The identity diamond

The issue of identity has featured rather frequently the past few weeks, not least at a talk I gave on Breaking the Myths around World War 1 in Africa (Feet of Endurance: World War 1 in Africa; images). I am lucky enough to hold dual citizenship however, as I’ve commented to people since the start of the commemorations of the centenary of WW1, and more expecially with recent developments in the UK, my African identity has started to dominate. I regularly hear black colleagues complain about being asked a variety of questions which they interpret as racist. At the conference a young school lad came to me in the break asking how I had remained calm as a member of the audience asked a question about black rank and file soldiers ‘falling to pieces’ when their white officers were killed. How, this young black Zimbabwean asked, could this white man with Rhodesian roots even dare to ask the question he did.

As a white African, I often correct white and black colleagues (in both Britain and on the African continent) when they make the assumption that I am British and have to explain that there are whites who are born in Africa, along with many other cultural groups such as Indian and Arab. Usually this is when the person concerned is moaning about how ignorant British people are of Africa or telling me that ‘you’re responsible for …’, ‘it’s obvious why Africa is so corrupt…’ etc. In one of my discussions following such an introduction, a Nigerian who has spent more years outside of his home country than in it, worked through a variety of identity labels eventually deciding that at heart he was Igbo. An Englishman in the same discussion associated himself with the village he was born rather than where he was brought up. In another context, an Italian living and working in the UK introduced himself as BrItalian – wonderful, I thought, does that really make me BrAfrican? It doesn’t quite work for BrScottish or BrFrench though…

An issue I find rather intriguing is what white South Africans call themselves. I have heard reference to SAE (not self addressed envelope) but South African English but if you listen to white South Africans talk and read historical books, they refer to black South Africans as African. So, what/how do white South Africans see themselves? Epecially being seventh or even eighth generation in the county with little other than tangential cultural links to a few European countries. Interestingly, if someone asks what I am, I’ll say South African but I generally associate more with Africa and sub-Sahara Africa than even South Africa.

I am African, born and bred there, but I’m more than that. I’ve taken on a fair amount of Britishness having lived in that country for so long, but I’m also an educationalist and historian (according to my business card), others describe me as an academic although I don’t have a university or other official academic post. And the list could go on – wife, friend, daughter …

It was an email reference to the ‘fairer sex’ by a male colleague who regularly challenges labels which made me decide to write this post. He wouldn’t have used the term indiscriminately leading me to  wonder what the origin of the term was considering that the women he was referring to (consciously or otherwise) all had dark hair and most, not all of Middle Eastern descent. Given the different uses of the word fair, I can take my pick as to what was meant and not be offended.

A student from the Caribbean once told me that a customer at the place she worked had made a racist comment asking her how she had blue hair (she had blue braids woven in amongst her black braids). For over 10 years now, this comment has stayed with me and I’m no closer to working out how it is racist. Another, also Caribbean, student told me emphatically I shouldn’t be wearing traditional African outfits (…) as in her view I wasn’t African and therefore not allowed to wear what I wanted. These occasions provided opportunties to open conversation and break down barriers. Similarly, the little children in the villages who come walking alongside me taking my hand, turning it over and comparing it to theirs or gently pulling the hairs on my arm – they don’t have any and their hands are two different shades compared to mine. This is curiosity – a way of discovery, learning and developing identity. My A-level French teacher welcomed my confused, often ‘stupid’, questions around the language – she told me she could see I was engaging with the language and working through the anomalies to get to the core (the truth).

And as for the diamond? It’s an analogy for what I am – a human being made up of many different facets. Some shine more brightly than others depending on where you the observer are standing and how closely you want to peer or stare. They say ‘diamonds are a girl’s best friend‘ – I’m not so sure about that really, but I do see some endearing traits in diamonds – steadfast and unchanging (once cut), light reflector and yet transparent and penetrating (they can cut through glass). We’ve put a value on them deciding they’re expensive.

Reading Tim Butcher’s Blood River, I can’t help but recognise the damage assumptions around identity have caused. A discussion group on the book commented how selfish he’d been putting so many people at risk for a personal whim. Perhaps, but if Tim hadn’t undertaken his journey, what misconceptions would many still be holding about the Congo? Diamonds are the consequence of unpleasant levels of heat and pressure – out of horror comes beauty. It depends on how I look at it and choose to interpret what I see. Now more than ever, I try and find the positive in order to build bridges and understanding – the alternative is unthinkable.

Detained

On my last visit to Rwanda I discovered the book Detained: A writer’s prison diary by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Many years ago now, I think it was about 2011, I heard him speak on education in Dar es Salaam and have found him an attraction since.

