SPEAK SWAHILI, DAMMIT! by James Penhaligon
An inspiring biographical account of a young boy’s chaotic life in a remote, wild, corner of East Africa.
Born in Africa, James’s childhood is spent on an isolated gold-mine near Lake Victoria, Tanganyika,
with just his sister and mother; his father tragically dying through injuries
sustained from World War II. His upbringing is mainly left to a tribal ayah
called Amina and an elderly Swahili man, and he learns to speak Swahili before
In this unusual setting he soon discovers some stark facts about life through
tragedy and danger, but it is the local watu, imbued with kindness and irrepressible humour, that save him from despair, and
with whom he learns to fish with home-made lines, eat insects and famously
abuse the European hierarchy in real Swahili!
Known as ‘Jimu’ to his friends, he marks out his own country with a Sukuma boy named Lutoli, falls deeply in love with the beautiful, but older, German
girl Gretchen and throws himself out of the back of a bus to avoid being sent
away to school.
Once at school, in Arusha, James tends to mix with other non-conformers and
presents a dilemma to teachers – he is a white boy with a ‘black spirit’. His gang gets up to nefarious enterprises, bringing them into a state of
permanent conflict with the system.
James is fascinated with the history of Tanganyika back to the time when it was
a German Colony until 1918. The unparalleled courage of the German leader Paul
von Lettow Vorbeck against the British is a beacon to the young boy of what can
be accomplished against adversity.
Above all James discovers the world, and life, a little by education, a lot by
accident, but overwhelmingly by fate and happenstance, in circumstances few
people in the developed world have experienced.
James Penhaligon is a multi-lingual consultant psychiatrist in the United
Kingdom. Born to Cornish parents, and raised deep in the bush in Tanganyika,
later to emerge as Tanzania, he remains a fluent Swahili speaker, and has never
been able to escape his early influences, or the gaze it gave him on life and
the world. Despite having left Africa, and carving himself a successful career
in medicine, and later psychiatry, James has always had a fascinating East
African story waiting to be told, and, finally, he has written it. The result
is Speak Swahili, Dammit!