The identity diamond

The issue of identity has featured rather frequently the past few weeks, not least at a talk I gave on Breaking the Myths around World War 1 in Africa (Feet of Endurance: World War 1 in Africa; images). I am lucky enough to hold dual citizenship however, as I’ve commented to people since the start of the commemorations of the centenary of WW1, and more expecially with recent developments in the UK, my African identity has started to dominate. I regularly hear black colleagues complain about being asked a variety of questions which they interpret as racist. At the conference a young school lad came to me in the break asking how I had remained calm as a member of the audience asked a question about black rank and file soldiers ‘falling to pieces’ when their white officers were killed. How, this young black Zimbabwean asked, could this white man with Rhodesian roots even dare to ask the question he did.

As a white African, I often correct white and black colleagues (in both Britain and on the African continent) when they make the assumption that I am British and have to explain that there are whites who are born in Africa, along with many other cultural groups such as Indian and Arab. Usually this is when the person concerned is moaning about how ignorant British people are of Africa or telling me that ‘you’re responsible for …’, ‘it’s obvious why Africa is so corrupt…’ etc. In one of my discussions following such an introduction, a Nigerian who has spent more years outside of his home country than in it, worked through a variety of identity labels eventually deciding that at heart he was Igbo. An Englishman in the same discussion associated himself with the village he was born rather than where he was brought up. In another context, an Italian living and working in the UK introduced himself as BrItalian – wonderful, I thought, does that really make me BrAfrican? It doesn’t quite work for BrScottish or BrFrench though…

An issue I find rather intriguing is what white South Africans call themselves. I have heard reference to SAE (not self addressed envelope) but South African English but if you listen to white South Africans talk and read historical books, they refer to black South Africans as African. So, what/how do white South Africans see themselves? Epecially being seventh or even eighth generation in the county with little other than tangential cultural links to a few European countries. Interestingly, if someone asks what I am, I’ll say South African but I generally associate more with Africa and sub-Sahara Africa than even South Africa.

I am African, born and bred there, but I’m more than that. I’ve taken on a fair amount of Britishness having lived in that country for so long, but I’m also an educationalist and historian (according to my business card), others describe me as an academic although I don’t have a university or other official academic post. And the list could go on – wife, friend, daughter …

It was an email reference to the ‘fairer sex’ by a male colleague who regularly challenges labels which made me decide to write this post. He wouldn’t have used the term indiscriminately leading me to  wonder what the origin of the term was considering that the women he was referring to (consciously or otherwise) all had dark hair and most, not all of Middle Eastern descent. Given the different uses of the word fair, I can take my pick as to what was meant and not be offended.

A student from the Caribbean once told me that a customer at the place she worked had made a racist comment asking her how she had blue hair (she had blue braids woven in amongst her black braids). For over 10 years now, this comment has stayed with me and I’m no closer to working out how it is racist. Another, also Caribbean, student told me emphatically I shouldn’t be wearing traditional African outfits (…) as in her view I wasn’t African and therefore not allowed to wear what I wanted. These occasions provided opportunties to open conversation and break down barriers. Similarly, the little children in the villages who come walking alongside me taking my hand, turning it over and comparing it to theirs or gently pulling the hairs on my arm – they don’t have any and their hands are two different shades compared to mine. This is curiosity – a way of discovery, learning and developing identity. My A-level French teacher welcomed my confused, often ‘stupid’, questions around the language – she told me she could see I was engaging with the language and working through the anomalies to get to the core (the truth).

And as for the diamond? It’s an analogy for what I am – a human being made up of many different facets. Some shine more brightly than others depending on where you the observer are standing and how closely you want to peer or stare. They say ‘diamonds are a girl’s best friend‘ – I’m not so sure about that really, but I do see some endearing traits in diamonds – steadfast and unchanging (once cut), light reflector and yet transparent and penetrating (they can cut through glass). We’ve put a value on them deciding they’re expensive.

Reading Tim Butcher’s Blood River, I can’t help but recognise the damage assumptions around identity have caused. A discussion group on the book commented how selfish he’d been putting so many people at risk for a personal whim. Perhaps, but if Tim hadn’t undertaken his journey, what misconceptions would many still be holding about the Congo? Diamonds are the consequence of unpleasant levels of heat and pressure – out of horror comes beauty. It depends on how I look at it and choose to interpret what I see. Now more than ever, I try and find the positive in order to build bridges and understanding – the alternative is unthinkable.

