You can’t win

This tweet caught my eye:

 

I’m not an expert on Ngugi’s work and I haven’t read Maya Jasanoff’s book on Congo, but I have read Conrad’s Dark Heart of Africa and am still, if I’m honest, working out what all the fuss is about (I feel the same about JM Coetzee’s Disgrace). My apparent lack of sensitivity might well be due to my having grown up white during Apartheid South Africa so am immune to comments others might find inappropriate, but I do believe I’ve overcome that thanks to the values of equality and humanity instilled in me by my parents and reinforced in my work across and with different cultures both in Africa and the UK (it’s as much a ‘country’ as Africa is).

I take my hat off to Ngugi for writing what he believed whatever his motivations. That his comments go against the mainstream view should be embraced as an opportunity to dig deeper. A point that’s been driven home more than most in 2017 is the differences across Africa. This particularly revolves around WW1 – reading the texts I have and working with Diversity House on their Breaking the Myths project has exposed me to life in West Africa in a way I hadn’t experienced it before: first hand from people who grew up there. And thanks to some West African historians who have managed to get heard outside of Africa (George Ngung in particular) it’s become clear that the West African experience, most studied by white Eurocentric historians (in Britain, America and Europe), has been the dominant one and coloured the reality of recruiting and military life in East Africa. I’ve got to this point the painful way – by assuming that experiences and reasons for things happening in East and Southern Africa are representative of what was happening in West Africa. Aikona! as we say in the south.

Bearing my journey in mind, I can only begin to imagine what Ngugi is/was thinking of when he wrote the review. It shouldn’t be discounted because he approves of what is currently regarded as ‘unfashionable’. It should rather be an inspiration to dig for the truth. Juxtapose this with Peter Hoeg’s short story Journey into a Dark Heart in Tales of the Night (which includes von Lettow Vorbeck visiting Congo in 1929) and both Conrad and Lettow Vorbeck are not the men one might have thought…

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Egypt and World War 1

Writing a paper on the end of World War 1 in Africa, I thought it only appropriate to include something on Egypt having discovered through a paper presented by Lanver Mak that there’d been ‘homefront’ involvement there too.

Further investigation led to a litttle book by Stuart Hadawayon the events at Qatia in 1916 – a note in the front explaining that a “battle” needs one or more Army Corps and an “action” one or more divisions. Anything else is an “affair”. Put like that, there were no battles in East Africa – perhaps an action or two. I wonder where skirmishes fit? But I digress…

Blood on the Sand: The Affair at Qatia, Sinai Desert 23 April 1916 is simply told through official accounts and diaries – a military outline which for the novice provides an overview but one which is also jam-packed with detail for the more seasoned historian or student of the theatre to follow through. Numerous maps and some photos help to shed further light on this ‘more forgotten’ campaign of World War 1, Africa. (review)

And of course, one book leads to another…
Chris Vaughan’s book on Darfur: Colonial Violence, Sultanic Legacies and Local Politics, 1916–1956 explores British occupation of the territory from 1916-1956. This links with the Egyptian campaigns as Darfur was brought into the Anglo-Sudanese condominium as a result of the actions taken in 1916. (review)

Where Stuart’s account is military, Chris’ is political and you have to dig a little for the military. It’s richness is showing how colonial policy and ignorance impacted on decisions with sometimes disastrous consequences for future generations. Threading its way through both accounts is that of the Senussi – a group which tends to be better known than many of the others mentioned in both books.

Von and Van – what’s in a name?

I’ve recently read two accounts of World War 1 in Africa – one a novel, Dust Clouds of War by John Wilcox and the other a memoir to be published in 2018. In both of these texts, the British Allied commander, South African Jaap (Jacob) van Deventer, has been referred to as Deventer. Both books are by British English authors who do not fully understand naming constructions.

