My dear Julius, when we have a problem like that, we nationalise them," Harold Wilson told President Nyerere of Tanzania in the early 1970s. The "problem" was settler-capitalists, European cash-crop farmers who dominated the post-colonial economy. Under then fashionable theories of state socialism, populist nationalism and bureaucratic control, Nyerere expropriated the European farmers, thus wrecking Tanzania's finances.
Shelby Tucker's friend from Oxford in the 1950s, Marios Ghikas, was a third-generation Greek settler. "Come and help me eat the last banana from my confiscated plantation" he wrote, and this book is a first-hand account of a modern Greek and African tragedy: the wilful destruction of a productive and prosperous agricultural economy on the altar of doctrinaire ideology.
Now Tucker has written a hitherto unknown chapter in modern East African history on the pioneering "wagiriki" or Greeks in Tanganika-Tanzania. It is a fascinating, even heroic tale.
Arriving with nothing in the 1890s in then German East Africa, they became successful within a few decades, forming the economic backbone of the territory. Nemesis arrived in the form of Julius Nyerere, educated by European Catholic missionaries and a graduate of Edinburgh University.
Before independence, European-owned farms had made Tanganika the world's largest producer of sisal. From 220,000 tons before nationalisation, annual production fell to 12,000 tons. Greeks and other Europeans were given tiny compensation in useless currency. Most simply gave up and left. Tanzania swiftly became a foreign aid basket case.
Marios Ghikas stayed on, though expropriated. In the 1990s, there was a change of policy, and Europeans were offered land again to farm. Marios took up the challenge. Tucker provides a well-researched history of the region, as well as much engaging reportage. Anyone reading this humane, intelligent account will be a great deal the wiser about not only East Africa, but also human naivete, folly and plain stupidity.
Robert Carver's 'Paradise with Serpents' is published by Harper PerennialReuse content