Detained, written during his incaceration by Jomo Kenyatta’s government post independence was a fascinating and insightful read. Where the other books (more later) I’d read by detained people had been under colonial powers, this was the first by someone who had participated, in his own way, in the independence struggle of his country, Kenya. Now he was believed to be an ‘enemy of the state’. During his stay, Ngugi was able to write a novel and keep this record of his experiences and thoughts – all recorded on toilet paper. As a fellow author, my heart dropped along with his when we recounted how a search of his cubicle led to the removal and anticipated destruction of his creation. Similarly, on the return of the document, my heart soared. I’ve lost writing on my computer before and know the anxiety of wondering whether the back-up will work etc.

Other fascinating insights included how the prisoners communicated to each other, how they could pick up on news despite the black-out and how they dealt with bullies. What was also intriguing was Ngugi’s discussion on religion – how he became aware of Islam and the differences with Christianity. Perhaps society can learn something from this…

The other two books by detainees that stick in my mind are Ruth First’s 117 Days and Winnie Mandela’s Part of My Soul.

I recall 117 Days being an emotional read – how Ruth managed to survive all they did to her and her resiliance in not giving in to what she believed was right. I couldn’t put it better than this blogger.

It may seem a bit odd having a ghost-written autobiography by Winnie Mandela included but in her early days as an activist she was someone to be admired. Winnie’s detention was quite different to both Ngugi’s and Ruth’s. She was under house arrest in Brandfort in the Orange Free State during Nelson’s early days on Robben Island. Again, how Winnie coped with her situation and maintained her values was fascinating reading.

In essence, none of the three authors differed much in how they coped. It must be one of mankind’s inbuilt processes.

What made reading Ngugi’s book more poignant is the fact that a friend is currently being detained with few hearing of his well-being. I take hope from those who’ve gone before and survived that he will too. I know prior to his being detained he was working on a book of South African involvement in World War 1 – a project which helped him escape from the harsh realities around him. The day I was meant to get the complete manuscript was the day he was taken. That is now over four months ago.

I can’t help asking myself, what does detaining people in this way achieve? It didn’t change Ngugi, Ruth or Winnie’s outlook on life or what they believed and I don’t think, from the conversations I had with Will that his detention will change his views. And for those doing the detaining? What do they achieve? In the big scheme of things, not much! Apartheid still fell, Jomo Kenyatta died and Kenya continued struggling – we still wait to see what will happen in the Sudan and elsewhere where others are currently detained.

Winnie and Ngugi continued their struggle and still do, whilst Ruth continued hers until she was exterminated by a letter bomb. Will felt strongly about helping those who were being bullied, as did Winnie, Ngugi and Ruth – for me Will is a humanitarian. May he and all others standing up for what they believe be set free soon to help make the world a better place. And as Ngugi so aptly put it – not let the innocent family members and friends suffer simply for their association with the detained person.

 

 

 

A royal encounter (or three)

I missed the Queen’s Christmas broadcast at 3pm on Christmas Day, but managed to catch it on YouTube later that day. Isn’t technology wonderful? Then a few days later, looking for something else, I came across this documentary Cue the Queen: Celebrating the Christmas Speech  covering nearly 100 years of royal broadcasts. Sitting and watching the Queen’s speech is a very British thing to do but an important part of the speech is the Queen’s link with the Commonwealth, an institution she is fond of and which is important to its members. And in case you question the significance of the Commonwealth, I recall South Africa being really chuffed at joining the Commonwealth again after the 1994 elections brought about the end of Apartheid. Also, more recently Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and Mozambique joined the Commonwealth making a break with the tradition that it only include what were British imperial territories.

The Commonwealth evolved out of what was the British Empire. Given how African countries regard the Commonwealth, I wonder how the current de-colonising movement reconciles itself with the idea of Commonwealth or does it reject the institution too?

The term Empire conjures up bad and good images depending on your experience and reading, the same with the term Commonwealth and even Monarchy.

In the same way the Queen and her institutions such as the OBE are criticised or welcomed, there are royal practices elsewhere which evoke similar responses.

A recent trip to Rwanda happened to co-incide with one by the King of Morocco. This would have gone by unnoticed except for the fact that the conference centre, opened earlier this year, was decked out in green and red (not ideal for colour-blind sufferers) and that significant roads were closed – one for a whole day and another, the next day for about an hour. The first menat we had to detour in a city not too well known, whilst the second saw us caught in a shopping centre parking lot for the entire time the road was closed. Someone came past to tell us the King of Morocco was visiting the bank he was buying (I haven’t tried to verify this purchase).

