God Bless Africa

A little while ago I looked up the English translation (God Bless Africa) of N’kosi Sikelele, the national anthem of South Africa and Mungi ibariki Afrika, the national anthem of Tanzania. At independence it was also the anthems of Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia until they adopted new ones: Zambia Stand and sing of Zambia; Zimbabwe Blessed be the land of Zimbabwe; Namibia Land of the Brave

The history of this hymn and its use as a national anthem seems to have raised interesting questions over copyright.

All the anthems seem to have been translated into multiple languages, the Zambian noted has having been written in English first and then translated. The South African anthem is currently sung in four languages (Xhosa, Zulu, English and Afrikaans), the first part Nkosi Sikelele having been written in Xhosa and then translated, the second part originating in Afrikaans and the third being an English variation of the original Afrikaans.

This raises some interesting questions with its banning by the Apartheid government: was it a hymn or a political statement? Siemon Allen challenges the banning in a fascinating summary of the use of the hymn. It is claimed that the hymn was first used as a protest song in 1919 with additional verses being added in 1927 by Samuel Mqhayi. Coplan and Jules-Rosette discuss its use in the liberation struggle.

What intrigued me were the topics covered by N’kosi Sikelele – they provide an insight into what was important to the authors and their communities at the time and surprisingly, these are still big topics today: Chiefs (leadership), public men, youth, land, wives, women, ministers (religious), agriculture, stock, land, education, unity.

Another interesting aspect links with wider discussions on the value of African languages and their being subordinated to English and French. Where there are multiple translations of the anthem, which is used at official national occasions and what is the reason for this? With so many language groups, how is unity developed? Or is it through the common tune that unity is achieved? One of my highlights was approaching a Tanzanian primary school during assembly when the children started singing the anthem. I might not have been able to join them in Swahili but I could in Xhosa and Zulu. And in solidarity we asked that ‘God Bless Africa’.

 

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Cross cultural learning

Standing at the station I watched a white looking woman try and bring order to her mixed race daughter’s hair. This took me back to a conversation I had around the time the Windrush scandal began in Britain. How did white women who had children with black men learn to manage their offspring’s hair when it did not conform to what they knew?

Despite growing up in Africa I wouldn’t know what to do although I do know there are different products and people I can ask. My question is more about learning, in this case where the male is the only person of colour in the community. Generally speaking, African men would not have got involved in child rearing as that was women’s work. So, was the fact that they had already crossed a cultural boundary sufficient for other boundaries to be crossed or was it a case of the woman learning by trial and error?

This question might seem superficial and/or out of place but I don’t think so. It’s one of the clearest examples of cultural norms people had to come to deal with when crossing ethnic and cultural boundaries. Reading Charles Villa-Vicencio and Peter Grassow’s Christianity and the colonisation of South Africa suggests the first missionaries would have gone through a similar learning process in the location they started working – learning another language and its nuances without any frame of reference other than the physical environment could only have led to misunderstanding.

Today we take finding out about ‘the other’ for granted. It’s often regarded as taboo to ask and with the Internet an answer is not far away as I discovered with my hair question (this is one of a few articles on the topic, and for those interested, here are some general thoughts I found on the treatment of hair suggesting once again that we’re not all that different.).

First battlefield encounters with an unknown ally would also have misunderstandings in how actions are read and interpreted and as forces spent more time working together they’d become more honed and efficient. In particular I think of the battle for Tanga in November 1914 and the battle for Salaita Hill in February 1916. We see it on the tennis court when two players face each other for the first time compared to those such as Nadel and Djockovic facing each other for the 52nd time.

I wonder if anyone has recorded these first experiences and if so, what can we as historians learn from them?

 

South African Awards and a WW1 literary diversion

I spotted a mention that the cricketer Hashim Amla had been awarded the Order of Ikhamanga (Strelitzia) in Silver – I’d never heard of the award, but assumed it must be something similar to the British OBE or Order of the British Empire. It seems it is, and more specifically for art, culture, music, journalism and sport.

