Khandahar

What might Khandahar have to do with Africa you might well ask… it’s one of those one-thing-leads-to-another type relationships.

The link is Lord Kitchener who spent a fair bit of his life on the continent – of his 64 years, 12 were spent in the UK, 2.5 in South Africa, 7 in India, approximately 8 in the Middle East, Cyprus and Turkey, about 2 travelling the world and the remainder in Egypt/Sudan.

During his time in India as Commander in Chief of the Indian Army, Kitchener brought about some changes to the military structure and the way the regiments operated. Not all were successful, and as I explain in Kitchener: The man not the Myth, not all was a failure. One of the things that struck me whilst researching the man was his open-minded approach to fighting – he was open to trying new things, had been up in a hot-air baloon, was supposedly the first British general to fly in a plane, involved the navy with his campaigns in Egypt and thought the bombardment of the Western Front was not the most effective way of dealing with the Germans – he was certain there was another way to break through.

In line with this, to defend the Indian frontier, was Khandahar. Kitchener explored the use of skis for the Indian Army. However, he gave up on this idea as impractical. Alas, I couldn’t find anything more on Kitchener, skiing and Khandahar other than what is recorded in Arnie Wilson’s Snow Crazy: 115 years of British Ski History which I happened to be proofreading whilst researching Kitchener. How fortuitous is that?! especially as I don’t ski or do much snow-related, other than try and avoid it.

And then, proofing Marthe Kiley-Worthington’s Family are the Friends you Choose, again Khandahar appeared. Here, Marthe talks of ‘bellowing skirts’ on skis – which if you’ve seen the cover of Snow Crazy, you’ll understand. Both books are fascinating reads – I had no idea any of ‘my’ history characters, ie have a connection with the First World War in Africa, were prominent in the ski-world. There’s more than just Kitchener… This opens up new connections to explore in due course. Marthe’s book, however, is more directly Africa related. She grew up in Kenya, spent time in Congo and South Africa researching animals, dodging the outbreak of wars and experiencing Apartheid as a visiting lecturer. Apart from her fascinating insights into animal behaviour and how it compares/relates to us as humans, she explores what a world of vegans would look like and suggests ways we can improve the quality of life for all. What an incredible 115 and 80 years of experience respectively, all wrapped into a few pages. Now, I just need to visit Kandahar.

 

Grimsby – definitely not a Grim town

On telling people we were going to visit Grimsby, we were asked “Why do you want to go there? It’s rather grim, not much to do.” Well, I was going to follow up a World War 1 Africa link – more in due course about that – which was well worth the visit, and yes, Grimbsy was quiet, but definitely not grim.

Apart from my WW1 discovery, we were directed to dinner at Papas, named ‘the UK’s No 1 Fish and Chips’ in 2018. This accolade follows the 2015 one naming Papas the ‘World’s Largest Fish and Chip Shop’ and boy is it deceptively large. Good fish was to be had though. And did you know there is a National Fish and Chip Museum in York? According to the publicity newspaper you get with your menu at the restaurant, there is a note about Churchill exempting the restaurant from rationing during World War 2. What is not stated, and not surprisingly, is that fish from South Africa was imported – snoek, by all accounts an acquired taste as I’ve not yet found anyone of the post-war years who likes it as much as I do. In fact, most turn their noses up at it. Perhaps it’s got to do with the way it’s prepared. While our visit to a fish market in Ghana was made memorable by the aroma of fish drying outside, there wasn’t any such hint in Grimsby, perhaps because fish is no longer the main source of income it used to be? The fish braai/barbeque on Zanzibar was more appealing. And in Mongolia, we witnessed fish drying from the wing mirror of trucks.