I have no issue with such visits, and royalty and other significant people have a right to travel and do business, but do they have a right, without warning to the locals to disrupt business in this way? I later heard the disruptions had been notified through the press – but not all of us read Kinyarwandan…Someone else mentioned that this hadn’t been too bad. The King of Jordan’s visit saw the whole city centre shut off for a week!

And it’s not just Rwanda. We’ve had to wait for two hours on a Ghanaian motorway for the President’s cavalcade to pass by and similarly in Tanzania, we’ve been virtually pushed off the road pending a diplomatic fly-by on tar… eventually. Closer to home, in London, I recall getting very frustrated when teaching as I had to wait at the traffic lights on the A4 for some diplomat or other ‘important’ person to pass by… eventually… before I could get into the college to educate the next generation. And I have to remind myself that the police cordon I had to cross in November 2004 to do my viva was not because George Bush was passing through but rather to keep the protesters from blocking the roads in protest at his visit.

You’d be forgiven if you thought by now that I am anti-monarchy. I’m not, I’m afraid. One of my fondest memories is the visit of the Queen and Prince Philip to the Bank of England when I worked there – the Duke did his walk-about on our side of the welcome gathering and enquired why we’d left our desks to come and see him and the Queen. He was sure we had more important things to do. This was followed by a ‘Thank you for coming to see us though.’ A gentle acknowledgement that there was more to life… Admission time: I’m  a sucker for pomp and ceremony (a form of escapism?) but in its place and time and that doesn’t extend to interfering with the economy or education. In this day and age when equality is being promoted and the safety of leaders is potentially under greater threat than in previous years (a statement open for debate), surely keeping a low profile and blending in is called for?

One of the striking comments in the documentary on the Queen’s Christmas Speech was towards the end when after hosting a huge banquet, she quietly made her way to a train to arrive the next morning in time for her next engagement. No fuss or bother. Given her time on the throne and extent of her reign across countries, I for one hope the Queen has secretly written an autobiography or reflection on her years in office which will eventually be published – it would be another facet in the incredible diamond we call history. It would also, by default, explore how the monarchy has changed and possibly include reasons for the change.

People in leadership positions are doomed if they do and doomed if they don’t. I can’t help but think of how Jan Smuts was viewed during his command of the forces in East Africa in 1916 – some loved him and felt he did the right thing being in the frontlines with the men, whilst others felt he should have stayed at headquarters and commanded from there. There are possibly more similarities between the Queen’s behaviour today and that of Smuts in East Africa than what we see with most African leaders (President Magafule appears to be an exception).

On the pragmatic side, while we are forced to have these ‘time outs’, it’s worth considering why we insist on rushing around, filling every minute with doing something. My world didn’t end and students were still ready for their exams despite all the time I’ve given to waiting for royalty (formal and informal) to pass to who knows where. And it gives us something to talk (or complain) about.

 

Keeping an open mind

As an historian I’ve come to realise that I need an open mind especially when using original documents of the time. History is like a big jigsaw puzzle under construction; it can also be thought of in terms of GoogleMaps: you have the overview but can zoom into get the finer detail. In my jigsaw puzzle analogy, the artist has mixed layers of depth in one image. My other way of explaining the multiple versions of an historical event is to use a diamond. There are so many facets individually or severally caught by the light, all making up the whole of what is a diamond. How we look at the diamond, determines which facet(s) we see.

For me, this is an invaluable position to be in – you’re always expecting the story to evolve in ways to accommodate new information, including that which appears to be completely contradictory. Working on World War 1 in Africa, watching the story evolve can be more radical than say the war on the Western Front or other episodes of our lives which have been the focus of lengthy detailed study. How do we fit the Christmas Truce into the ‘lions led by donkey’s’ idea of the war? How does knowing Belgium was so much more active in the Lake Tanganyika diminish or add to Spicer-Simson’s achievements? What does it do for race relations knowing that white South Africa had as much trouble getting military equipment to fight in the war as carriers and soldiers of all ethnic groups had getting food in West and East Africa?

Recently (December 2016), I came across an image on Pinterest which piqued my curiosity and which demanded verification before putting into the public domain (annoyingly, I didn’t keep the Pinterest link). It was to do with the book of Barnabas of which you can read a summary on Wikipedia (most comprehensive and referenced). The latest discovery is a copy of this text in Aramaic suggesting it might be older than the other two known copies of the text. The question I have is if this book is found to be legitimate and the contents verified as far as possible, how does this impact on what many of us were taught as children? Finding a reliable source for this latest discovery has been a challenge (which in itself raises questions) but here’s a sample of reports found: Daily Mail (Feb 2016), LatinTimes, Catholic Answers. In my search for a reliable source, I discovered that this story was ‘big’ in the press in 2014 where we find a slightly more reliable account in The Guardian, but even this is challenged by views in Counter Current (2014).