I’m being a little harsh here – my dad had to correct me on the pronunciation of van Deventer’s name years ago. I used to call him “van de Venter” splitting his name in keeping with many other South African names: van der Merwe, van der Westhuizen etc. Put the “de” onto the “venter” and you have “Deventer” pronounced “dear-venter”. And I’ve been known to mis-pronounce other significant names too: Tighe (“Tie” for those wondering I used to call “Tigga”), Caligula (a little before my time, was pronounced “Ka-li-goo-la”) and of course Beit (should be “bite” rather than “bate”). These are easy mistakes for readers who haven’t hear the names pronounced.So, I suppose it is not surprising that authors apply what they know of one culture to another related one.

With German names, “von” is a title added to a name in much the same way “sir” is added to British names. It’s recognition and status. For the Afrikaans South African name, the “van” or “von” is part of the name translating to “of” or “from” and specifically being lower case “v” – van Deventer originates from the Dutch for someone from Deventer in Overijssel (Ancestry).

This means that when writing German names like von Lettow-Vorbeck the “von” can be safely dropped and we can talk about Lettow-Vorbeck, but we cannot do the same with van Deventer – it’s the equivalent of calling Smith, “ith”.

Another name Wilcox gets wrong in his account is Phillip Pretorius, Smuts’ lead scout. As many have done before, he incorrectly refers to Phillip as Piet. This is in the acknowledgements noting that Simon Fonthill’s escapades were based partly on Pretorius’ search for the Konigsberg. I’m also a little puzzled as to how men could have been involved in both the Boer War (11 Oct 1899 – 31 May 1902) and the Boxer Rebellion in China (2 Nov 1899 – 7 Sep 1901). There is a window between Sep 1901 and May 1902 but I’ve not come across anyone of note having moved between the theatres. (Please let me know if you know of anyone). Lettow-Vorbeck is often mistakenly said to have fought in both, but before he was posted to China, he was in the German War Office studying the actions of the Boer War to assist the German military.
Wilcox further makes the fundamental error of referring to the Smuts raiding into the Union of South Africa during the Boer War when he should be referring to Smuts’ raid into the Cape Colony. The Union of South Africa only came into being in 1910

Review: The Seychelles Islands and its first landowners – Julien Durup

Why? you might ask am I reading and reviewing a book on the Seychelles covering the period 1786-1833 when my specialism is World War 1 in Africa?
That precisely is the link.
I came across Julien’s work whilst editing On Call in Africa by Norman Parsons Jewell. In trying to find out more about the Seychelles when Norman served there in the Colonial Service from 1910-1914 and also some local background to the Seychelloise Labour Corps which saw service in the East Africa campaign, Julien’s name kept popping up. I managed to track him down with the result that I got a copy of this book, and some answers for On Call.
The Seychelles is often regarded as an extension of Africa, a point supported by the number of words and food adopted from the continent, so there is another fitting link.
The Seychelles Island is not a story nor a narrative. Rather, it is a collection of essays on specific topics charting the history of the islands – how they were colonised, trade, settlement, language and so forth. It is an incredibly rich source for people wanting to find out about family members, the origin of words, measurements and currencies.
In addition to all the lists and detailed descriptions, Julien explains some of the challenges he had in sourcing information – useful for knowing what is not available and the complexities around locating sources.
This short (142 pages of text) is testimony to the love and dedication of a historian to his country of origin and heritage, as well as a useful resource for family, social, cultural and political historians. One thing which really struck me, apart from all the failed opportunities to protect tortoises and other endangered animals and vegetation, is the diversity of peoples who made it to the Seychelles. It makes perfect sense, when you think about it, that Indians, Arabs and Chinese explorers made their way to The Seychelles Islands. It just didn’t cross my mind and neither did the extent of influence of West Africa.
Thank you Julien for extending my knowledge a bit more.

Review: Gregg Adams: KAR Soldier versus Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18

My first thought on staring to read Gregg Adam’s King’s African Rifles Soldier versus Schutztruppe Soldier: East Africa 1917-18 (Osprey, 2016) was ‘Oh my! What am I going to be able to say about this military history?’ I felt out of my depth getting into this book which takes a very (in my opinion) military look at the differences between the KAR and Schutztruppe during the years 1916 to 1918. Gregg has done well. Although I found my eyes glazing over at numbers and calibres of weapons, etc, the value of this little book (less than 80 pages of text) became apparent to the student of war.

