Who is African?

Some might see this as a political or loaded question but it’s one that challenges me as an historian as much as a sociologist (dare I admit that it was one of my degree majors?) interested in identity, and personally as I see myself as African in a world which apparently struggles to do so.

Africa is not unique when it comes to complex identity issues around settlers and indiginous peoples. However, it does seem to be an area where identity and cultural orientation are assumed because of – let’s be frank here – colour.

A few examples have recently jarred in this respect, highlighting that we haven’t yet resolved the issue of identity and it is going to continue presenting a challenge for me as an historian, but also give me years of work on uncovering minority voices wherever they emerge.

Twice in a country in which I spend a fair amount of time, I was asked by two intelligent black men, one middle-aged with a solid ‘western’ education behind him and the other a young nursing student changing universities, that if they spent time in Europe, would they become white? The young man was astounded to hear that white people were born in South Africa regularly. His experience is of white people being transient visitors or immigrants to his country. Soon after this, it was implied very clearly by a much respected institution that I was too white to be able to build a raport with fellow Africans and answer questions concerning WW1 in Africa – a place I regard as home with all that term implies, and on a topic I am very familiar with.

Most recently, an Indian colleague in discussing the xenophobic attacks in South Africa passed a comment that after five generations of living in the country, her people were still seen as immigrants. What revelations and stimulants for reflection – all in 3 months in 2015!

My work on WW1 in Africa has brought to light that the issue of identity and who is African is complex and should not be taken at face value. In addition to all the black tribes involved in the Great War in East Africa (142 Tanzanian, 40+ Kenyan, 3 Zambian as a rough starting point), I identified 23 other ethnic groups which participated. Indians born in India, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Mozambique all have very different experiences and ways of looking at life, in the same way that whites, Arabs and people of mixed race do. Those born on the continent had different experiences and expectations compared to those who were born elsewhere and came onto the continent for a short while or who made it their home. And then, there are the different belief systems which various groups practised.

It is worth looking at the contributions of each to the campaigns in Africa but also to the whole. All worked (with varying degrees of willingness) towards a common goal, irrespective of which side they supported. What strikes me though is, that despite all these differences, on the whole they found a way to work together. Many were African (black, white, Indian, Arab and mixed race) and their contributions to the war effort and later development of Africa should not be forgotten.

Remembrance and Commemoration: a never-ending cycle

I’ve missed a few commemoration and remembrance occasions recently for various reasons and as usual, it’s provided an opportunity for reflection.

Recent commemorations as I write have included Gallipoli, Tanzania’s national day and South Africa’s Freedom Day. (April). Somewhere along the line, in May, VE Day and Dunkirk featured and whilst I was in Africa at the start of the year there was Mendi Day. The SA Military History Journal for Dec 2014 (read in late April) was full of commemorations linked to WW1: Sandfontein, Square Hill, the 1914 Rebellion at Zandfontein, and the annual 11 November parade. They also had an article on a series of films being shown at Ditsong Military Museum as part of an ongoing commemoration programme. A War and Peace Concert took place in August.

A military journal in itself suggests commemoration although I’ve focused mainly on WW1. In addition there was an article on the Anglo-Boer (AB) War, specifically looking at the work of the SA CWGC. No mention of the WW1 cemeteries at Maitland and elsewhere. This is not surprising as the AB War probably resonates more strongly amongst South Africans than World War 1. Again, not surprising as the AB War was fought on SA territory and impacted on more of the population than did WW1.

This general lack of knowledge or awareness of WW1 and SA’s involvement was brought home on 21 February when I heard a newsreader announce that in future 21 February was to be National Troops’ Day. I stopped. How did they get to that? 21 February is Mendi Day, the day the SANLC lost over 600 labourers: not troops! Before sharing my horror with the world about myth generation, I thought it best to investigate a bit. Low and behold, officially the day is National Forces Day (whew! all inclusive and appropriate) and 2015 wasn’t the inaugral day but 2012. The challenge now will be to ensure that all the forces (WW1 and other) are recognised – from labourer to soldier to medical and support services. They all played a significant role in furthering the aims they believed they were fighting for and should be remembered for their contribution to creating the country we know today. For reasons of unification and reconciliation, Mendi Day is well-chosen but it will depend on the dominant voices and how they ‘use’ the day that will determine whether it perpetuates the myths or encourages honest investigation and recognition of how all the sectors of the armed forces worked together to succeed as they did.

And the reference to VE Day, I discovered is the release of a film showing HM The Queen celebrating the news in Piccadilly Circus as one of the people. Soon after and long past by the time you get to read this, was the commemoration of VE Day by the South African Legion, whose newsletter also contained coverage of the WW1 battle of Trekkopje amongst other bits of interest.

