How often do we hear these words? I heard them often as a teacher educator and admit that once upon a time, I used them myself about my students. That is until a colleague challenged me about ’empty vessels’ and discouting the life experiences students brought to the classroom. This was revolutionary and freeing.It’s also empowering – not least for a recent visit to a school in Kent to introduce them to the First World War in Africa. The group was Year 8 (12-13 year olds) who had not started learning about World War 1 at school. Teachers were understandably a bit concerned as the only time they had heard me speak was when I presented a more formal academic paper on the Feet of Endurance. After reminders about the students not knowing anything about the war and the introduction of Western Front memorials into the slides I’d sent across, I wasn’t sure what I’d be facing.
A few challenging questions such as ‘How many languages do people speak at the school?’ and ‘Am I African?’ soon broke the ice and when asked what came to mind when they heard the words ‘World War 1’, I got sufficient answers to lead into the story of Africa’s involvement. One young man ventured Adolf Hitler as a response. What an opportunity for lateral thinking. Thank goodness my school history teacher had taught us (she always gave us ‘3 useless facts per lesson) that Hitler had been a runner during WW1. On the spur of the moment, I decided to ask students to think about their weight – not to tell me, that’s far too personal, but to think of what they weighed. Then to imagine carrying 30 pounds or 20kgs (1/2 – 1/3) of themselves across the African field. Puts the carrier role into a slightly different light.
During the talk, another young chap (interestingly only the boys asked questions in the large setting) asked about the involvement of women. Being able to describe the size of a white settler farm in terms of football fields (38,000) really grabbed their attention. I’d only discovered that little snippet when preparing for the paper I presented at the National Army Museum on the role of women during WW1.
The questions that followed in the smaller class settings were just as insightful and thought-provoking. Two students wanted to know what kept me inspired to study the topic. Wow, what an opportunity to influence young people. Quite simply, my answer was, the humanity of man. Seeing how people worked together – people of all races, colours, creeds, beliefs and gender coming together to survive. There were a few gasps in one class where I told them I was a pacifist. Yes, I study war and had been answering questions about guns and ammunition and all sorts of military things that generally tend to interest boys. How can we work to avoid war, if we don’t know what causes it? War is a fact of life and it requires people to carry it out. It’s not my role to judge and many of my good friends and colleagues are in military fields, I respect that, knowing that the work they undertake is valuable and that unfortuantely somebody’s got to do it. They are striving to make the world a better place too, and sometimes someone has to stand up to that bully in the only way the bully knows.
Another wonderful question from these young people who ‘don’t know’ was whether Africa should have got caught up in the war. Another myth could be debunked. Telling students they would soon be learning about Kitchener not getting enough weapons to the front and that he would suffer a bad reputation because of this and other things, I had only good things to say about him when it came to the war in Africa. K wanted to keep Africa out of the war as he knew what it would entail. However, his colleagues in the War Office and the politicians led by Lloyd George counter-acted him, as did war plans and individual personal vendettas. This ‘easy’ question was then followed by ‘so, what do you think Africa would be like today if it hadn’t got involved?’ How does one answer that? I chickened out by saying it was a difficult question, the borders in Africa would be different, possibly wouldn’t have had Burundi and Rwanda and genocide in the latter but who knows. I left him with the thought that he could answer this question himself in future by studying history and exploring the field of Virtual/What if History.
I left feeling rather upbeat. There is hope for the generations coming through despite, in my opinion, the education systems which in numerous countries are working against educating the masses to be involved, critical players in determining their futures.
A little more disconcerting though, were the challenges posed by a colleague historian who had joined us for the day. She insisted on emphasising racism: all officers were white and the rank and file black. The first black officer trained in the British Army happening in 1942 (I haven’t confirmed). Colonialism was bad, Africa is poor and the slave trade was the cause of all ills. I purposefully mention she is white as I know a number of my readers would automatically assume she was black. She too, like me, is a foreigner in Britain. Her comments and challenges resonated with an email which another friend then forwarded to a number of us. This contained an article entitled The reality of the SA situation by Daniel Lotter. I’m not linking or copying the article here as I don’t believe in perpetuating myths of the nature Daniel is stating as historical fact.
