British Medics in Africa


African landscape, copyright Lissa**

Newly catalogued papers from the Rhodes House Library

Three collections of personal papers from the Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies have recently been catalogued and made available to researchers. The letters, written by British doctors and nurses working in various parts of Africa in the second half of the 20th century, were sent home to family and friends and contain striking first-hand accounts of their lives.

Barbara Powter (later Akinyemi) was a midwife in war-time Britain and her hastily written letters to her parents contain fascinating details of training in the East End, 1938-9, and working through the Norwich blitz or ‘Baedeker ‘raids, 1940-2. After the war she worked as a health visitor in Nigeria (1949-53) where she struggled with obstructive authorities and a demoralizing lack of planning and initiative.

Peter Bewes was a senior registrar in surgery and a lecturer in surgery at Mulago Hospital, Kampala, Uganda, 1968-72. In one letter he describes his heavy workload, ‘The work involves ward rounds (our 54 bed ward has had as many as 100 patients in it at times), operating (we have had as many as 27 operations in one afternoon and night), emergency duties (the record was 40 admissions in 24 hours!) and teaching’. This was in addition to learning the local language, Luganda, raising three young children and practising as a ‘secular missionary’ for the Church Mission Society. His work in Uganda coincided with the rise of Idi Amin and ended with the expulsion of the Asians. The ensuing chaos caused great difficulties for Peter and his own family as they tried to leave the country en route to a new post in Tanzania, ‘We’ve been writing letters, and tearing them up, re-writing and re-tearing as the political situation deteriorates!…I am cancelling most of work during office hours, so that I can fight the decision to prevent us taking any money or possessions out of the country’.

Similar difficulties faced Cyril Sims Davies a doctor living near Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), whose letters (1964-96) describe his work, living conditions, political unrest in the country, the effect of sanctions (especially the difficulties caused by restrictions on moving money from Britain to Rhodesia), the impact of the ‘Bush War’ on daily life, deteriorating conditions for white citizens and eventually his eviction from his home and position as local doctor.

Despite the obvious difficulties of living through times of political upheaval, all the correspondence is imbued with a love of Africa and a strong commitment to living and working there.

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