Technology meltdown

Don’t you sometimes wish technology would just disappear for a bit? But then, as soon as you can’t access your emails or the internet there’s major panic and you can do nothing else until it is sorted.

One of the things I love about travelling is that you can’t have 24/7 access to the world. Well, I suppose it depends on where you go, but generally it can take a little while to get linked up to the new networks and finding that free wireless spot.

I remember being in the somewhere in the Namib desert a few years’ back and purposefully pulling out my phone to check the signal – NONE. Wonderful, peaceful. Since then, I’ve done the same on various other travels and relished the fact that there is no signal. But always, the thought is squashed by ‘what if you need to get assistance?’

What did we do in the ‘good old days’? I recall having to phone my dad from the office before I left of an evening (if I was going to be late) to let him know I was on my way and oh boy! would I hear it if I hadn’t phoned or was later than the time he estimated it would take me to get home. Bearing in mind that this was in the early 1990s in South Africa and the potential for hi-jackings much higher than now (although stories coming out in 2016/7 are suggesting a return to a more lawless society as the wealth gap increases. I sincerely hope not!).

About 6 years ago, I was talking to some teachers in rural Tanzania about computers. They were desperate for at least one in the office as it would be a time-saver! I was told that pressing a button would allow so much to be done. Yes, it would but getting to press that one button would require hours of training and distraction from other work which also needed to be done. Having the internet added would make their lives more fraught. A simple example to test the theory: Before mobile/cell phones, I asked, how many letters or instructions did they get from the District Education Officer demanding their presence in his office? Bearing in mind that today if you own your own transport you could get there in 45 minutes otherwise by public transport it could take 2-3 hours. Compare that to the demands received since mobile phones came in to operation.

Similarly, how long did it take for letters to be typed up, posted and replied to? With the internet, people expect instant response and the time spent drafting, writing, typing, checking and then in the post system is all done away with. My correspondence went up hundred-fold (at least) with electronic connection.

I never heard another request for computers to solve their workload problem. The fact that there was limited electricity, irregular supply where it was available and the need for technicians and wind-free storage space weren’t even touched on.

Why have we become slaves to technology rather than let the technology be our slave? The number of telephone conversations I have to listen to on public transport is annoyingly high. Why do I want to know about your troubles at work or relationship issues etc. People tend to forget they’re in a public space – I’ve even heard someone discussing  an illegal immigrant (before all the current media hype) being at their house: this openly in a tube filled with people they didn’t know. I’ve learnt as an Afrikaans speaking South African – the last language you want to use to say something personal in whilst in a public space is Afrikaans – you’re bound to be understood and I can tell a number of stories where this has happened to the embarrassment of the other person. Similarly, many other languages are spoken and although I might not understand what you’re saying someone else is bound to especially if you’re speaking louder than a whisper. I’ve eavesdropped in French, Swahili, Dutch and German. Oh, for phones not to work on public transport – but then how would I know when to get to the station to pick someone up?  How did we do it in days gone by?

A friend of mine in the US has experienced just the same sort of frustrations with technology in public places and has started tweeting out reminding people of phone etiquette in particular.

In the UK, we’ve managed (just about) for phones to be switched off in meetings and theatres (not on public transport though) but in Africa generally and other developing areas where having a phone is still seen as a status symbol (rather than where not having one is viewed as being in poverty), phones ring loudly, are answered and conversations held in front of everyone else despite all around the table being there for another purpose. How do we break these cycles?

One thing I’ve learnt from my travels in Africa and elsewhere is that it’s alright not to respond to a text, email or other instant messaging system immediately – sometimes you just cannot and, surprisingly, the world hasn’t collapsed. I’ve learnt not to expect an instant response and won’t chase too quickly. I understand you might not be able to.

There is a lot we can learn from each other … if we’re only willing to listen and observe what is really happening around us.

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.

 

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.

 

 

West Africa in World War 1

Saturday 15 October saw a wonderfully diverse gathering of people at The National Archives – all interested in what happened in West Africa during World War 1.

The inspiration for the day developed out of a project the African Heritage and Education Centre in East London were undertaking into what they called The Untold Story: West African Frontier Force in World War 1. I became aware of the project after being approached to help with background research and thought the group had embarked on a task which would be impossible to achieve. But I am more than glad to say, I was wrong – and the proof was in the display and resource pack which was launched at the conference by a representative of the Ghana High Commission in London.

The display boards which were on display will be touring schools highlighting the role of Africa in World War 1 – it’s the tip of the iceberg but an important start. For further information on getting the display to a place near you, contact AHEC direct. Their education packs are interactive and thought provoking for primary and secondary students – and match the Key Curriculum. The online version should be available from February 2017.

