This is my review of James Martin – Opening Africa: from finding Obama’s tribe to founding Nairobi, written by Philo and M.J. Pullicino, MPI Publishing, Great Britain, 2008.
This is kind of an odd but nonetheless interesting little book. The original manuscript was written some years ago by Philo Pullicino, a Maltese national, who served during the pre-independence and early independence years in the British colonial service in Zanzibar and Uganda. Pullicino went on to a distinguished career as an international civil servant and Maltese diplomat. He wrote this reflection about a fellow Maltese after his retirement. Philo’s manuscript was revised and edited by his son M.J. after his father’s death. Obviously, the references to Obama – including that in the title – were added in order to enhance the attractiveness of the work.
The story related is an intriguing one. It traces the life of James Martin, a Maltese seaman, who landed in Zanzibar in the 1870s. Although illiterate, Martin mastered languages easily and possessed an even-natured temperament. Although not being “pure” European and thus sort of a second class subject, he began to make his mark in East Africa as a caravan organizer. He began trekking with James Thompson in the 1880s and with him opened a new overland route through Maasai, Kikuyu and Kalenjin lands (present day Kenya) to Lake Victoria. It was on this first safari that Thompson and Martin (dubbed Martini by his Swahili porters) encountered Luo tribesmen (Obama’s tribe) near Lake Victoria. Subsequently over the next twenty years, Martin was to organize and lead perhaps a hundred trading and supply safaris to Uganda from the coast. Indeed, he was probably the most experienced man ever in that regard.
Naturally, Martin was employed by the railroad to prepare construction depots as the enterprise moved up country. Reportedly it was Martin who selected the site and built the first camp that became Nairobi. Later Martin signed on with the Imperial British East Africa Company and the colonial service. He was the District Officer at Eldama Ravine for some years; then was posted to Entebbe. After the Great War, in which he served, he found East Africa changed with little place for an illiterate Maltese, no matter how competent. Thus he retired to Portugal, his wife’s home and disappeared from the pages of history.
Author Pullicino, who also served in Entebbe years later, was intrigued by the snippets of tales about his fellow countryman. His investigations resulted in this book. Pullicino, however, was not a critic. He had nothing bad to say about Martin. He found all of his attributes – even tempered, able to deal harmoniously with avaricious tribal chiefs and racist superiors – to be admirable. In fact, Pullicino had little bad to say about anything. He always put an understanding and positive spin on people, circumstances and events. Given the reality of times, that gets to be a bit tedious. Also, Pullicino’s memory of geography is suspect as he moves some tribes (Kikuyu in southern Sudan?), flamingoes (Lake Naivasha?) and towns (Mumias at the base of Mt. Elgon?) around, but I forgive him those lapses. More irritating was the obvious Obama hook that son M.J. added after the fact. Most readers will recognize that for what it is, but if that helped sales, okay.
This book is an easy read and it does educate readers about James Martin, an overlooked, but important figure in the opening of Kenya and Uganda to the wider world.