beauty of those wheel dressings. As for white walled tyres, soon covered in red earth which rendered them pink after every wash, these were the height of automobilistic aspiration. Coming away with glossy brochures of the latest dreams from Detroit was sufficient compensation, especially as each had an exchange rate of one for four Eagle comics, three Beano or Dandy, two War or Cowboy comics or one Classic.

Other reading matter at home included a photographic record, in a series of six tomes, of the Second World War, in which my brother George and I recorded our response to each image with an exaggerated system of marking as though we were teachers assessing work in blue crayon, from A quadruple plus to D quadruple minus. We were thoroughly beaten for the defacement of books otherwise unread. Lastly there was a children’s book of poetry. Preparing me for kindergarten, my father insisted on teaching me to memorise Little Boy Blue. He pronounced meadow as meedow and when I repeated the word at my first declamation in school the teacher laughed so raucously that I wet my shorts in terror. I also cried from laughter when listening to my father’s version of Olivier’s Henry by Shakespeare, which he had seen on screen, first at The Victory, then at The Paradise and again at The Metropole; each time the funnier; drama was only ever rendered as comedy at home.

It was linguistically confusing to grow up in a household in which, around the dining table, five languages, all jumbled up, could be heard: ‘Pass me a glass and the jug of water please’, with Polish, Greek, English, Warusha (akin to Masai) and Swahili words in the same sentence. (Purists will wince at my usage of Swahili. I would however point out that I write it as it is spoken on the streets; Colonial Officers in Tanganyika, who had to pass an examination in the language, were taught a written form few understood and a pronunciation all locals found risible.)

I have long since held that all children should first be taught just one tongue, English. The world’s language, taught to a high standard, giving everyone a full command of its vocabulary, grammar and syntax; a language for all seasons; fit for every purpose, from rap to Queen’s Speech. Yet, for all that, our domestic tower of Babel prepared me well in the art of national identity and the science of international history.

In this book, I have attempted to render words or statements in Greek, Polish, and Swahili as they would be pronounced by a native speaker. For example: instead of hoi poloi which confusingly sounds to the Anglophone as ‘the posh’ rather than meaning ‘the many’, I suggest ee polee; the way Greeks say it and I would bet a thrahma (th as in the) to an evro that when a Sapho or an Omeeros (Homer) is resurrected through some frankensteinian sparking of dry old DNA, we shall discover that that is how they would have pronounced the Greek language. In the meantime, I would, with great respect, suggest that Classicists listen to the modern Demotic before attempting to speak the Ancient.

In matters Greek, the book owes much to I.N. Tsondos, Elleenes En Tee Xenee (Tanganyika) (Greeks in Tanganyika) and to Greeks in Africa, but most of all from papers held in private archives which were proffered to me in Tanzania in 1987 and in research material I had collected, but did not use in penning The Kidron Bible.

The Polish story is based on previous work, now out of print, to which I have copyright: Poland, 1939-1947, the English translation of Garlicki’s Jozef Pilsudski, the New Edition of Zajdlerowa’s The Dark Side of The Moon and on two lengthy video-recorded interviews: Sir Frank Roberts, A Diplomatic History, 1939-1968 and The Dark Side of the Moon whose surface was lightly trod by that most graceful of women; my mother.

My opinion of Julius Nyerere is mainly informed by conversations in 1987 with members of Tanzania’s masses, ee polee, or, if you insist, hoi polloi and on T.S.Eliot’s notions of culture and social structure. The central question highlighted in his preface to the original, anonymously written, edition of The Dark Side of The Moon, published in 1946, is: ‘What happens to a society, a nation, when its apex is forcibly removed?’ A question I have attempted to answer in ‘T.S. Eliot’s Model of Society in the light of Polish Experience’, published in the first volume of the journal, Text and Context.

The consequences of gross social engineering (by which I mean the eradication or attempted metamorphosis through state policy of any layer of humanity within the imagined triangle) perpetrated upon a nation has been of long interest to me; ever since, as a boy in my beloved grandmother’s care, an august lady who was my main link in Eliot’s transmission chain of culture, I first learnt of my grandfather’s murder at Katyn.

That atrocity has indelibly coloured my take on political history in Europe and in Africa.


John Coutouvidis, The Boat House, Barlaston, Staffordshire

13 April, 2011

For my Parents and in memory of my Godfather