I don’t understand

Having travelled around Cuba for over a week staying in family homes or rather in rooms attached to homes, we spent two nights in a resort on an island (Cayo Santa Maria) connected to other islands and the mainland by a road, built for the purpose. All I can say is thank goodness there were as few people as there were – that was bad enough.

We’d been warned that food in Cuba wasn’t very good. Now we know why – although meals were a bit hit and miss elsewhere, the quality was better outside the resort. Intriguingly, the dishes which weren’t all that good outside were the best inside. I wonder how much the fact that things like lobster, shrimp and beef are restricted to tourists accounts for this?

What I don’t understand is why come all the way to Cuba to stay in a resort cut off from the local population, society and culture. And it’s not just Cuba – we have spent a night or two in similar set-ups at the start/end of holidays in The Gambia, where people ventured out to the local beach two minutes’ walk away to encounter the local touts. We did a ‘beach holiday’ early on after moving to the UK – we spent a Christmas in Tunisia. That in itself was fascinating. Two South Africans in a predominantly German-focused resort for a week. Three days in and we were chomping at the bit having seen all in the local neighbourhood.

What is it that attracts people to such places – where everybody tries to outlook the other in body or clothing (or lack thereof) lying in the sun turning the colour of lobster depending on your original skin colour, or developing a brown so dark you could be missed if standing amongst some trees. I can’t get my head around people wanting to sit in straight lines on lounges crammed up against each other in the only bit of shade available – either on a beach where if there’s only one line you do get to see the ocean, or around a swimming pool – with the music blearing.
Solace was found on the room balcony, looking into natural vegetation where the birds and cicadas dominated the music scene and not a person was to be seen.
The only consolation I have with a place such as this is the import duties which must be paid on the drinks and ‘Pringles’ brought in for those missing ‘home’ comforts and presumable, as the Cuban resort is government-owned and run, the money made from the residents in the resort helps keep other parts of the economy going.
But what irks is the inequality and the shutting off from reality.

In Tunisia, I remember the resorts being behind high walls, the locals working there having to travel miles on cramped buses to get to the set of six-foot walls which allowed them a basic standard of living. Somehow we found ourselves outside these high walls across from a local village – it was life at its rawest. Scrawny dogs and children ran around on stone ground littered with broken bottles and plastic packets. The houses across the road in the distance rickety wood and brick constructs barely able to stand upright, yet we were in beautiful (? the eye of the beholder) air-conditioned, brightly painted, stable buildings with bar, dining rooms and swimming pool.

Gambia was similar, although we were more used to the Sub-Saharan traditional African village way of life. The starkness though, of the two environments was still jarring.

In Cuba, it wasn’t clear if the staff stayed on the premises or if they travelled over 46 kilometres each way to get to and from work to the nearest town. If their accommodation is on site, I hope it’s better quality than the ‘squatter’ or shanty town development I spotted in the state run hotel/resort at Playa Largo – near Plaza Giron where the Bay of Pigs incident took place.

It shows how conditioned we get to our environments. In a couple of places we stayed – Trinidad and Playa Lago in particular, I wondered to myself what we had got ourselves into as we were driven down the dilapidated, dusty, pot-holed streets between run-down buildings and others being constructed. Only to stop outside the most recently renovated or colourful building on the street – luxury awaited. In Santa Clara, it was slightly different – down the main road through town to an exterior which reminded me of colonial buildings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi as well as in Moscow which had seen better days. Yet, again, behind a door, a library in a court-yard with air-conditioned comfort of city standards. In all these places, family life continued either in the residence or around, children playing with their parents, babies out and about at 9.30pm in bars and restaurants, barbers and hairdressers cutting hair on their verandahs or in their front rooms. A neighbour sticking her head in next door to ask for the TV volume to be turned down – all in good friendly nature. Another serving mohitjas from a grill which replaced their front window and when we asked to sit down were directed inside to tables just behind the grills. Grandad coming up to us, a towel wrapped around him telling us in Spanish there was a ‘banjos’ at the back where we could ‘pipi’. Priceless experiences missing from the ‘meat processing’ resorts.

(And hopefully now, those I was travelling with can understand why I was so grumpy for the last two days.)

Pecking order

Looking out my window, I’m fascinated at the order in which birds come to the feeder and how they arrange themselves to access food on the ground. There is a definite pecking order and from what I can see, it’s not always the big birds who get preference.