Confessions of a WW1 historian: Remembrance Tourist

A week before Remembrance Day 2014, I took a trip to the Tower of London to see the moat of poppies. There had been no rush to do so as in my mind they would be there for the four years of the war. Thankfully, someone put me right but by that time, there were signs in underground stations telling one to avoid the crowds at Tower Hill Station. I planned my visit at the start of the day and was astounded at the numbers who clearly had had the same idea.

The route I chose to the Tower took me through the nearby memorials to those who lost their lives at sea. Surprisingly, as I stopped to take some photos, I was pleasantly surprised to see a few (literally one or two) others taking a look.

The Tower surrounds were abuzz. Before getting to the viewing spots, poppy sellers lurked flogging their wears. Cameras abounded from ipads to sophisticated things on tripods. A couple even took a selfie. On exiting the area, a poppy seller was heard to say enthusiastically that he’d already made about £20 (at 8.30am).

This added to my reflections on Remembrance Day per se and being an historian of one of the most significant wars of all time, that which started 100 years ago this year, I’ve had much to ponder upon.

I had already decided not to do a special Remembrance Day blog but to rather reflect on what took place (and my review of David’s book felt an appropriate act for the week). I certainly didn’t expect to start it earlier!

I had forgotten the morning of my Tower visit to wear my “100” year badge from The National Archives (@UKNationalArchives). This badge would be especially fitting given the year, instead of a poppy. However, I felt distinctly underdressed with no outward symbol of remembrance, and so succumbed when I spotted two veterans manning a table which included poppy badges. I’d really had my eye on one for a few years but never seemed to be in an area where they were sold. We engaged in some chatter following my comment that the only reason I’d stopped was for that specific poppy. In answer to their confused looks – I remember every day of the year. More confusion until told I was an historian of WW1. Well, not surprising they didn’t know the last surrender took place at Abercorn on 25 November 1918 and I didn’t know where the last British soldier had fallen on the Western Front – close to where the first had fallen. In some ways, this little exchange felt like a competition; who knew more? Was it important?

The pressure of wearing a poppy was increased by a headline I’d spotted in the Metro newspaper on 5 November: “1 in 6 refuse to wear poppy” and the variations of poppies being worn was quite something. I can’t complain about this as I had a special choker of poppies crocheted for this anniversary period.

Everywhere one looked, there was some reminder of World War 1: London Transport embraced the centenary with a sponsored board in every station and a painted model bus outside the old War Office which I spotted when I went to see the wonderful photographic exhibition – at that time in St James’ Park.

It seems I’m not alone in my thinking – thanks to a friend for sending me this link after we’d been talking about the issue.

Remembrance Sunday was quite different. It was spent with friends at a church which became a VAD Hospital 100 years ago, on 19 November 1914 when the first patients arrived at St John’s Presbyterian Church, Northwood (@NorthwoodArts). It was a time for reflection and afterwards, once those who remembered at the cenotaph had finished, a local school had a series of workshops and talks for those who were interested.

The question then: Who is remembrance for?

Some see it as an opportunity to fundraise for veterans of war and those who have suffered through violence. The British Legion made  the poppy an integral part of its image in 1995. Since then the poppy has evolved and you can now purchase wall plates, bags, badges, brooches and a myriad of other items all featuring the poppy.  It’s a tough line to walk – where is the line between informing to fundraise or turning the day into a commercial moneymaker no different to Valentine’s Day, Halloween or even Christmas?

Others have taken the opportunity to use this centenary year as a platform to speak out against war equating remembrance and the study of conflict as condoning and approving of violence to resolve differences. Personally, I think this is missing the point and undermines the sacrifice so many made for something they felt worth fighting for (voluntarily or otherwise). I believe there are other ways to resolve conflict, however, I am realist enough to know that war/violence happens and is sometimes necessary, so rather than try and understand why it happened, I look to the why and how it came to be what it was and continued for as long as it did. What is constantly striking is that through all the horrors of war, there are so many positives – not least the humanity of man. It is by building on these positives that reconciliation can (slowly but surely) take place if people work at it.

And then there’s the group for whom the day is something special. A time to remember those who have passed onto another world, family and friends, known and unknown, those who survived – maimed physically and/or mentally, and those who who stayed at home doing what they could to support those on active service. For them, the two minutes’ silence is all encompassing – as it was meant to be when visualised by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick.

Having spent all this time reflecting, the irony of 11 November 2014, is that I missed the official 2 minutes’ silence! I was working at home in silence on the memoirs of a doctor who served in World War 1 East Africa (forthcoming) and adding names to the Great War in Africa ‘In Memory’ lists (under each theatre).

So, what have I learned from this year’s Remembrance activities?

It’s the personal that matters – There is nothing more moving than spending time with like-minded others reflecting between the Last Post and the Reveille. And so, I’ll live with the tourism aspect of Remembrance – it sows the seed for deeper remembering and reflection – and participate in it to the extent I feel appropriate.

Thank you to all my living soldier/veteran friends and to ‘my boys’ (and ‘girls’) of days gone by who help me remember every day of the year. Your sacrifices were not in vain.

