Saturday, October 6, 2018

Cyprian Fernandes: Leo de Souza, Preface to a life as a surgeon

Achievers: Leo de Souza


Leo de Souza

College of Surgeons East Africa

In surgery



My life

My memoir covers a wide expanse of time and place. The period itself encompasses a span of a hundred years. While the narrative ends in 1971 when I was forced out of Uganda, it begins with recounting of the slave trade in 1871. This length of time is essential to place events in proper perspective and add understanding to how things came to be.

My parents came from Goa, a Portuguese colony on the west coast of lndia. In the Velhas Conquistas, life was gracious, courtly, unhurried and Catholic. However, its economy could not sustain its people forcing Goans to seek their fortunes elsewhere, mostly in British India, especially Bombay. Some went to East Africa, some to the Portuguese colonies of Mocambique, Angola, and Macao. 

My father and his older brother sailed to Tanga, Tanganyika, prior to World War I, when the Germans ruled East Africa. My father worked at Usagara Company Limited, the foremost German firm. Germany eventually lost the war to Britain. The change necessitated my father transfer his services to The Custodian of Enemy Property, a British Government department that oversaw disposal of German assets.

My sojourn takes me to three continents.

I was born in Tanga in 1926 at the time of the British regime and, at age seven, was sent to India for my education. Although I attended a fine English school in Goa (St. Joseph's Arpora), a Jesuit college (St. Xavier's) in Mumbai, then Grant Medical College founded by the British, it was distressing to be discriminated against by the English, particularly as I had a fondness for their language and esteem for their literature.

On returning to Tanganyika as an adult, my first encounter with a British Immigration Officer on board ship at Mombasa was extremely traumatic, a baptismal rite that relegated me to second-class status. I learned that mzungu was king and everyone else serf.

Before my father’s untimely death in 1957, we spent many evenings talking. My unending questions helped him recollect his past clearly: his home, marriage, hopes, aspirations. The opening account of the slave trade was recounted by Ali Aboud, legal assistant at a firm in Tanga and his dear friend. They told me the story of the Germans, the war, the British, their friend Olenzu. The narrative of the one-day-war in Tanga, when von Lettow routed the British and Indian army, came from my father, who was there on that fateful day.

My time as a doctor in Tanganyika left me incensed. The colonial system defined our status, relegating the Indian peremptorily to a position of little worth. Limitations of where we could work, live and socialize left us believing we were not quite as good nor quite as equal to the white man. Our wings clipped, our spirit curbed, we could not fly, we could not soar. The realms of the truly free were not for us. The innate gentlemanliness of a few good and understanding Britishers did not make amends for injustices of colonialism.

I did not let my aspirations of wanting to be a surgeon by British standards go by the wayside. I finished my training in Britain and returned to Africa as a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in Orthopaedics. Eminently suited to be the kind of doctor that newly independent Tanganyika desperately needed, I found out I was the wrong man. In colonial times I was not white; now, in Tanganyika, removed from the shackles of colonialism, I was not black.

Dejected, I went to Uganda with help from my English chief of surgery who was in Kampala. In Lira I had the opportunity to work beside renowned surgeon, Mr. Denis Burkitt who was making significant advances in treatment of children’s lymphoma and in Gulu, with Drs. Lucille and Pierre Corti at Lacor Hospital. I was transferred to Kampala at the request of Mr. Ronald Huckstep to help run the Polio Clinic and we were on the front lines of eradication of polio. My professional life flourished and the family settled in comfortably despite an undercurrent of political rumblings. The final coup de grâce was the unexpected emergence of a boorish man at the helm of government, Idi Amin Dada, to whom violence was a way of life. It brought about my quiet and quick exit from the land I was beginning to consider my own. I realized painfully there was no place for me in this country either.

My father, brother, uncles, and first-born child are buried in Tanga, consigned to the earth. In that physical transition, they have given themselves to the very substance of the soil, altering and enriching it. I left something behind that is now part of the country.

For the years I lived and toiled there, my endeavors did not go without affecting some change for the better. I wanted, very much, to continue to give of myself, but I was not a native. If each little act is a ripple on a pond extending itself, sometimes unseen under the lotus leaves, then the ways of the people and the course of history are altered by the cumulative effect of such acts, considered insignificant at the time.

I write this story to appease my loss. Also to air my grievance that I received neither justice at the hands of the white colonial nor understanding at the hands of the black indigene. The people who shaped my life came from varied, sometimes markedly dissimilar, backgrounds.

It is a story not often heard.

The author passed away in 2016. His book, ‘No Place For Me’ will be published by November 2019.
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