A review of The Red Pelican - Life on Africa’s Last Frontier by Jon Arensen, Old Africa Books, Naivasha, Kenya, 2013.
This book is a biography with elaborations and dialogue like it might have been. It tells the tale of Dick Lyth, an Englishman imbued with missionary zeal who, in 1939, set out to minister to Africans in southern Sudan. Before he could barely get started, World War II began and he offered his services to the crown. He was commissioned into the Sudan Defense Forces and given the task of securing the south eastern border from aggression from Italian troops based in Ethiopia. This was not as easy task nor was it easily done because initially Lyth had no troops to command. However, he recruited among southern tribesmen and soon patched together and trained a small force. Next was the problem of getting to the border, which was hundreds of miles away across roadless barren desert and waterless plains. They marched. Indeed throughout this saga the feats of human endurance that are recounted are amazing.
Climbing to the Boma Plateau on the Ethiopian border, Lyth made friends with the Murle inhabitants and enlisted several in the war effort. Outgunned by the better equipped Italian led forces, Lyth - completely on his own - devised a hit-and-run guerilla campaign that kept the enemy at bay and in retreat for months until a larger Allied Force could push into Ethiopia and remove the menace. Lyth subsequently transferred into the colonial administrative service and served as district commissioner for this remote area for the next ten years. Indeed eastern southern Sudan was then and perhaps still is among the most remote and neglected parts of Africa. The D.C.’s principal job was to keep the peace and to regulate disputes among the tribes. Lyth was excellent at this. He understood, listened and was Solomonic in judgment. As evidence of respect he was given the name Red Pelican by Murle elders. Lyth married his English sweetheart and they raised three children in the isolated administrative towns where they lived. After an astonishing career, following the independence of Sudan in 1956 Lyth resigned from the colonial service, took Holy Orders and later became the Anglican bishop of Kigezi, Uganda.
This biography is replete with stories of bravery, endurance, cultural tolerance, big game hunting, and governing issues. It was a time of imperialism, when British rule was uncontested. The book paints an accurate picture of what life was like, both for the Europeans and the Africans, during this epoch and place.
The writing was a little turgid at times, but the story line held my interest. The map in the book was inadequate for the task of locating the action. Finally, I discovered one geographic error, when the author described Lyth’s initial posting in 1939 to south western Sudan “along the borders of Uganda, Congo and the Central African Republic.” In those days the CAR was known as Oubangui-Chari.
Those in search of obscure, but real stories about Africa in days gone by will find this a fascinating read.