Author James Penhaligon, born in Africa of Cornish parents (Penhaligon is a Cornish name from Pen-Helygen: End of willow tree) was the first son for generations to be born outside of the Duchy who’s book ‘Speak Swahili, Dammit!‘ is an excellent read and of course based on his recall of events in Africa.
Review by Andre Ramswaw, West Briton, Cornwall – Thursday, July 14, 2011
CORNISH pasties have made their way to Mexican mines, Canadian shopping malls and dodgy filling station shelves up and down the UK motorway network. Even with EU protection, we are no longer surprised to see the county’s greatest culinary export being crimped and corrupted in all manner of ways and locations beyond the Tamar.But the pasty factory that once graced the scrappy east African mine town of Geita, surely takes some beating in the ranks of exotic addresses. It was in Geita, now part of Tanzania, that James Penhaligon’s mother brought a taste of the Duchy to the hungry masses of British, Italian, German, Portuguese and South African emigrants yearning for a wholesome hot meal that, at least broke up the drudgery of the company store inventory list. As James recounts in this re-released childhood memoir, it wasn’t unusual to see ragged and hitherto jungle-bound tribesmen sprinting from his mum’s kitchen to the mine’s social club with trays full of Cornish pasties balanced on their heads – ready to fill the ravenous maw of the assembled drinkers.Not that James, or Jimu as he’s known to his African chums, is particularly fazed one way or the other.
His childhood and, indeed, the beauty of this book, is in his struggle to reconcile his Africanness – he was born in the Zulu royal city of Nongoma – with his European heritage. His mother followed Jimu’s father from Cornwall to southern and later eastern Africa after his service in the Royal Navy. To Jimu, though aware and vaguely proud of his Cornish heritage, the Duchy was mostly a distant and unromantic memory.
Geita, meanwhile, is a “man’s country” where snakes and hyenas and miners and magic men and the crippled and pitiful Wasikini beggars live in a constant state of sun-bleached torpidity.
Jimu embraced the African lifestyle and quickly became fluent in Swahili, quickly embracing an unhibited culture in which sex talk and swearing are neither taboo nor avoided. Despite his Cornish-Swahili angst, bouts of malaria, recurring racism and casual bigotry, the author makes clear in this touching, adventurous and charmingly innocent memoir that, given the choice, he would not have wanted to grow up anywhere else.