My questions now are: why this revival in 2016? If the document is false, what was the purpose of putting it into the public domain? Who did so? If it is true? I go back to my earlier question: what does this mean for many brought up believing that religious texts are the absolute truth?

My cross-cultural experiences suggest that whether or not this document is proven to be true, it’s about having an open mind, allowing ourselves to be challenged in understanding why individuals (including countries) acted the way they did. By doing this we are able to shed more light on the diamond and gain a more indepth and holistic picture of the time. Experience also suggests such an approach reduces the temptation to lay blame at specific feet, something we humans tend to relish in.

TNA – One of my favourite places

The National Archives at Kew, London is one of my favourite places. I’ve been going there on and off since 1997 and have seen many changes over the years. More recently with a change in focus from education to publishing and doing more historical research, I am there almost weekly when not in Africa.

This is a national treasure and for me as an historian of African relations with the imperial power, an international treasure.

One of the things I love about the archive is its setting. Although in greater London, it’s close to the Thames (the reason why being something I’ve never really understood) and under a flight path (the same wondering persists). However, a concerted effort has been made to provide a serene environment for researchers, staff and residents. There is nothing like sitting outside having lunch or a chat on a sunny day – something I don’t do nearly enough of when there are sunny days. The pond/lake is a wonderful home for wildlife and guaranteed you can have a discussion with virtually anyone about the status of the swans (I hear rumour there is a swancam somewhere nearby). But beware of the geese when it’s gosling time…I give them as much berth (relatively speaking) as I do an elephant. And then there’s the resident heron. He’s often to be found standing regally watching the world go by – I have a really soft spot for him as he’s often in trouble for eating too many fish from the pond. It’s not Africa, but it’s as close to a feeling of home as I get in London.

The approach to and from the archive is often breathtaking and no more than recently as some photos on Twitter demonstrated. This also goes for the train/tube trip across the river on approaching/leaving Kew Gardens underground station. For various reasons I wasn’t able to capture similar moments that day, but am really pleased fellow researchers and staff at TNA did so.

 

A value-able year

2016 has been an incredible year, and it’s not quite over yet. I’m writing this on Christmas Eve listening to the recording of the Christmas Eve service from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. A time of reflection pending new beginnings on Christmas Day for those of the Christian faith. On Thursday afternoon I was with a group of Muslim women celebrating the story of Jesus – The Prophet. And on Tuesday at a concert of carols was reminded by one of the singers how pleased she was that although performing in a church, she wasn’t forced to listen to what it was to be a believer.

This has been a particularly poignant Christmas season in many ways which I think reflects the past year. It, the Christmas season, started with a friend asking how Christ featured in Christmas. The ensuing discussion round the traditional Christmas dinner prompted some serious thinking. Going to church was my standard answer, however my paternal grandmother was known for not going to church on Christmas day – she was quite open about giving her seat up ‘for the heathens’ who don’t venture into church the rest of the year. The commercialisation of Christmas seems to have taken over, yet underneath there’s a move to get back to the heart of things. This isn’t just a Christian thing – it was strongly apparent in my discussions with Muslim women and many others this year.

We haven’t put up Christmas decorations this year – we seldom do. We have a baobab tree (a model of one) which is smothered with Christmas decorations all made in Africa out of seeds and other local materials. This remains out all year round fitting in with our general take on anniversaries and other events – why should Valentine’s Day only be once a year? And if one of us forgets our wedding anniversary, it’s something to laugh about – it was my turn this year! (and that’s after 20 years of marriage).

I extend this to Remembrance Day as well – every day in my role as an historian I remember the sacrifice men and women have made to keep us safe and to create what they believed was a better world. Usually, however, I do participate in a service on Remembrance Sunday but this year refused to do so. Thankfully, I was in South Africa which made it slightly easier – it was my protest at how I’ve seen Remembrance Day morph into a Remembrance season: are you wearing a poppy? How big or unique is your poppy? how dare you not wear a poppy! and then there was the Poppy Lottery – I could probably live with the idea except for having seen the adverts: all about what I can win with a passing mention at the end of what it was for.