The President’s page explains all the different symbols of the award and there’s a list of all the recipients (I assume it’s all as it doesn’t specify). Some interesting spots on the list – the award was instituted in 2003 (30 November to be precise), the number of posthumous awards was quite staggering, in 2009 there is only one award listed and in 2016 Dr Marguerite Poland features – her name is significant in the realm of novels written about World War 1 in Africa – she is the fourth out of five female authors to write about the war. Her book Iron Love was published in 1999 (See p 166 for synopsis and discussion). [I discovered the fifth female author by chance, Joan Kennedy in 1916 published Sun, Sand and Sin, the total number of novels identified to date in all languages is 53.]

A little more digging reveals there are various other awards too.

  • Order of the Baobab for South African citizens who have contributed to community service‚ business and economy‚ science‚ medicine and technological innovation.
  • Order of Luthuli for contributions to the struggle for democracy‚ nation-building‚ building democracy and human rights‚ justice and peace as well as for the resolution of conflict.
  • Order of the Companions of OR Tambo recognises eminent foreign nationals for friendship shown to South Africa. It is therefore an Order of peace‚ cooperation and active expression of solidarity and support.

For readers interested in comparisons:

I have a (new) dream

Martin Luther King dreamed of a world where there were no differences, yet it seems we constantly perpetuate these and those who try to break down barriers to bring about a better understanding of cultures and beliefs are shouted down for undermining the status quo. How illogical is that… we say we want change but we don’t really. I was therefore heartened to come across this article by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, a Nigerian novelist. She’s not the first to say what she does, there is a growing community of like-thinking people.

This is not to say don’t remember the past – it’s important to do so, as that provides our identity and gives us a sense of grounding. What we can’t allow to happen is to let it engulf us and dominate us.

1918 in Africa was a year where most of the fighting was done by black East African soldiers, alongside white and Indian – by then the majority of the Nigerian and Gold Coast soldiers as well as those from the West Indies had returned home and the Cape Corps had moved to Palestine and Mesopotamia. Yes, the officers were still white, but it is generally accepted that as many of them were new to Africa, they became reliant in ways earlier officers had done, on the support of their rank and file to understand and survive the terrain they were in. I don’t think this was much different to what was happening in other theatres when newcomers arrived. Their success and survival depended on those they were leading as much as those they were leading depended on their leadership.

I can’t help but think that of those many soldiers who fought in the war, whether by choice or coercion, all had a dream of a better world and that something beneficial had to come from the conflict. If they didn’t, they would have given up (and some did – I think of the men on the Aragon who ‘died of a broken heart’) and the many porters and carriers who couldn’t continue. But for those who lay down their arms with von Lettow-Vorbeck in November 1918, what kept them going? The African People’s Organisation saw the opportunity of being involved as a means to (hopefully) getting increased political recognition for their Cape Coloured and the South African Native National Congress kept discipline to show they could be trusted whilst the rebellious Boers could not.

From the war came leaders who led their countries to independence – Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Nyrere, Mandela and others. Recognising what the past had been, they saw the opportunities afforded by dreams and through hard work and encouragement led their people to fulfil those dreams. We know they weren’t perfect, no person is, but I wonder what they would think today when they see their people caught in a rut of blame and not having the courage to ‘take the bull by the horns’ and make their dreams come true.

Many look on the First World War in Africa as a colonial or imperial war, which it was to a large extent. However, alongside the major conflicts there were numerous rebellions and uprisings throughout Africa during those same years (I gave up trying to make a list of them) as people tried to realise their desires for a better world. This might seem to contradict the point about those who served dreaming of a better world. It doesn’t – the point is, they didn’t sit back, moan and wait for someone else to improve their world, they all did something to try and create the world they dreamed of.

This is not to say that rebellions and armed conflict are the way to improve conditions, we all know the consequences of violence. But we can take a leaf from those of different cultures and beliefs who served alongside each other and learnt to know and trust each other. (On Call in Africa, The Unknown Fallen)

The importance of history teaching

There’s been a discussion in South Africa about making history compulsory to Grade 12 (aka Matric, A level equivalent, all school years). The comments are as expected – what will be taught, who decides, how to make a dull boring subject more appealing. The discussion aspect suggested was around teaching methodology and content. This, for me, is the wrong starting point and will only ensure we get into trouble by leaving some group out and opening up accusations of curriculum being used for political reasons.