To the Unacknowledged Veteran

It’s been a week of privilege and honour…

Over the past week, I had the opportunity of spending four days with members of the Kenya Regiment as we commemorated the first soldiers killed in the Great War in East Africa campaign on 15 August, 100 years ago. James Willson led the troops around the Tsavo area of Kenya – Voi (where the first African VC is buried and we laid a wreath), Maktau, Taveta and Salaita including the famous baobab tree which allegedly hid a German female sniper. At the Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery in Taveta we took part in a wreath laying ceremony with the Deputy Governor of Taita Taveta commemorating the lives of all those involved in the Great War of 1914-1918. What was also poignant about this day in this cemetery was that it was the first I visited in East Africa back in 2000 – a pilgrimage undertaken for a friend whose grandfather lay buried there: a young piper who died a few days after the battle of Salaita Hill in February 1916.

Not even a week later, back in London, I was at another commemoration event. This time led by someone roughly my age remembering his war – that of 1987 when young South African men fought against the Russians in the Battle on the Lomba in Angola. As David gave us a glimpse of what the book entailed wearing the medals he’s only now taking possession of, it made me realise how easy it is to discount our peers as veterans. How young they are! Sitting on the tube writing this blog and reflecting on all the conflict around us, I wonder how many young people in the carriage are veterans of conflict, unable to speak about it for whatever reason.

David downplayed his personal role, emphasising and acknowledging the work of the mechanics, cooks and others in keeping the armed forces moving. However, more often than not, the only way to tell the story of others is through one’s own as others have done in diaries of their WW1 experiences and which I tried to highlight in my recent talk at the British High Commissioner’s residence in Tanzania and at Lions Bluff.

Times moves on, the political landscape changes and often those who fought under the auspices of one regime later find themselves on the ‘wrong’ side of the political divide. The ‘big’ stories find their place in the history books, often written by the victor, but, time and again, it’s those who fought to preserve their country irrespective of political leaning who get forgotten as remembering their contribution did, or does, not fit the political image being portrayed then or now.

It is to all these unacknowledged veterans (past, present and future) of all ages, colours and creeds that this blog post is dedicated.

We will remember them! and where possible bring their story to light.

(*thanks to the Veteran of the SA Legion at David’s book launch for the title of this blog – apologies I didn’t get your name)

A Polish cemetery in Tanzania – Really! and the outbreak of World War 1

Whilst most people were commemorating the outbreak of World War 1 on Monday 4 August, I took a bit of a break as events in Africa kicked off on 6 August in Togoland and on 8 August in Dar es Salaam. All going well, I should be in Kenya for a special commemoration there on 15 August, the day the first soldier of the war was killed in East Africa. Ed Paice, though, fittingly published a piece on the Great War in East Africa in remembrance of the conflict which began 100 years ago yesterday.

I turnedto World War 2 and a Polish cemetery a friend told me about on my last visit to Tanzania. Your reaction might well be the same as mine was, especially when you realise, if you know Tanzania at all, where the cemetery is – in a little village just outside Arusha called Tengeru. Had the cemetery been on the coast, or possibly even in Moshi or Arusha, it would still have been surprising but made more sense.

Nevertheless, it is this village of Tengeru, about 24km outside of Arusha, where the Polish cemetery dating back to World War 2 can be found. The camp was formed by Polish refugees who were fleeing from Russian occupation of Poland on the one side and Hitler on the other. About 24,000 (18,000 according to Kresy-Siberia Foundation) found themselves in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania with the biggest settlement being at Tengeru. They were en route to the UK, US and other destinations. This spot at Tengeru was apparently chosen because of its climate – this may well be, but it is not the easiest place to get to and there were other white settlements around the slopes of Mount Meru [this is going to require some further investigation in the British archives in due course]. Despite the challenge of getting to the cemetery, it must be acknowledged that it is a beautiful setting.

After the war, about 1,000 refugees remained in East Africa with a number remaining in the Arusha area. They contributed to the local community building schools, an argicultural college, clinic and other facilities – all of which are still used in some form today with the agricultural college being their main legacy. There is one remaining refugee, aged 97, still living in Arusha and when it comes time for him to leave this earth, he will be laid to rest amongst his fellow Poles in a little corner of Africa.

The cemetery is striking in its similarity to the Commonwealth War Graves. Most of the head stones look the same and are lined in the same way. Frangipani trees, a common feature of the German African graves, provide shade. The garden is tended by Simon Joseph who has taken over the work from his father who tended the graves for 32 years. He is supported financially by the Polish Embassy and donations from the many visitors who come to see this little bit of Eastern Europe in the heart of Africa.

No matter what war one talks about, there are always those who are displaced, and it seems fitting, that on the day when most people are remembering the horrors the declaration of war started 100 years ago, we remember all those who were and have been displaced from their homes due to the national and other localised conflicts.