But the highlight of our visit to Grimsby, apart from my WW1 excursion, was the Grismby Fishing Heritage Centre. Here in one go, you get an overview of a time past, how the town was centred around fishing and an insight into the dangerous work the men undertook. Not to be forgotten was the life of those, particularly wives, who stayed behind and how the whole community was involved in the industry. Talking to one of the volunteers at the museum, he’d spent time working on a fishing vessel off Namibia in the 1980s, the traditions of the water have changed very little. Having read many diaries of soldiers and others sailing between South Africa and Britain, and East Africa, during World War 1, their accounts of crossing the equator was no different to our volunteer. Although the museum focuses on life in the 1950s, apart from technological changes, I imagine it was not much different in earlier years, although seeing the town today, it is hard, without prompting by this museum, to imagine what life was like when fishing was the industrial force it was. The museum also owns the last diesel side trawler in the UK, the Ross Tiger which we were told requires additional funding to allow an overhaul and refurbishment to remain part of the living history experience. This is one of the best museums I’ve seen in a long time – carefully thought through to give as realistic an experience as possible, meeting the needs of young and old, and clearly created and managed with love. My South African equivalent is the Distict Six Museum in Cape Town.

A Titanic connection

A little while ago I visited Northern Ireland – what a little gem of a territory. We spent most of our time out in the country, travelling the northern coast line which on a smaller scale and with no rain could rival Cape Town, and unbeknowingly, until I asked a police officer, caught the last of the season’s marches. I had wondered why there were so many flags with battle honours flying in so many places. The march reminded me of days in 1980s SA when the AWB used to strut their stuff in my home town. Another thing I found fascinating were the large wall paintings recording aspects of the past, memorials to fallen comrades or such like. I wonder if anyone has written about these? It would make a fascinating cultural-political study. Crossing the empty Garvaghy Road as we moved between areas contrasted with television images of years gone by – long may it still last. And then into Belfast where we saw the incredible Big Fish by John Kindness telling of Ireland’s past. Within walking distance on the other side of the river is the Titanic Museum, the building itself a work of art and quite moving outside, the dock where the ship was built now an outline of her size, where lifeboats were placed and the proportion of people who lived and died according to deck etc. I can’t say anything more about the museum as we didn’t go through – I wasn’t sure my interest would have been catered for: the Titanic’s link with South Africa.

Back in 2012, a century after the ship went down, the Mail and Guardian ran an article identifying South Africans who had been on board. It too did not contain the link I was interested in. Few people know that South Africa’s second Governor General, Sydney Buxton, had been the President of the Board of Trade which sanctioned the Titanic sailing with the few life vests and lifeboats it did. In his defence, his decision had been based on the expert reports he had been given – hindsight is always much wiser. After initial thoughts that his political career would survive the disaster, when Governor General Herbert Gladstone decided to resign his post in South Africa, it was decided Buxton should fill the role; especially as an election was looming. Buxton’s appointment at the time was, for South Africa, most fortuitous. He had been in the Colonial Office before the 1899-1902 southern Africa war so had a fair idea of what the challenges were. His hands-on pragmatic approach and personable attitude, although eliciting the odd exasperation from Louis Botha as his interference, was welcomed by the young Union government trying to find its way through rebellion and supporting a country it had fought against less than 15 years before all while creating its own armed force in spite of the UDF having been formed in 1912.

South African – Irish links extend beyond the Titanic. Irish men fought on both sides of the 1899-1902 war, in 1917/8 Jan Smuts visited Ireland and was involved in trying to prevent the territory splitting – it was believed that the British-Boer and British-Irish situations were similar and lessons could be learnt from how Botha and Smuts had worked to unite South Africans. And in more recent times, current President Cyril Ramaphosa was in the 1990s involved in the Irish arms decommissioning process. And in the East Africa campaign, at the ceremony where the Germans laid down their arms in 1918 there was at least one Irishman present – John ‘Jack’ Bannon of 1/4 KAR and while there is no known South African present, the man who negotiated with the German commander was none other than South African Jaap van Deventer. An Irish doctor, Norman Parsons Jewell saw most of the war in Africa – both Irishmen too were caught up in the Irish troubles of the time: Bannon having just enlisted, was involved in suppressing the Easter uprising before he left for Africa, while Jewell was warned about leaving his accomodation in 1922 as he was a targeted man for having served in World War 1. The result of the latter was that Kenya saw him return as a doctor until 1932.