The starting point is skills. History as a subject is highly complex as seen by the percentage of high flyers who studied history at university level. (2005 HE Academy; 2005 famous history graduates; 2010 UK Guardian; 2015 AHA on skills; 2017 perspective; 2017 Fortune 500 CEOs)

One of the concerning things when looking at the lists of people who studied history at university is the number of politicians – why are they making the same mistakes as in the past? This has led some people to think it’s not worth studying the subject, whilst another more tangible reason is that there is no obvious career route with history.

However, the tweet below says it best – the more people understand the past and why things are the way they are, the easier it is to effectively challenge. It levels the playing ground and for that reason alone, the subject should be taught all the way through school.
History = political life skills.

In addition, history helps develop an identity, problem solving skills, research skills, writing skills, logic and critical thinking.

Putting history in as a subject to the last year of school means that subjects such as citizenship, PSHE and the like would be integrated as they include some of the life skills needed to operate in a global world. The challenge is teaching teachers to teach the subject objectively and creatively – it can be done and for this I thank my history teacher (the same amazing woman, Mrs Amy Ansell for five years), Martin Doherty and Tony Gorst at Westminster Uni and my supervisors Profs Tony Stockwell and John Turner – all educationalists ahead of their time.

Life is complicated

I broke my rule the other day and responded to a hot topic article – within minutes I had someone suggest I look at a current news programme. I haven’t and I won’t – the point of my reply was that exploitation is not only a colour or colonial ‘thing’, it often is economic-based and human nature (greed).

I understand the plea for land redistribution and reclaiming. It’s gone on in many countries over many years and not always successfully. Restitution for past wrongs (who determines the wrong?) should be made but this needs to be balanced with the current situation too where often the current inhabitants are oblivious to what happened in the past. If only we’d learn from what has one on before.

Not long ago, I was sent a video of someone complaining about Stella McCartney appropriating traditional African material for her 2017 range. To be honest, I think there are at least two issues here which have become confused and amalgamated. I have no issue with Stella using African material – what a compliment. My wardrobe is a mix of traditional African and European materials and have often questioned black African friends who value their African roots why in England they don’t wear their African outfits. ‘I don’t feel comfortable’ is often the answer or ‘I wear them on special occasions’. The main issue I see with Stella McCartney’s range is the price – but again, it’s economics, and a matter of taste – theere is no way I would wear a combination as she has put together, and I’ve been known for doing some obscure fashion things myself.

I wonder what we’re really complaining about? Reasons of colour and colonisation seem to be very easy labels to attribute to things we don’t like these days.

I can hear someone say, ‘you’re white so it’s easy for you to make such a statement’ – Yes, I’m white, but I’m also African (despite what many in Europe, incl Britain, and America may say) and a minority – in both countries I call ‘home’. And in both, I face challenges for similar reasons – being white, African and colonial (that is being from a colony – shorthand inclusion for dominion too – vs living in a previously colonising territory). My experience has been – take away the colour (incl African) and the colonial issue and underneath will be a range of similarities and invariably another reason or three for the difference being expressed through currently politically correct labels. Only getting down to the real issue will we be able to ‘fix’ the problem. (And yes, sometimes once you’ve done this, it may be an issue of colour – linked with ignorance?).

Related to this has been what I’ve seen as divisive discussion about Winnie Mandela following her death. Personally, I distinguish between two Winnies – the early political activist and the later politician. I admire the early Winnie who gave confidence and hope to so many, but I cannot agree with what she did later in life – possibly a response to thinking she had to compete with Nelson for the limelight. Irrespective, I can’t help but recall the plea made by Margaret Thatcher’s family after her death – remember she was somebody’s wife, mother and daughter. Let them grieve the person they knew and loved.

