Obituary: Professor James Lewton-Brain

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The Independent Online
Some of the most imaginative and productive linguists and anthropologists in post- colonial Africa had previously been members of the British Colonial Service. Many managed this by becoming trans- atlantic scholars, bringing their field experience and bush skills to American university campuses. James Lewton-Brain was one of these, and he made the transition with relative ease, for he had always been sympathetic, humane and fair- minded; an early champion of women's rights in Africa (and elsewhere), and a subtle and eloquent speaker of Swahili. He wrote widely on both these subjects in many articles, in papers, and in several books.

Jim Brain had served in Tanganyika and Uganda for 12 years, beginning in 1951, and it was my good fortune to meet him at the end of this period, at Syracuse University in New York, in 1963, when he was finishing work on his PhD dissertation and I was on a crash course, learning Chichewa (also known as Chinyanja), a language- skill necessary to my bush-posting as a teacher in Central Africa.

The distinguished Africanist Lucy Mair had guided Jim Brain, and Brain guided me. So profound was his understanding of the structure and sound of Bantu languages that he was able to give me the foundations for fluency in Chichewa, a language which up to then had never been taught in the United States.

His lessons stayed with me. Indeed, just before Christmas last year I was travelling down the Shire River to the Zambezi, from Malawi into Mozambique - Chichewa seems to be the lingua franca of the entire Zambezi Valley - and many times silently thanked Jim Brain for his language-teaching methods and his good advice: "Remember, the `m' in mbalame has the same force as the `m' in Fascism." Jim was the most generous of men, but he also showed me that the gift of a language is the gift of a world: he helped me travel and gave me access to a whole culture - and not just me, but all his many thousands of students.

He entered the world of scholarship obliquely, via soldiering and the Colonial Service. As a 16-year-old boy in Essex (he was born in Chigwell in 1923) he worked as a farm labourer, and at the age of 19 joined the British army. He spent the rest of the Second World War as a scout car driver in France, Holland, Belgium and Germany; he received a commission after the war, and was sent with the Royal Tank Regiment to Palestine and Hong Kong. His work as an Agricultural Field Officer and Community Development Officer followed, and he served with distinction in Tanganyika and Uganda.

When independence was granted to the British territories of East Africa, Jim Brain became a research fellow in some of the remoter parts of Tanzania, and he decided to work for his doctorate in anthropology. He earned a PhD without ever having gained a BA: he was accepted by the Senate of London University for graduate study on the basis of his career achievements, particularly in the field of African languages.

He wrote widely on the peoples of East Africa, on language and patterns of change, and the position of women; he made important contributions to our understanding of left- handedness and African witchcraft, which he called "a hardy perennial". Among his books are The Basic Structure of Swahili (1963) and The Last Taboo: sex and the fear of death (1979).

He was spirited, passionate, humorous, and a powerful intellect; he was also a great teacher. He was physically strong, and so his heart attack in December came as a shock. He was married three times: to Marian Peat (the mother of his two sons, Charles, a goldsmith, and Peter, Principal Dancer at the Ballets de Monte Carlo); to Mary Gordon, the author; and to Karen Robertson, professor of English at Vassar College, who survives him.

James Lewton-Brain, anthropologist: born Chigwell, Essex 12 September 1923; Professor, Department of Anthropology, State University of New York, New Paltz 1967-87 (Emeritus); married 1950 Marian Peat (two sons; marriage dissolved 1973), 1974 Mary Gordon (marriage dissolved 1978), 1980 Karen Robertson; died Poughkeepsie, New York 2 December 1996.