There were two unexpected inputs to the day. The first an overview of Nigeria’s role in the war from a senior military official of the Nigerian High Commission and the other an overview of BlackPoppyRose by Selena Carty. The former had been scheduled but only to give a few words of introduction, whilst Selena stood in for a speaker who had fallen ill and was unable to attend.

Nigel Browne-Davies gave an insightful overview of local involvement in the war – how the educated elites differed from the rural peasants in terms of their attitude to the war, involvement and experiences. And finally, Bamidele Aly spoke about the introduction of a new currency into Nigeria in 1916 – the reasons for this and the reactions of the local poplation to its introduction. Did you know that Hausa was written in Arabic script until about the 1950s? I didn’t…and that was in colonial Nigeria.

In response to some of the questions raised today, here are some links which might be helpful: number of forces involved; Medals won by black participants (in British forces; further details can be found in John Arnold’s The African DCM  and Military Medal).

Discussion flowed throughout the day – it was good to see old friends – Garry from Recognize and Lyn from Away From the Western Front (@aftwf191518); so many new connections were made: all in the spirit of opening up the African front to wider audiences. This was the closest I’ve come to Africa in Britain – thank you to all who made the day!

Review: Kitchener – hero and antihero by Brad Faught

The significance of this review today is that I started reading Kitchener: hero and antihero (2016) by Brad Faught on the 100th anniversary of the death of Lord Kitchener – 5 June 1916. For those of you who know me, Kitchener is one of my heroes: warts and all. In fact its how he managed the warts that make him who he was…

I approached reading the book with some trepidation. One, I met Brad when he spoke at the Great War in Africa Association Conference in May this year and two, I am myself working on a biography of Kitchener. The big question was: would Brad have taken my thunder and would there be anything left for me to say about Kitchener, and if he didn’t address what I thought was important about the man, how would I convey this in a professional and academic assessment of the book?

Reading the opening pages resulted in a mix of emotions. Relief – it was clear Brad had not touched on areas I thought important to highlight (and I’m not going to expand on them here as I might as well reproduce my manuscript) and anticipation at what was going to follow that would add to the already 64+ biographies on the man.

The value of Brad’s book, written in the traditional military biography style is that it brings the previous biographies up to date, addressing some of the big questions around Kitchener: was he homosexual or not (does it really matter?), was he a hero or not and what constitutes a hero. It was refreshing not to have to go through in great detail the last days of Gordon’s life in Omdurman – Brad refers the reader to other texts, as he does for other aspects impacting on Kitchener’s military career. This allows him to focus on the man and his reaction to the events – something he does with sensitivity and humanness. He tries to understand Kitchener as a military man of his time and does this adequately. Personally, I would have approached this from a different angle, but interestingly our conclusions coincide.

Brad needs to be commended on his handling of the Indian Kitchener-Curzon crisis (c1905) and the Dardanelles issue (c1915). Both accounts are balanced and I believe the closest we’ve got to the truth of the situations where emotion and bias have been removed (as far as they can be). This I know from my working on the material available has not been an easy task to achieve, especially as Kitchener left so little of his own versions of events.

Overall, this was a satisfying read as well as a spur to get my account of the great man’s life completed. Thank you, Brad.

And in case you’re wondering what Kitchener has to do with Africa… he served in Egypt in the 1880s and 90s, was involved in the Zanzibar Boundary Commission (1890s), commanded in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), was British Agent and Consul General of Egypt (1911-1914) and during World War 1 tried to keep East Africa out of the war. He also owned a farm in what is today Kenya.

Slave Trade – then and now

Africa is well known for its involvement in the slave trade with much focus given to that which occurred on the western side of the continent. East Africa was also to experience a slave trade – but rather than with the Americas, the eastern slave trade was with Arabia. Names associated with the two slave trades include John Newton of Amazing Grace (to the tune of House of the Rising Sun) fame and David Livingstone the missionary who died in Africa having raised the profile of slavery. For those of working on the East Africa campaign of World War 1, the account of Mzee Ali as recorded by Bror McDonell (scroll down for info on the author) gives an insight into the last days of slave trading as the Germans extended their control over the territory. Having seen the building conditions on both the east and west African coasts, personally, I think the east African slaves had the nastier facilities, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that these people were being forcibly removed from their homelands to travel in appaling conditions to an unknown future.

The ending of the slave trade in Africa brought friction in its wake, not least in southern Africa where the Boers decided to remove themselves from British control in the then Cape Colony and trek northwards leading to what we know as The Great Trek. And some might say that the recruitment and conditions of the carriers who served during the First World War was no different to that of slavery. For many the memory of slaving days was not too far distant and it would have been easy to draw parallels.