Bare Feet

Walking across the local playing fields on a lovely sunny warm day in Hertfordshire, I kicked off my shoes to experience the freshly cut grass. It made me think of a paper I’d recently read on the carriers in World War Africa where the author was commenting on the carriers not having shoes and that this was a sign of mistreatment. I wonder if it really was.

My logic?
Growing up in South Africa, even in a city, I was barefoot as often as I could be and was even comfortable walking to the shop on the hot tar road shoeless. I couldn’t do it today as my feet are out of practice and too tender.

In East Africa today, most people on the Kilimanjaro wear flipflops (with socks and legwarmers in winter). If it wasn’t for the jiggerflea still prevalent, I’m sure bare feet would be preferred – the children definitely prefer no shoes when playing. At first, we were amazed at the flipflops, but they have the best grip on the slippery slopes in virtually all weathers (and it’s my preferred footwear).

The Zulu impi trained under Shaka were well used to running across the South African veld bare footed. Although this was 100 years before the First World War, during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, the Zulu were still fighting bare foot and photos of the Bambatha rebellion of 1906 suggest no footwear was still ‘part of the uniform’.

Walter Dobbertin who served in German East Africa with the Germans during the war, recorded his experiences through photographs (Lettow Vorbeck’s soldiers) A quick perusal of these (also found at the Bundesarchive) shows that some askari wore shoes whilst others were shoeless – including photos from the late 19th century. Pictures taken by Dobbertin of village scenes show that all the civilians were bare footed. This suggests bare feet was natural.

In May 1914, the Standing Orders for the Nigerian Regiment, West African Frontier Force were amended. This document which includes the issue of uniform to officers and rank and file mentions ‘sandals’ but has nothing annoted next to the term. They were issued with 2 pairs puttees on enlistment and 2 pairs annually. This suggests that the West African local soldiers also fought bare footed. (TNA, UK: CO 445/34 29603)

If people were not used to wearing shoes and were then expected to wear them because they were now enlisted (willingly or otherwise) in the armed forces (in whatever capacity) with little time for training and getting used to the changed circumstances, new shoes would be far more painful than possibly going without.

The urgent mass demand for manpower (including women and children) to undertake war work would have put an incredible strain on the Ordnance Department when the focus was on Europe and getting weapons to that theatre. The pressure on the supply units was great. There are accounts of white soldiers walking around in uniforms which were almost non-existent (Norman Parsons Jewell in On Call gives a graphic account of the state of uniforms at one point in the war as do AW Lloyd’s cartoons). It wasn’t for not caring – the items were just not available in the field and the demands of war meant there were no ships to transport such ‘luxuries’.

Another thought which crossed my mind when reflecting on the shoe issue was trench foot. How did that Western Front condition compare with shoeless carriers, askari and soldiers in Africa?

My plan isn’t to justify the failure to issue shoes or not, but to challenge how we look at the actions of the past. We cannot look at the past using today’s accepted practices. We need to step back in time to understand the conditions, beliefs and social practices prevalent at that time and in the particular space.

Old Haunts

This week marks 20 years of my close relationship with the UK, and how things have changed in that time. Having left South Africa as part of a work transfer in 1996 we were unsure of when we would next see ‘home’, but lo and behold we were back in August for a wedding. It proved how small the world is and how travel had changed. Since then we have been privileged enough to return home every year and witness the changes South Africa has undergone since the end of Apartheid.

I’m not going to go into those now but I’ve always looked forward to going home and seeing what has changed (also challenging perceptions on both sides of the equator – it’s incredible how when you dig down, there are so many similarities irrespective of colour or gender but more of that another day). The one thing I have struggled with understanding is people’s reluctance to ‘go back’ and visit old haunts.

One striking feature for me concerning South Africa is how much safer the country has become – I enjoy walking through Cape Town’s old District Six area and despite warnings from friends and colleagues, walking areas of Pretoria from the Gautrain station is rather pleasant providing lots of time for reflection (time which will be lost when the SANDF archive moves to its new home in Irene this year). Similarly, we enjoy hiring a car and just driving through the country-side seeing how beautiful the land is, particularly areas whites were discouraged from travelling through during Apartheid (and sad to say, since too).

