REVIEW: Remembrance, Memories and Representation after 100 years – edited collection

Africa and the First World War: Remembance, Memories and Repesentation after 100 years, edited by De-Valera NYM Botchway and Kwame Osei Kwarteng, 2018

The pending collection was brought to my attention by someone who had hoped to attend the conference where these papers were first presented. Having seen the list of papers presented, I was keen to get hold of any published version and eventually tracked the publisher down. Thankfully I was able to get a review copy as the book is retailing at an unbelievable £116.00. I am aware this is within keeping of academic tomes but it does price texts out of the general researcher’s pocket and for an obscure topic such as Ghana’s role in the Great War, is rather depressing, especially if little of the profit makes its way to the authors.

With that out the way, the publication promises more than it delivers but is definitely worth a read if you can access a copy. The first few papers after the introduction, are a little of a let down with either not being referenced or citing Wikipedia for detail on Africa’s involvement in the war. This raises another of my bug-bears related to the price of the book. I often hear UK institutions complaining about the price of academic texts which makes me wonder how African institutions with smaller budgets are able to purchase books and articles. Without decent access to published material, how can scholars in the ‘west’ (Britain, America and Europe) expect scholars in Africa to produce material of an ‘acceptable’ standard?* And it’s not just me, See here for a local SA perspective on the value of archives/historical libraries.

The great value of this collection is the use of local archival material, allowing us in other parts of the world to get a glimpse into what can be found in Ghana, in particular. While it is not the same as doing one’s own research, having local researchers with local cultural knowledge interpreting local material is welcome and hugely valued. The richness of the local archival material is unfortunately missing from this sample but it does contain the list of Contents.

The regional approach taken with the book, and it being published through a non-traditional academic publisher has meant the contents/text have not been ‘airbrushed’ for the western audience, allowing further insight into cultural differences and acceptabilities especially where terms, generally frowned upon in western publications, are used quite freely by the authors. My experience of Africa is that we have vivid descriptive ways of saying things and one or two chapters in this book employ these effectively. In this way, I learnt about ‘Hyphenated-Americans’ being those first and second generations in the USA, effectively making me a ‘hyphenated-Brit’.

Another value is that readers are exposed to different interpretations to those we generally come acoss in American, British and European oriented texts. While some thinking from the west has clearly influenced African interpretations, there is much that is still local which is refreshing and opens new avenues for exploring concepts and ideas.

The chapters I engaged with most were towards the end of the book, possibly because they were a little out of the ordinary: Italian and Libyan involvement in the war by Stefano Marcuzzi, making historical connections by Adjei Adjepong, and an overview of cinema in Ghana with brief reference to the 1914-18 war by Vitus Nanbigne. The chapter on the flu epidemic by Kwame O Kwateng and Stephen Osei-Owusu had some interesting insights as did the chapter on the role of chiefs by Samuel Bewiadzi and Margaret Ismaila.

Overall, this is a book worth accessing, and I’ll definitely be making use of some of the content in future publications. I only wish it had a more accessible price-tag for others to be able to access as easily, and that colleagues in Africa are able to access a wider range of scholarly material than they currently do.

 

 

*It is for this very reason that the Great War in Africa Association has set up a publishing arm – to facilitate information transfer more cost-effectively and fairly for authors/contributors.

Grimsby – definitely not a Grim town

On telling people we were going to visit Grimsby, we were asked “Why do you want to go there? It’s rather grim, not much to do.” Well, I was going to follow up a World War 1 Africa link – more in due course about that – which was well worth the visit, and yes, Grimbsy was quiet, but definitely not grim.

Apart from my WW1 discovery, we were directed to dinner at Papas, named ‘the UK’s No 1 Fish and Chips’ in 2018. This accolade follows the 2015 one naming Papas the ‘World’s Largest Fish and Chip Shop’ and boy is it deceptively large. Good fish was to be had though. And did you know there is a National Fish and Chip Museum in York? According to the publicity newspaper you get with your menu at the restaurant, there is a note about Churchill exempting the restaurant from rationing during World War 2. What is not stated, and not surprisingly, is that fish from South Africa was imported – snoek, by all accounts an acquired taste as I’ve not yet found anyone of the post-war years who likes it as much as I do. In fact, most turn their noses up at it. Perhaps it’s got to do with the way it’s prepared. While our visit to a fish market in Ghana was made memorable by the aroma of fish drying outside, there wasn’t any such hint in Grimsby, perhaps because fish is no longer the main source of income it used to be? The fish braai/barbeque on Zanzibar was more appealing. And in Mongolia, we witnessed fish drying from the wing mirror of trucks.

