The book is based on the letters of a Scot in his early twenties who has been recruited to the Colonial Service in Northern Rhodesia, a British Protectorate in central Africa, in the middle of the 20th Century. He wants to reassure his parents and his girlfriend that all is well. At the same time, he finds the society and the environment that he is working in is wonderfully different to anything he has encountered previously and he does his best to convey all this in as lively and as truthful way as he can.
When he sets out for Northern Rhodesia he thinks he will be in one of the most urbanised societies in British-ruled Africa because of the presence of the towns on the Copper Belt and the line-of- rail. Instead, he is posted to one of the most remote and most feudal areas of the territory. The place is Barotseland and its traditional government is headed by a Paramount Chief and a ruling elite of aristocratic families who hold the reins of power. Alongside this traditional system is the colonial one which provides subsidies for the salaried elite and for development and tries to ensure that the funds are properly accounted for. The colonial administration also finances projects directly in consultation with the traditional authorities. On each side there is respect for the other.
Many older members of the colonial establishment regard Barotseland as a haven of tranquillity far from the growing political agitation that is rocking the normal tenor of life in the rest of Northern Rhodesia. The Barotse elite also fears the growing power of the young black nationalist leaders whom they dislike, even despise. They are slow to realise that the growing nationalist movement that starts from wanting to destroy the link with white-controlled Southern Rhodesia will go on to demand independence from British rule. And then it dawns on the old elite that their own powers will be reduced or even removed once the country becomes independent of the British.
The letters are interspersed by a present day commentary which explains their historical and social background. This helps the reader with no knowledge of British colonial history in Africa to understand what is going on. But it is the letters which really demonstrate the enlightenment of British rule based on the consent of the ruled. It was a form of government which was meant to educate the African people into the ways and skills required in a modern democracy and economy. It could only last as long as the people being ruled felt that the British were doing their best to safeguard and promote their long term interests.