The British referendum on relations with Europe, the US national election, the South African local elections all played their part in challenging the status quo. After 20 years in the UK I felt an outsider, yet in South Africa for the first time I felt as though there was a genuine sense of equality at grassroots’ level despite what was happening in political circles. I also found myself on uncertain ground as the education project I’ve been involved in for nearly ten years moved from Tanzania (village life) to Rwanda (city life). It was quite fitting that earlier in the year we had visited Iceland and I’d stood with one foot on each of the tectonic plates (thankfully they didn’t move). The outcome of all these experiences was a consolidation of my identity and my values – what I stand for and being true to myself. And if this requires speaking out, so be it. Hence the opening accounts to this post. It’s time we get back to basics and remember that all come into the world in the same way and we all have the same end, it’s what we do in between that matters.  If I don’t stand up for what I believe, no-one will. My alter-ego on Facebook – Minority Historian – was chosen for a reason: to bring the minority stories of the Great War in Africa to the fore irrespective of what others believe to be true (I let the documents do the talking).

I’ve met some incredible people this year – all going through similar journeys – a lady (yes, she is one because she carries herself with pride and humility) with alopecia; her husband who came out in public as a transdresser (I can’t see the point why we don’t object to women wearing trousers but we do object to men wearing dresses unless they – the dresses – are of a religious nature), and three authors with learning differences and challenges who have written/created wonderful stories despite all the hurdles placed in their way. Interestingly, where doors have closed in the UK, they have opened in South Africa – completely unexpectedly. Similarly, in my history life, so many people around the world are willing to share information and help get to the truth – their tenacity in doing so continues to astound and inspire me.

And I can’t but be encouraged by three special people – a Jewish friend who fastidiously maintains the Sabbath even when planning a holiday, another who gives up a chunk of her time at this time of the year to work for Crisis helping the homeless of London feel included and valued. The third is a more recent contact/friend whose work I’m waiting to publish – who at the time of writing has been held captive somewhere in Africa for over 4 months with no charges laid against him – from the little I know, a true humanitarian who was using his skills to help make the world a little more bearable for others. He stood his ground despite knowing what c/would happen. May he soon be released and be re-united with his family.

Who knows what next year will bring – but with faith (of whatever kind) and humanity (treat others as you want to be treated) we can face it wherever we are in the world.

May 2017 be all you wish it to be.

 

 

Water – what a choice

A recent perusal of the George Farrar documents at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, is responsible for this posting.

Going through Mrs Farrar’s visitors’ book for 1900 (she was in Cape Town for the duration of the Anglo-Boer War while George was working intelligence for Col Brabant), I came across a dinner menu with a list of Mineral Waters. I don’t know about you, but I thought the variety of mineral waters was a recent thing but it appears not. For Mrs Farrar’s dinner, the following was on offer:

Mineral Waters:
Van Riebeck
Victoria Water
Plain Water
Boiled Water
Hot Water

This was offered alongside: Soda, Lemon, Ginger, Sherbert, Apollinaris – if you are as curious as I was regarding the last mentioned, take a look here (p17) – ending with sparklets. Curious again, I found this, and this advertising.

Compare all these waters to the alcoholic drinks on offer. There were only Wines, listed as:
Sherry White Wine, Hock* (Johannesburg 1900) and Mariani Wine.
* I wonder if this is where the term Hoggenheimer (and a bit more) came from…
Some info on Hock bottles

One can’t say Mrs Farrar was not cosmopolitan in her tastes: Spannish, German and French.

Dinner was just as intriguing so I thought I’d include it here for others who might be interested to know what a typical dinner menu looked like and what was available when a colony was at war.

Warm soup (flavour not specified),
Sardine Fish. Not too surprising as South Africa is well-known for its Sardine Run
Boiled Duck and Caper Sauce. I found a Polish and American recipe
A roast ‘Ground Hornbill‘ (caught near Trarato) – this has stumped me. The closest I came was Tarata – a New Zealand plant or a place in Bolivia
Fricasee of Owl. I assume the owl is instead of chicken?
Cold Cream. Straight forward, I think.
Snoek on Toast – clearly a South African thing. I love it!!

and NO DESSERT. My emphasis. Was this Mrs Farrar’s attempt at saving costs during a war?

It appears that Mrs Farrar became disillusioned with South Africa following George’s involvement in the Jameson Raid and after his release tried to spend as little time in South Africa as possible. However, when the 2nd Anglo-Boer War broke out, George returned to South Africa to serve (he already had investments in ERPM, the gold mine in Boksburg) and Mrs Farrar (Ella) joined him although did not seem to leave the Cape. Here she had a stream of visitors including Frank Rhodes, Lord Milner, Richard Furse and many other ‘big’ names including Margaret of Tweck and the Duke of Westminster. It didn’t look like Kitchener, Roberts or Buller popped in, although there is a letter signed by Kitchener authorising Farrar to source horses for Brabant. When the war became a guerrilla or mobile war, Farrar resigned his commission and returned to the Transvaal to rebuild his mining empire.