Book Review: “Drums on the Night Air” by Veronica Cecil

14 February 2012

Veronica paints a vivid picture of her move to the Congo, with her husband and one year old son, in the 1960’s. Trying to forget her own experiences as an expat child, she tries hard to become a part of the community with her Congolese, Ghanaian, Belgian and Dutch neighbours. With help from the doughty Mrs van Royen (herself a survivor of the concentration camps in Indonesia) she builds a life for her family despite the food shortages and growing unrest among the local population.


Struggling to analyse the political situation, murky at best, Veronica is rare among expatriates of the era, most of who tended to turn a blind eye to what was going on around them. The prevailing attitude was one of endurance and voluntary isolation from the locals, tolerating the boredom and amusing themselves at the ‘club’ until the contract ends and it’s time to return to their home country. The exceptions seem to be the stoical missionary expatriates who at least feel they can make a contribution to local society.

Still trying to make sense of why ‘the company’ (never named) is still keeping a firm hold on the manufacture of palm oil in the Haute Congo, Veronica relishes the move to Elizabetha, on the banks of the Congo River. Once settled in to their new home she befriends and soon comes to rely on their houseboy, Nicholas. Of course Nicholas is all too aware of the impending attacks by rebel groups in the foothills, but it is his duty to take care of the family and this includes protecting them from the approaching rumours of disaster.

“Drums on the Night Air” is both an adventure story and a personal journey of discovery. Veronica struggles to comprehend the impending civil war which contrasts with her ideal vision of an independent Congo. Finally fleeing Elizabetha just days before the birth of her second child, Veronica grows from the naive young wife into a strong and capable mother of two. Altogether a refreshing and candid look back at a tumultuous period of expatriate life.

Authors: Veronica Cecil
Published by Constable & Robinson Ltd, London (ISBN 978 1 84901 641 4)

Review by Donna Worrall