Readers and those who know me, must be tired by now of my statement that Lettow-Vorbeck was not all he is made out to be – he was a commander with flaws, and these need to be fully reviewed amongst English-speaking historians – using more than just Lettow-Vorbeck’s memoirs to make an objective assessment. Gregg has just about got there. At the start of the book he comments on Lettow-Vorbeck’s status, but by the end of the book, the flaws and quirks of the man’s military strategies and tactics are apparent – if only Gregg had emphasised these more. Smuts is regularly criticised for his love of the encircling movement. Gregg’s commentary suggests that a similar criticism could be levelled against Lettow-Vorbeck for his selection of ‘battle’ grounds.

The main focus of the book though, is the difference between the fighting forces and here, Gregg achieves a good balance. Taking three major encounters between the two sides, he explains how the encounter started, developed and ended, compares the forces facing each other and gives a timeline of the encounter.

I struggle with book layouts of this kind – blocks of text interspersed in the narrative and long descriptions with photos. However, I can’t think of a better way of presenting such information and it’s great for dipping in to; just not for those of us who prefer reading narratives without interruption. In fact, one of the benefits of how this material is laid out and the repetition of certain points is that the military implications are made more accessible for those of us without that first hand experience.

For readers familiar with Harry Fecitt’s Kaisercross/Soldiers’ Burden articles, this publication is complimentary. Harry looks at specific encounters from the perspective of the British Army, explaining them in detail and acknowledging the contributions of individual soldiers within the group. There is nothing that I picked up contradictory and in fact, the snippets of military info Harry gave this student of war to help her along, was only reconfirmed in this book. Gregg brings in the German side and explains how/why the encounter progressed as it did – broadly speaking.

I was also interested to read about Gifford’s role in World War 2 – it fits perfectly with the War Office assessment of the contribution of black soldiers undertaken by the War Office in 1937. Thank you Gregg for filling in another piece of the jigsaw.

With more military studies such as this, including the Belgian and Portuguese contributions for East Africa and doing the same for West Africa, and even Egypt – the ground for social, cultural and other histories will be well and truly set, let alone a whole stack of myths being dispelled.

Review: Katrina – crossing the colour line

Katrina was released in 1969 in South Africa and is now available on DVD and Youtube. It was directed by Jans Rautenbach (interview in Afrikaans; Abraham) and starred Jill Kirkland who was also sang the theme song. The rest of the cast included Katinka Heyns, Don Leonard, Cobus Rossouw, Joe Stewardson and Carel Trichardt.

Looking back, it is incredible to think that this film was even made and shown in South Africa in 1969 given the storyline.  It tells of an Anglican priest, newly arrived, who falls in love with Catherine Winters. As their relationship develops so it becomes apparent that Catherine is also Katrina September, a Coloured woman who is light enough in skin colour to pass for white. This revelation has significant consequences for all involved, not least Catherine’s son Paul who returns to South Africa as a qualified doctor wanting to work in a deprived Coloured area.

This was a brave film to make given that Hendrik Verwoerd had only been assassinated three years previously and BJ Voster was Prime Minister. Although the latter was slightly more lenient in his approach to Apartheid, his notoriaty as Minister for Justice was well-known. One wonders what the establishment’s reaction would have been had they actually seen the film – would they have found a different way to classify people, in particular the Coloured community? What I also find incredible is that Jans originates from Boksburg, my home town, which was notorious for its ultra conservative approach to Apartheid. (There was clearly something in the water as a number of cultural activists hail from Boksburg.)

The implications of the colour line and how it was applied hit full-force in this movie. It’s one thing to read about it in books and to use one’s imagination, but to see it depicted on the screen is something else. All credit to the director and cast. What strikes home though, and is really sad, is how fickle human nature is, despite all intentions of doing otherwise. This is a film of real human emotion, getting to the core of identity and cultural cohesion. It’s not difficult to see how, on a wider scale, nationalism has an attraction causing division and heartache by forcing people apart and to conform especially in communities where people have started to break down the barriers.