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?

The times they are a changing…

Walking back from the SANDF Doc Centre in its last years in Visagie Street, Pretoria (it’s now in Irene – at the end of the road joining onto Pierre van Ryneveld at Nellmapius Drive) to Pretoria General Station on my first day back in Pretoria after a year, I couldn’t help ponder over all the warnings I’d been receiving about walking in Pretoria Central.

When I was a student in Pretoria (early 1990s), we used to walk the streets until quite late without a problem. Now, as on my previous trip, I was being warned against it. As usual this got me thinking – everyone who was warning me, except for the very last person, was white. I therefore tested out my views of walking the streets with a few people of colour and was told to ‘continue walking as though you own the place’.

The next day I set out as usual but on this occasion paid close attention to the car drivers travelling along the roads I walked – I was by now quite used to being the only white person on the pavements, but hadn’t really thought about the drivers. The blunt thought struck me: where have all the white folk gone? It was almost the complete reverse of my student days.

Pretoria used to heave with whites, now they are almost non-existent. My thoughts immediately equated this with the days gone by and the Bantustans – what do we call the still predominantly white enclaves behind huge walls, fences, prected by alarms and security guards?

Thankfully pure white enclaves are rare, Oranje being the most (in)famous. The traditionally white areas are becoming more diverse and although many white South Africans still tend to avoid the CBDs (Central Business Districts) for reasons of ‘safety’, they have far more character and warmth than the clinical streets of my youth.

Later in the week (2015), I accompanied my mother to the Whitney Houston show at the then Civic Theatre (now Mandela Theatre in the Joburg Theatre complex) where I’d last been a year before with my sister for Elvis (they both do first aid duty for the theatre). Again, the contrast between these two visits was remarkable, so refreshing – the Civic has clearly got its line-up right, presenting a programme which appeals to all the different cultural groups. How wonderful it was to see a previously ‘whites only’ theatre packed with ‘mocha skin’ [as per the star of the show] enthusiasts of all ages. And to top it off, it was a South African, Belinda Davids performing the tribute to Whitney (and much better in my humble opinion).

The perception of South Africa as being dangerous persists – I’ve written about this before and it’s interesting typing up this blog piece I wrote a few years back but didn’t get to post then as to how my views haven’t changed. I feel safer now than I did in the 80s and early 90s in Johannesburg and as with all cities, one has to remain vigilent.

The other complaint I often hear is that the country has deteriorated, it is no longer what it used to be. Well, no, it isn’t and neither should it be the same country. Wasn’t that the point of overthrowing apartheid? Has the country deteriorated? In some cases, yes (and we won’t go into the corruption of politicians and others here) and there is still a lot of work to do politically and economically. But in other ways, the country hasn’t deteriorated. It is on the cultural and social fronts that the country has undergone its most radical transformation and in humble opinion – for the best.

I typed this as the ANC leadership has changed and we wait to see what transpires – the implications are huge but I hope and pray that the social and cultural progress which has been made to date influences and impacts positively on the economic and political. And I can’t but help remember the words Winnie Mandela uttered back in the early 1990s – the new South Africa will ‘accommodate everybody’ (1:18:00).

PS: In 2017 I drove into Pretoria to visit the National Archives – too far too walk from the station – but I arrived from Johannesburg rather than Boksburg and duly got myself lost! Many of the street names have changed. Whilst at the National Archive the young reading room assistant tried to explain to a white woman how to get to the courts where she would likely find the info she was needing. To the relief of both, and my amusement, he, a Tswana (we’d had a very enlightening conversation about Swahili earlier), gave up on the new street names and reverted to the old. It was just too confusing. Perhaps the next generation not knowing of the old names will find it easier.