But this month, I got to experience why some people don’t want to go back somewhere – surprisingly, it was in London – more specifically Spitalfields Market. My early worklife in the UK was in the City of London and I used to visit the Spitalfields area when I could. The last time I visited the area was about 5 years ago to do a London walk and had heard that changes were underway. Taking the opportunity of a few hours to go AWOL, I wandered through street – Gun Street, Barrack Street, past Petticoat Lane and into the market area but all the old atmosphere had disappeared. New square glass buildings framed a roofed in area with similar styled restaurants in the middle. To its credit there were some stall holders selling their wares but what a disappointment. Spitalfields is no longer on my list for first-time visitors to London.

As a historian, it’s natural to visit ‘old haunts’, some of which we might only be visiting in person for the first time but know the place well (as well as one can) from reading about it and perhaps seeing photos. The challenge I have is showing appropriate reactions of remembrance and reflection when I’m feeling the exact opposite at having discovered that my perceptions and assumptions align with what I’m seeing. But I have witnessed the opposite too.

My recent trip to Senegal and Goree Island in particular reminded me of our first visit to West Africa, Ghana, in 2002. Going to the Elmina castle where slaves were kept before being transported across to the Americas we were reflecting on things when two young Black American women drew attention to themselves by arguing vehemently with the castle guide – they were just discovering that contrary to what they had been taught at school, namely that white people were all to blame for slavery and their being American, Blacks themselves had sold fellow country-men into slavery and had participated quite energetically in the trade. Our hearts went out to the girls – we knew what it was like to have your government lie and manipulate the story of the past. It would take some time and investigation but their visit to this ‘old haunt’ had set them on the path of myth-breaking. 14 years later and this incident is still vivid.

This coincided with some books I’ve recently read. One factual, Rwanda means universe, and four fictional – Harper Lee’s Go set a Watchman (the sequal to To Kill a Mockingbird), Barbara Towell’s A little piece for mother which links London, Poland and Auschwitz, while the other two are due for publication later this year – Anna Ryland’s A second chance (also with a Polish and London link) and John Samson’s Powerless (post-Apartheid encounters).

Misconception 4: Indian troops were not up to scratch

Doesn’t it strike you as odd, that if the Indians had really performed poorly in Africa they would have been withdrawn sooner rather than later?  The record of the Indian service in East Africa speaks for itself, and should not be compared with their experiences in Europe as the conditions and circumstances under which they served were different.

The Indian forces received a bad press for their perceived performance at Tanga as they were an easy scapegoat. This doesn’t mean that they were perfect. As JM ‘Jimmy’ Stewart who commanded IEF C (which fought at Longido) recorded about the attack on Tanga when he heard about it:

“Many of us who knew India had anticipated that the troops detailed were not good enough, but this was further complicated by a want of secrecy about their intentions, undue confidence and a lack of determination.” (Jimmie Stewart: Frontiersman, p69)

The Indian troops rapidly expelled all concerns in their abilities when they held their ground and showed the raw South Africans how to fight the Germans at the Battle for Salaita Hill on 12 February 1916.

The Indian forces served through most of the campaign, only being replaced in late 1917. Harry Fecitt has written short articles on a number of the Indian contingents involved. Apart from troops, India supplied sappers and miners (for example the Faridkots) and medical forces (incuding 250 Indian stretcher-bearers from South Africa). Doctors who have written about their work with the Indian Medical Services include Temple Harris in Seventeen Letters to Tatham, NP Jewell and the author Francis Brett Young in Marching on Tanga. Andrew Kerr has written about Jammu and Kashmir involvement.

In addition to the Indians who came over from India, there were Indians resident in East Africa who played their part. Mention has already been made of the South African Stretcher Bearers. Those from British East Africa served on the railways whilst others served in a military capacity (Uganda Railway Corps). The diversity of role of the East African Goans during the War is explored by Clifford Pereira.

The centenary of the war and the focus on India has given impetus to students of the war to find out more. Watch this space as there are sure to be more accounts of Indian bravery and steadfastness. A summary of Sikh involvement has recently been published and work is being done on the Muslim contribution. India and the Great War has a few articles which mention East Africa. The most definitive publication to date, The Indian Army in East Africa by SD Pradhan (1991) is unfortunately no longer in print although limited copies can be found in the second-hand market.

Indians had served in Africa before, particularly during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), for which their services are commemorated with a memorial in Observatory, Johannesburg.