The slave trade continues today, although in different forms. This was brought home on a visit to Romania where there were posters in the airport warning young girls about human traffiking. What we also discovered on our trip was that the Romani Gypsies were originally slaves taken from India to Romania. This reminded me of the Cape Malay community of South Africa, and the Cape Coloured, some of whom can trace their origins back to the Malay States. And how fitting that Jennie Upton should share a traditonal South African recipe for Malva pudding which clearly has its origins in Malaysian tradition. Others who were technically slaves although not in name were the indentured Indians who were taken to southern Africa to work on the sugar plantations in the 19th century and later the Chinese who, in 1904, were employed to work on the South African goldmines.

Returning to Romania, specifically Transylvania, it was incredible how similar it was to aspects of Africa – I thought the souvenir sellers had invested in Zulu beadwork until I was informed by our guide that it was traditional Romanian beadwork. Fertility dolls/models were common as was subsistence farming. Unfortunately also in common was poverty and human exploitation, yet despite this, the people seemed cheerful and took everything in their stride.

And for those of ou wondering where the link with Dracula is, well there are two: one Dracula means the ‘Son of the Devil’, the devil being the name given to Dracula’s father as he wore a symbol of a dragon, the order he belonged to which was fighting the crusades. The other link is with the real persona of Dracular, namely Vlad the Impaler – the African equivalent? Chaka Zulu.

On Call

With all the technology we have today, one feels ‘On Call’ 24/7 unless one purposefully switches off – pretty much as I did this past weekend. However, there are still professions where people are ‘On Call’ outside of ‘normal’ (what is ‘normal’ these days?) working hours. Plumbers, road side assistants and police are some of those who remain ‘On Call’ as do nurses, paramedics and doctors. All are unsung heroes. And it’s around a doctor ‘On Call’ that leads me to write today.

At the end of last week, a parcel arrived containing some copies of On Call in Africa in war and peace 1910-1932 by Dr Norman Parsons Jewell. This parcel marked the culmination of over a year’s work getting to know Norman Jewell; and what an honour.

Norman led an extraordinary life. He left for the Seychelles in 1910 serving in the Colonial Services as a doctor and where his soon to be wife, Sydney, joined him. With a young family, he asked to enlist in the armed forces and found himself in East Africa during December 1914. He remained in East Africa save for a few trips ‘home’ to Ireland (Bloody Sunday 1920) and the UK before being made redundant as a result of the 1932 austerity measures.

Norman was one of the few doctors to serve virtually all through the war in East Africa and more significantly, he served with the 3rd East Africa Field Ambulance (3EAFA) – responsible for black and Indian soldiers and carriers. As a result, his memoirs open up a whole new understanding of life during the war in East Africa. The memoirs were written a few years after the war, Norman’s original diaries having gone AWOL but the accuracy and sharpness of his recall was consistently reinforced as I looked up dates, names and events. I seem to recall only one instance where there was a minor misalignment of fact – the dates of death of Frederick Selous and his sons; easily done when news only arrives every six months…

But perhaps the highlight for me was the discovery at #UKNatArchives of the war diaries of 3EAFA written in Norman’s own hand. A study of the War Diaries involving Norman provide an interesting insight into diary and record keeping of the time. Norman did not keep (or the diaries were not retained) during the time that Norman reported into Temple-Harris of Seventeen Letters to Tatham fame (available), while there are two concurrent diaries maintained by Norman at the time he was in charge of 3EAFA and acting Senior Medical Officer in Lindi following South African Dr Laurie Girdwood’s capture by the Germans.

What this suggests, keeping in mind the AWOL personal diary is that Norman at one stage was keeping 3 diaries – all for different purposes about the same thing. The two in his official capacity are interesting to compare: little is duplicated showing how the gdound level 3EAFA fed into the Divisional level. Given the comments in Norman’s memoir, it would be fascinating to see what he had recorded in his personal diary at the time – did he contemplate then making aspects of it public? He clearly had a routine to his day, one which he maintained as well as circumstances would allow – virtually all diary entries are made at 6pm – half an hour before sun-down. This too, opens up questions and thoughts about life on campaign in East Africa…

Another outstanding feature of Norman’s memoir and war diaries is his recognition of others, especially Zorawar Singh, and the work they did, as well as the importance of friendship. He met many of the Legion of Frontiersmen and following his move back to London, remained in touch with many he had befriended in Africa. His memoir is more than ‘just’ a military account, it opens a window onto colonial life in the early part of the Twentieth Century, while his post-war work introduces us to the challenges the medical world faced in the tropics and busveld.

And, in keeping with his time, he protected his family – there is little mention of them in the memoir. BUT, they are not ignored in On Call – Part 3 of the book pays tribute to Norman’s wife Sydney – a remarkable woman in her own right: if only she had kept a diary!

I hope others who encounter On Call in Africa in War and Peace 1910-1932 find it as eye-opening, rewarding and enjoyable as I did working with the manuscript (and the family). The #WW1 #Africa jigsaw has had another piece fall into place…