What is striking is that in 2017 a film made in a specific context in a specific country in 1969 has so much resonance for the world we live in today. The colour divide issue was not (and is not) unique to South Africa as a recent Guardian article reminds us. Sad to say, colour and cultural divisions still impact on our lives despite all the progress we’ve supposedly made. Perhaps if enough people watch Katrina and work to overcome the fickleness of man(kind), we might create a better world for all. (Yes, I am an idealist at heart, but as a sociologist whose name I can’t remember used to say – strive for perfection even though you know you won’t achieve it fully).

Other films by Jans Rautenbach:

Jannie Totsiens (with English subtitles) (1971)

Pappa Lap (1971)

Ongewensde Vreemdelinge (with English subtitles) (1974)

Eendag op ‘n reendag (1975)

Blink Stefans (1981)

Broer Matie (1984)

 

 

 

Review of Blood River by Tim Butcher: Lost in Translation

Blood River came highly recommended with the result that I put it on the backburner so as not to be disappointed if it didn’t live up to my expectations. Another reason it hadn’t moved up my reading list was that although it dealt with the Congo, an area I’d been working on, I understood it not to cover the Lake Tanganyika region which was my specific interest in relation to World War 1.

So, when the opportunity arose to read it for a book group I belong to, I took it and personally was not disappointed. In fact, I could relate to many of Tim’s experiences – not that I’ve done the intense ravel he has, but our little bits along the east coast of Lake Tanganyika amongst others gave a flavour. And then, without being specific, there was reference to the Lake Tanganyika Expedition with railways still being in place as well as other remnants – all rusted and no longer used. This will make it into volume 2 or 3 of The Lake Tanganyika Expedition chronology – one of those fortuitous finds.

The group overall found the book a good read – naturally it didn’t suit all tastes but everyone who started it, finished it – unlike Tess. What divided the group was Tim’s reason for doing the route and a few were rather upset that he had put people’s lives in danger for what they saw as a selfish, personal endeavour.

To some extent, I could see their point, but I also know Africa in a different context – people will tell you something is possible, difficult, but possible, and it’s only after you’re some way down the line or at the end of your journey that you become aware of the danger you and they have been exposed to. We’ve had this twice during our travels in East Africa. Once when our vehicle broke down in the Tsavo area eighteen years ago (it was a little unsafe then but now no longer – the road is tarred and far busier), and then nearly seven years ago when a tyre needed replacing travelling by road from Kitavi to Kigoma along the lake – uninhabited bandit territory – not a place to linger and observe the beauty of the huge balancing rocks or garafu as they’re locally known.

If it wasn’t for people like Tim and Paul Theroux (Dark Star Safari) undertaking apparently selfish journeys, changes and conditions in parts of Africa (and elsewhere) would go unnoticed. Historians, social anthropologists, sociologists and others have some record of how things are and have changed. Yes, the material has been processed and adapted to fit a narrative, but it’s more than we had previously. I was also rather relieved that I’d made a decision – a difficult one – not to join a group in covering the footsteps of the Lake Tanganyika Expedition – my gut had felt uncomfortable, although excited, until I firmly made the decision I’d be more of a hindrance than what my historical knowledge could contribute. Reading Blood River confirmed my gut instinct and at some level I’m rather pleased the expedition hasn’t been able to take place, although I do hope it does at some point (willing funders please get in touch).

So, why did I call this review ‘Lost in translation’? Simply, because we translate everything we read through a lens of our experiences. How I understood Blood River contrasted with the rest of the group who are all British and retired. One had visited South Africa on a few occasions and although she had witnessed some poverty there, it wasn’t to the same extent as one finds in rural Africa. I find it fascinating discovering how those of us with Africa in our blood interpret /see things differently to people with British and other backgrounds. And I definitely interpret things in Britain differently to what my British-born friends do. It works both ways. We’re similar, yet not.

Thank you Tim for giving our group a stimulating discussion and which allowed me an outsiders’ view on a continent I love (warts and all).

Tim did gain some Brownie points when the group discovered that he’s patron of a medical charity in Malawi – AMECA. Both Blood River and Dark Star Africa were recommended, by amongst others, Ruthie Markus, founder of AMECA.