The morning I was inspired to write this blog, another parallel link with current events and the complexity of life came to light. In 1908, Jan SMuts was being taken to task for trying to repatriate Indians (Asiatics as they were called then) who had been resident in the Transvaal for years. Volume 2 of his published papers, by Keith Hancock and Jean van der Poel, contains numerous pages on this topc and the outcry of those in England and the Cape around what he was trying to do. The biggest outcry though seemed to be around his wanting to fingerprint all the Indians, and not just their thumb but all ten fingers, the latter being regarded as necessity for criminal cases and the former for civil cases.

This brings me back to where I started. It’s all complex and more than colour and colonialism. What the solution is to greater equality is, I don’t know, but I’m sure we’d get a lot closer to one which would satisfy all sides if we took time to understand the real issues underpinning the predicament and worked to solve these – treating all with respect and humanity.

The morning I typed this blog, a quote by Jesse Jackson speaking at Wits at some point caught my eye.

‘After 24 years of freedom, Black’s are freer, Whites are richer’

But who, is happier and more content?

Mankind – the common denominator

You may have picked up that I was involved in the production of The Unknown Fallen, a book about Allied Muslim involvement in World War 1. It’s been a fascinating journey, almost 17 years in the making so far with the book being one of the more recent markers along the way. I should clarify, my involvement with the book has only been a year or so, my journey getting to know other faith groups started about 17 years ago when I was teaching recently arrived young Muslim Palestinian men in an inner-London college trying to make sense of what had happened to their family existence in Jerusalem. Their questions only fuelled a curious mind already questioning how religion, in particular, Christianity, had been used to uphold the idea of Apartheid.

Listening to the recording of Yusuf Chambers and Dr Bilal Philips discussing The Unknown Fallen I had to smile towards the end when the two discussants commented that the conceptualiser of The Unknown Fallen had been guided by Allah to undertake the task. You call him Allah, I call him God, others call him Jehovah, HaShem, the God of Thunder, Creator – they’re all a cultural title for a force we cannot explain. And those of us with a deep-rooted faith know how things fell into place to ensure our involvement to produce this incredible book and to learn from each other.

Whilst the interview on The Unknown Fallen is naturally Muslim-oriented – talking about a book which concerns a part of Muslim history, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities with other religious and cultural groups whose involvement in the conflict is also struggling to be heard.

Many of these cultural groups feature in The Unknown Fallen. Broadly speaking, the African, Chinese and Russian spring to mind. As Dr Bilal Philips tells us today we tend to hear more about British/French or German Muslims, not Muslim Germans/French or British. This goes for so many other groups too – where the man-made community or nation the person is residing in expects preference in the identity stakes. As all the major religions teach us, respect and love for fellow mankind will ensure a more harmoneous co-existence. These divisions have become more apparent over the centenary years of the war – memorials are being put up for individual groups which have been forgotten or ignored to date. On one level, I fully understand this – it’s a visual representation and a way to ensure longer remembrance, however, it’s also divisive – where do we stop? At company or platoon level?

What struck me from the interview is how many different ways people are continuing to discover how their families and communities were involved or impacted by the war. Today the media has a big role to play, particularly in raising African awareness as noticed over the four years of the centenary of the conflict. And with this will come more desire for memorials and outward manifestations to show remembrance – a situation that could lead to further conflict as one group determines to be bigger and better (whatever that might be) than the next.

My journey continues, and as part of this, it strikes me that it’s time we start to recognise the one common denominator in all this remembrance and study of war. Humankind. With this in mind, shouldn’t we have an all-inclusive reminder? Not the poppy which is exclusive, but something as simple and all-encompassing as the minute or two’s silence we spare at times of remembrance whether on 11 November, 4 August, 19 September, 21 February, at a funeral or memorial service. So far, in my quest – a Dove: accepted by all religions and present in all countries except for the driest parts of the Sahara Desert, Antarctica and the Arctic.

In line with the message of The Unknown Fallen: Brothers/Sisters in Arms, Together we Stand – all faiths, all cultures, one people.