But the highlight of our visit to Grimsby, apart from my WW1 excursion, was the Grismby Fishing Heritage Centre. Here in one go, you get an overview of a time past, how the town was centred around fishing and an insight into the dangerous work the men undertook. Not to be forgotten was the life of those, particularly wives, who stayed behind and how the whole community was involved in the industry. Talking to one of the volunteers at the museum, he’d spent time working on a fishing vessel off Namibia in the 1980s, the traditions of the water have changed very little. Having read many diaries of soldiers and others sailing between South Africa and Britain, and East Africa, during World War 1, their accounts of crossing the equator was no different to our volunteer. Although the museum focuses on life in the 1950s, apart from technological changes, I imagine it was not much different in earlier years, although seeing the town today, it is hard, without prompting by this museum, to imagine what life was like when fishing was the industrial force it was. The museum also owns the last diesel side trawler in the UK, the Ross Tiger which we were told requires additional funding to allow an overhaul and refurbishment to remain part of the living history experience. This is one of the best museums I’ve seen in a long time – carefully thought through to give as realistic an experience as possible, meeting the needs of young and old, and clearly created and managed with love. My South African equivalent is the Distict Six Museum in Cape Town.

Old Haunts

This week marks 20 years of my close relationship with the UK, and how things have changed in that time. Having left South Africa as part of a work transfer in 1996 we were unsure of when we would next see ‘home’, but lo and behold we were back in August for a wedding. It proved how small the world is and how travel had changed. Since then we have been privileged enough to return home every year and witness the changes South Africa has undergone since the end of Apartheid.

I’m not going to go into those now but I’ve always looked forward to going home and seeing what has changed (also challenging perceptions on both sides of the equator – it’s incredible how when you dig down, there are so many similarities irrespective of colour or gender but more of that another day). The one thing I have struggled with understanding is people’s reluctance to ‘go back’ and visit old haunts.

One striking feature for me concerning South Africa is how much safer the country has become – I enjoy walking through Cape Town’s old District Six area and despite warnings from friends and colleagues, walking areas of Pretoria from the Gautrain station is rather pleasant providing lots of time for reflection (time which will be lost when the SANDF archive moves to its new home in Irene this year). Similarly, we enjoy hiring a car and just driving through the country-side seeing how beautiful the land is, particularly areas whites were discouraged from travelling through during Apartheid (and sad to say, since too).

But this month, I got to experience why some people don’t want to go back somewhere – surprisingly, it was in London – more specifically Spitalfields Market. My early worklife in the UK was in the City of London and I used to visit the Spitalfields area when I could. The last time I visited the area was about 5 years ago to do a London walk and had heard that changes were underway. Taking the opportunity of a few hours to go AWOL, I wandered through street – Gun Street, Barrack Street, past Petticoat Lane and into the market area but all the old atmosphere had disappeared. New square glass buildings framed a roofed in area with similar styled restaurants in the middle. To its credit there were some stall holders selling their wares but what a disappointment. Spitalfields is no longer on my list for first-time visitors to London.

As a historian, it’s natural to visit ‘old haunts’, some of which we might only be visiting in person for the first time but know the place well (as well as one can) from reading about it and perhaps seeing photos. The challenge I have is showing appropriate reactions of remembrance and reflection when I’m feeling the exact opposite at having discovered that my perceptions and assumptions align with what I’m seeing. But I have witnessed the opposite too.

My recent trip to Senegal and Goree Island in particular reminded me of our first visit to West Africa, Ghana, in 2002. Going to the Elmina castle where slaves were kept before being transported across to the Americas we were reflecting on things when two young Black American women drew attention to themselves by arguing vehemently with the castle guide – they were just discovering that contrary to what they had been taught at school, namely that white people were all to blame for slavery and their being American, Blacks themselves had sold fellow country-men into slavery and had participated quite energetically in the trade. Our hearts went out to the girls – we knew what it was like to have your government lie and manipulate the story of the past. It would take some time and investigation but their visit to this ‘old haunt’ had set them on the path of myth-breaking. 14 years later and this incident is still vivid.

This coincided with some books I’ve recently read. One factual, Rwanda means universe, and four fictional – Harper Lee’s Go set a Watchman (the sequal to To Kill a Mockingbird), Barbara Towell’s A little piece for mother which links London, Poland and Auschwitz, while the other two are due for publication later this year – Anna Ryland’s A second chance (also with a Polish and London link) and John Samson’s Powerless (post-Apartheid encounters).