Fergus Wilson, who has died at the age of 91, was the epitome of a
generation of British colonial civil servants whose altruism and dedication
to improving the lives of small-scale farmers in Africa became
an inspiration to so many amongst whom he worked.
Fergus Brunswick Wilson was born in 1908 in Camberwell where his father was a Minister of the Presbyterian Church. During much of the First World War he and his two brothers were brought up on his father's family farm in County Antrim in Ulster. It was here that he acquired his abiding love, and basic knowledge of things agricultural. After the war, his family settled at Potten End in Hertfordshire. Fergus was 11 when his father died and, as the eldest son, helped his mother in looking after his two brothers. Fergus attended Berkhampstead School where he was a very talented student. excelling particularly in science and maths as well as in music and art. After leaving school, he attended the Hertfordshire Institute of Agriculture, from which he gained a County Major Scholarship, enabling him to enter Fitzwilliam House at Cambridge University to read for a degree in Agriculture.
Following post-graduate study at Cambridge and in Trinidad, Fergus Wilson joined the Colonial Agricultural Service in 1933, being appointed Agricultural Officer and posted to Zanzibar. He spent the first 14 years of his career in Zanzibar, becoming a fluent speaker of Swahili and extremely knowledgeable on the agricultural systems of peasant farming in those islands. Fergus became closely involved in rural education programmes. He was a born teacher and only lately discovered that the Africans had nicknamed him 'Mwalimu', the Swahili for teacher. Fergus was, essentially, a 'field' man, working outside in the districts of Zanzibar, living in his tent or resthouse. He was held in very deep respect by the African farmer and was greatly trusted as a person who could be relied upon.
Early in 1940, Fergus volunteered for military service in East Africa and, after gaining a commission, he was posted to the 1/6th (Tanganyika) Battalion of the King's African Rifles, stationed at Marsabit in the north of Kenya. During the two years of active service which followed, his battalion fought in the campaign against the Italians in Somalia and Ethiopia. At the completion of this stage of hostilities, he expected to be moved to another area of operations. Instead he was given a Class B Release from the army and ordered to return to Zanzibar to organize an emergency food production campaign. A very serious food shortage situation had developed, largely due to the war in the Far East which had cut off essential rice shipments to Zanzibar; and food supplies from the East African mainland had also dried up.
So began a 3.5 year campaign, extraordinarily well organized and conducted with great skill and persuasiveness by Fergus Wilson. Winning the approval and co-operation of the large majority of the Zanzibar people, through effective propaganda and by appropriate instruction and supervision, substantial acreages of rice, maize, root crops and pulses were planted in the rural areas. Additionally, for the 60,000 population of Zanzibar Town, half-acre plots on the town's periphery, and planting material/seed, were provided. The scheme was a remarkably successful achievement, immensely to his credit. The smallholders not only fed themselves and their families, but also the substantial surpluses of food produced undoubtedly saved Zanzibar. Fergus Wilson was awarded the M.B.E. for his role, but he afterwards very modestly claimed that the award was in recognition of the team effort by his colleagues.
A two-year lectureship at Cambridge University in Tropical Agriculture and Land Use, for post-graduate students destined for Colonial Dependencies, was preceded by a two year assignment in North Nyanza Province of Kenya and travel elsewhere in East and West Africa. It was during his time at Cambridge that Fergus Wilson successfully applied for the Chair of Agriculture at the University College of East Africa at Makerere in Uganda. In 1952, he took up this new job on what was to be the most eventful and successful period of his entire working career.
Fergus had developed very clear ideas on the need for locally trained agricultural graduates in East Africa, capable of helping the African small-scale peasant farmer. Up to this time, the only way to equip selected Africans for work in the agricultural sector was to send them to study at universities in Britain and elsewhere. On his arrival at Makerere. Fergus was to find very limited resources available and an extremely small department of only three students, dealing with the teaching of agriculture at the diploma level. Most of the practical work was undertaken at research institutes of the Department of Agriculture in Uganda. It was a daunting prospect but Fergus had the vision, dedication, perseverance and determination to succeed. Seeking support, administrative and financial, 0f the East African and British Governments for his new Faculty; recruiting the academic and related staff; constructing the faculty buildings, lecture theatres and laboratories; obtaining the land and developing the University farm; and, finally, establishing a University degree course in agriculture, independent of London University - all these achievements, almost incredible for one man, were accomplished over the course of 12 years.
In 1964, Fergus Wilson took up a new assignment, with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and moved to Rome where he was appointed Branch Chief of Agricultural Education and, subsequently, Chief of the Agricultural Education, Extension and Rural Youth Service. During this period, he made a substantial contribution to the development of agricultural education in many countries of the world involving close collaboration with the UNESCO and ILO organizations of the U.N. He retired in 1971, following a most successful World Conference on Agricultural Education, held in Copenhagen.
In his youth and whilst an undergraduate at Cambridge, Fergus was a keen sportsman, coxing the FitzWilliam House Ist VIII to victory in the Lent races of 1928 and 1929. He was an accomplished player of the cello and played in many concerts organized by the University Music Society. He was an enthusiastic fly fisherman, a lifelong hobby, and he was a perfectionist when it came to tying flies. He was also a superb photographer and examples of his beautiful photographs, taken in Zanzibar and elsewhere in Africa, are still to be found in East Africa and many are included in the Memoirs he has recently completed, and which are now lodged in the British Library. The originals of his photographs are with the Commonwealth Section of Cambridge University Library.
Fergus Wilson was very happily married to Hilda Marriott for over 55 years until her death in 1991. In 1996 he married Jennifer Glazier, who survives him along with three sons from his first marriage.