The challenges in the classroom were relatively easy to deal with, pointing out that racism did exist and that hierarchies and bureaucracies meant that some people couldn’t achieve rank, it didn’t mean that there was racism all through. One of the things I love about the East African campaign is that there was no victor. Everyone lost out – mother nature remained dominant. What a levelling ground. All involved had much in common: the story of survival and the need for others to help them through. No-one could do it alone.White officers recognised they needed their black rank and file and co-depended on each other, individuals taking the lead when their skills would be best utilised. FC Selous the famous hunter and inspiration for the Selous Scouts wrote that he wouldn’t have been able to survive without his gunbearer who saved his life on many an occasion. Alas, Ramazani was no match for the sniper hiding in the Beho-Beho bush in January 1917. (Wits archive)
Another colleague, a black woman who had arranged for me to be at the school, challenged the idea of Africa being poor. If Africa was poor, why was there all the fighting and corruption today? People wanted what Africa has. She grew up in Lagos and had never seen a well until she moved to England.
Returning to the article by Daniel Lotter, it came with a sub-line, presumably written by the person who started its circulation ‘Presumably all facts are correct??’ As with my colleague historian, yes, the facts as stated were correct, but they were selected and not the full picture.
My response to the email chain was:
I haven’t got time to write a full response to what he’s said but people are very selective when they put an argument together to suit their case. There is evidence of black development and intelligence from before whites arrived in SA. Much was hidden away by the Apartheid government to ‘prove’ the superiority of the white man over the black etc.
Whatever happened in the past is the past. It’s time for attitudes like Daniel’s to be put far away and for people of all colours to recognise that by working together and respecting each other we can move forward and build a better world than the one we leave behind.
Constantly blaming people for things that happened in the past is not helpful at all.
It’s important to understand the past and it is incredibly complex – far more than set out below. For every statement Daniel makes I can add at least another 2 or 3 perspectives. But more important is taking that understanding of the past to understand who we are as individuals and communities and then turn it around and build something beautiful. This might be idealistic but I do believe it can be done and am seeing attitudes change amongst people of all colours when I emphasise this and break the myths of World War 1 in Africa.
I fell into studying history, it was a dream and I’ve been lucky enough to follow my dream as it’s taken me. Not being in an academic institution and funding my own research means I retain freedom of research interest. I’ve only ever made three specific decisions about history. One was to become an historian rather than follow my career path back in 1994 and become an Organisation Development Consultant. The second was not to get funding for my research (sociology does have its benefits) and the third was back in November 2011 when I decided to take on the co-ordination of the Great War in Africa Association. It meant that would become my focus rather than British and South African relations post 1910.
So, why study history? Although aspects had become apparent in the years before, my purpose has only become clear in the past year or so. Being an historian carries a great responsiblity: to tell the story as fully as one can without judgement, recognising that there’s truth in everyone’s version of the same event and experience. Reconciling these versions is the task of the historian, probing and challenging where needed. We’re all ignorant of the other’s view – until we put ourselves in the other’s shoes, we won’t know why they acted the way they did which led to our reacting the way we did.
My role as an historian, therefore,
is taking that understanding of the past to understand who we are as individuals and communities and then turn it around and
as a citizen of the world, work to
build something beautiful
And in response to Daniel Lotter (and those against others settling in ‘foreign’ lands), I can’t help but think of a story I read recently attributed to Jesus by a Mohammedan scholar: Passing through a field, Jesus was asked to reprimand his disciples from eating the owner’s wheat. Rather than do so, Jesus responded by calling to life all the previous owners of the field. Who, he asked, is the real owner? We all are custodians of the land we are placed in.