I’m one to learn (or try to) from situations in which I find myself. Nine years of supporting an education charity in Tanzania on the slopes of Kilimanjaro were eye-openers for understanding some of the conditions the soldiers and carriers in East Africa endured. Travelling on local transport from Tanga to Mombasa soon after a series of bus-hijackings gave an idea of what anxieties men felt when moving through 8-foot high grass expecting an ambush at any time, walking up/down to the market area on Kilimanjaro in the rains provided its own insights into slippery roads and manipulating gushing water, watching as once dry river beds became torrential rivers washing away everything in their way – it made sense why some bridges were built so high above the water line. While most land from Kilimanjaro to the coast line has been inhabited, spots of natural bush gave some idea of the ‘forests’ men spoke of and the struggles of dealing with thorn and overgrowth. Oh, and the dust! let alone encountering zebra and giraffe along the road as the bus sped past. What would take us 40 minutes to drive in a car, took 2 hours by dala-dala or local taxi and all day or two for men to walk. The heat at the bottom of the mountain being 10 degrees Celsius warmer than where we were 8,000 feet up. It was bad enough in a vehicle at the height of summer … something else to have to walk in those conditions.
So with recent restrictions, it’s seemed only natural to see what I could extrapolate to better understand aspects of the past. It’s been fascinating watching social media and speaking with friends/family seeing parallels with internment as shared through the Stobs project which was expanded to Fort Napier in South Africa. More recent history, not quite WW1, are those in South Africa and elsewhere who had to suffer House Arrest. Martial law and curfews are not too different for many of us, depending on which country we happen to find ourselves.
Significantly, I find myself referring to those in Africa who were unable to communicate with family or get news as frequently as the men on the Western Front did. Letters took six months to get to the recipient if they were lucky. Torpedoed ships and poor lines of communication played their part in delaying people linking with each other. Funerals and seeing loved ones in hospital were other aspects of social life which had to be foregone although there are some accounts of small groups of men gathering together to bury a comrade either on land or into the ocean. But there are also many sad stories of comrades having had to be left behind in the hope that the enemy would provide an appropriate send-off. No technology then as we have today to video-link in or to accurately record where the lonesome grave was, which by the time someone got to return had disappeared back into the natural bush.
While many have been stockpiling, there was no opportunity to do so 100 years ago in the African bush. Poor lines of communication and later, drought and famine saw to it that rations were rationed. Accounts of being on 1/4 rations for a day or even going for 24 hours with no food can be found. More often, it’s the tediousness of the diet or eating foods not traditionally known. The latter accounted for over 90% of the Seychelloise falling ill and being recalled. Whilst many today in war/conflict zones no doubt associate with these constraints, many of us in more well-off communities still have quite some way to go before we find ourselves in such constrained conditions.
In contrast with then, we probably suffer from information overload. Newspapers were scarce and likely only in bases when they were available and again, as with letters, months out of date. Reuters telegrams and other snippets passed by telegraph wire perhaps gave an idea of what was happening elsewhere but were never long enough to provide detail. Was it better/easier to cope not knowing as it was then or as we have it now having to wade through huge amounts of detailed info from different countries to determine what is true or relevant?
And despite what everyone is dealing with in their own context, life goes on in many ways, just different, although for some not … while some find relief and opportunity in these temporary changed times, for others it’s hell on earth with no release from their enforced imprisonment. Caught in the open bush could be as restrictive and fear-inducing as being forced to stay indoors. Perhaps that’s a reason many are prepared to take risks and venture out – is it any different to wanting to be on the Western Front where facing a sniper’s bullet was less stressful than worrying about the marauding lion, jigger flea, landmine or potential ambush? How will we determine the impact of the current situation when so far much of the language used to describe conditions are so similar to what others have used in the past across numerous critical events? I used to think the East Africa campaign was unique until I read Thomas Packenham’s The Boer War and realised mobile warfare is … well, mobile warfare and nothing special to World war 1 Africa.