Education and war

It was not unusual to hear South Africans complaining about the state of education during my recent visit and subsequently. This wasn’t the usual issue of curriculum and what is being taught but rather that young people across the board are not able to think for themselves and make up their own minds about events and statements made by politicians. This was further extended to the workplace where automation and reliance on technology to do the work of humans is eroding the skills base. Who will be around in the next generation or two who has a global or ‘out of the box’ take to re-empower individuals when finances and systems are no longer available to support an ever longer-living society?

These are concerns and questions just as applicable in Britain as I’m sure they are in the USA and other countries.

Education is important – on that I think all people are agreed. The contentious issue is what education and for whose purpose. I can’t help but think of Marx’s keeping the masses ignorant in order to uphold those in office. Labour’s introduction of Critical Thinking in the 2000s was a case in point and I’m sure the current teaching on how to identify fake news is not much different.

The significance of education in war has featured in some recent reading (chapters 50, 52 and 54 of Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experience, edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter Lidddle). How teachers in Germany and France supported (or not) the war effort in their respective country, what kept children from attending school etc. Unsurprisingly, these factors can still be seen today in many African countries and more subtly across education institutions I’ve had dealings with in England over the years.

But there’s also positives to this potentially gloomy picture:

  • On my recent trip to Zambia I had the pleasure of meeting Caroline the force behind ensuring children in battle-impacted Afghanistan are able to access education again.
  • An initiative in Rwanda to teach English is doing more than that through time-tested books written specially for the locality and teachers who have lost their fluency in the English language.
  • A chance Christmas Eve meeting with Shelley of told me about the bilingual (Arabic/English) books they’re distributing with Trauma Teddies helping children in the Lebanon (and elsewhere) come to terms with what they have witnessed.
  • Seeing young people in South Africa break the technology norm being engrossed in reading real books with historical narrative and making links with discussions around them. And also saying ‘if only school history were this interesting’ – a huge compliment when it’s a ‘dull boring’ historian’s nephew making such a comment.
  • Hearing Johan Wassermann, at the Unisa conference on the legacy of WW1 in southern Africa, explain how much freedom there actually is in what appears to be a narrow curriculum which allows teachers to broaden what content they cover.
  • Knowing individual teachers and academics who do what they can to ensure their learners are equipped for the future – I am eternally grateful to Amy Ansell for the impact she’s had on my approach to teaching and history.

As Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau (chapter 54 – French children as targets for propaganda) noted, children are resilient and get through. Complaints about poor or inadequate education have been around for centuries and no doubt will continue but as our ancestors across the continents have shown, mankind muddles through – somehow.

Little literature appears on education in Africa during the war years. Immediately springing to mind are the novels: Iron Love by Marguerite Poland and Chui and Sadaka by William Powell. Any takers for looking at … missions schools and the war … post-war school policies … settler children being educated in country or going ‘home’ … African nationalism and war-time education … education and the armed forces?

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Why remember?

I was asked this question at the 2018 Unisa conference on the legacy of World War 1 in Southern Africa. Specifically, the question had to do with why remember World War 1 and in particular those involved.

At heart, this is really asking ‘why remember the past?’ Simply put, our past made us who we are today, it’s part of our identity.

World War 1 was, for me, a pivotal point in our global past. It influenced, and still does, much of what we do today even if we aren’t aware of it. By remembering the individuals, their actions and the greater war we instil a better understanding of who we are and where we have come from.

I recall once (early 2000s) when I was teaching A Level History and Sociology, one of my white British students asked what British traditions there were. She was feeling rather left out with fellow students participating in Ramadan, Diwali, having foods or clothes they particularly associated with culturally, yet all seemed very comfortable socially in our diverse community. The other students had amalgamated British traditions into their own to the extent that what was traditionally British, was not seen as British. Once this was understood, my young thoughtful student felt able to engage with the others on a more level or equal footing.

More recently, the issue of British identity has come to the fore more overtly: Union Jacks flying where for years only the odd light had been placed at Christmas. I’m try hard not to read the alternative message being given to the ‘foreign’ shop owners in front of whose shops these flags had been placed. Whichever way one reads the placing of the Union Jack (which incidentally replaced the St George’s flag which appeared the Friday of St George’s Day), Britain is marking its identity and giving a message to Britons that they belong, they are important, they have a heritage. With this, I have no objection. As a foreigner-citizen in the UK, I have long felt that Britain hasn’t looked after itself. Its focus has been external to the detriment of itself. How often I hear ‘you can’t look after others unless you look after yourself’, ‘If you’re not well, how can you expect to look after xxx’. The same goes for a country. Britain’s external focus has resulted in more homeless children than for many a year, a drop in life expectancy and and and…

There’s a vacuum waiting to be filled as Britain redefines itself and creates a new identity. Remembering what was achieved socially and culturally during World War 1 with the support of Africans and other minorities, can only help create a Britain (or any other country identity) which feels inclusive and is tolerant of all.  As we bid farewell to 2018, my wish for 2019 is that through our shared humanity which crosses boundaries and divides of all kinds – we break down the growing silo identities and return to a state where all are welcomed, supported and united, simply, in being nice to each other. (And yes, I am an idealist at heart.)

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’.

 

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.