I’m currently helping a heritage group with some research into the West African Frontier Force (WAFF) during World War 1* and was struck by correspondence highlighting the differences between the various contingents making up the WAFF – the pecking order persists.  The issue of martial race has been discussed by many authors and until recently has been taken as read when selecting micro-nations for military service. The correspondence in @UKNationalarchives CO 445 shows how wide-ranging the pecking order was and the reasons for it.

Understandably to some extent, the needs of the Western Front dominated what was happening in the peripheral theatres of war. So, when on 3 December 1914, Lord Lugard (Gov Gen Nigeria) let the Colonial Office know that 6 maxim guns and two 2.75 / 2.95in guns had been lost in the Cameroons campaign and needed replacing, he didn’t stand much chance. The discussion in the CO papers (CO 445/34 48111) notes:

It is quite impossible to replace them at once. I understand that it has not yet been found possible to arm the Canadian Contingent with machine guns. We can of course send a copy of this to WO and ask them what they can do… say [to Gen Dobell­­­] that there is much difficulty and delay in procuring war like stores for Colonies and ask whether he considers the matter urgent.

The Canadian Contingent was headed to the Western Front. There was also some question regarding the request for replacement guns as it had been noted that on the outbreak of war there were 51 maxim guns in Nigeria (1 with each of the 34 Companies and 17 in reserve), 14 2.95inch guns (6 with No 1 battery and 4 with No 2 battery and 2 with each reserve battery). (CO 445/34 48111) What had happened to these?

The issue of weapons to the Western Front was not a ‘white’ versus ‘black’ issue which could be inferred by Canada getting preference over the WAFF, South Africa sufferened similar shortages of weapons and had to scrounge  from Malta, Australia and Portugal (forthcoming publications).

However, race did play its part in who fought where. As noted in October 1916, the War Office wanted white men in subsidiary theatres moved to Western Front asap and to be replaced by locally raised black troops including from South Africa. (CO 445/37 55218)

Closer to home, in Africa that is, the pecking order persisted as seen in the discussions over which troops were to serve in East Africa from 1916 onwards. In CO 445/37 48999 men from Sierra Leone were preferred over the West African Regiment, whilst the recruitment drive undertaken by Colonel Haywood clearly showd the military prefernce for troops from Gold Coast and then Nigeria. (CO 445/37 56748)

More specifically, in December 1916, following the WO request for 4,000 carriers to be recruited in West Africa for service with the Nigerian battalion in East Africa, the CO dsiscussion contained the following statements: The WO see Hausas being needed in Nigeria and that ‘the Sierra Leone Carrier is greatly to be preferred and is the only stamp fit for service with combatant troops.’ If carriers could not be obtained from Sierra Leone, then they should be raised from Nigeria but not from areas used for recruiting ‘combatant material’. ‘The Ibos should also be able to furnish large numbers of men of excellent physique who should make good labourers in Base Ports, and Lines of Communication releasing others who may be more suitable for employment with troops.’ (CO 445/37 62587)

What has also been striking about this correspondence is the clear understanding that the CO officials had of the different territories under their control and how this compared with the WO officials who saw no difference between the micro-nationalities comprising East and West Africa. It was nothing to the WO to suggest that King’s African Rifles (KAR) recruits be used to bring the Nigerian and Gold Coast Regiments up to establishment if men could not be found and trained quickly enough in West Africa. (CO 455/37 42406).

Another area where differences were seen was in the application of the King’s Regulations for the British Army to the African forces. Officers seconded from the British Army to the WAFF recommended that conditions for serving African rank and file be the same as for those serving in the British Army. Whilst this principle of equality was generally accepted for the WAFF, there were local conditions which had to be taken into account which mitigated against the King’s Regulations – notably the payment of separation allowances to families who had no knowledge of, or need for, money.

The above are snippets I extracted from my rapid trawl through the series, anyone wanting to delve more deeply into aspects can see the full catalogue listing for the WAFF during  WW1 CO 445 on the GWAA site.

* The African Heritage and Education Centre (AHEC) is looking for records and accounts of West Africans who were involved in the war during World War 1 – soldiers, carriers, garrison forces, home front etc. If you are able to help, please get in touch either with Christine or myself.