They don’t know…

How often do we hear these words? I heard them often as a teacher educator and admit that once upon a time, I used them myself about my students. That is until a colleague challenged me about ’empty vessels’ and discouting the life experiences students brought to the classroom. This was revolutionary and freeing.It’s also empowering – not least for a recent visit to a school in Kent to introduce them to the First World War in Africa. The group was Year 8 (12-13 year olds) who had not started learning about World War 1 at school. Teachers were understandably a bit concerned as the only time they had heard me speak was when I presented a more formal academic paper on the Feet of Endurance. After reminders about the students not knowing anything about the war and the introduction of Western Front memorials into the slides I’d sent across, I wasn’t sure what I’d be facing.

A few challenging questions such as ‘How many languages do people speak at the school?’ and ‘Am I African?’ soon broke the ice and when asked what came to mind when they heard the words ‘World War 1’, I got sufficient answers to lead into the story of Africa’s involvement. One young man ventured Adolf Hitler as a response. What an opportunity for lateral thinking. Thank goodness my school history teacher had taught us (she always gave us ‘3 useless facts per lesson) that Hitler had been a runner during WW1. On the spur of the moment, I decided to ask students to think about their weight – not to tell me, that’s far too personal, but to think of what they weighed. Then to imagine carrying 30 pounds or 20kgs (1/2 – 1/3) of themselves across the African field. Puts the carrier role into a slightly different light.
During the talk, another young chap (interestingly only the boys asked questions in the large setting) asked about the involvement of women. Being able to describe the size of a white settler farm in terms of football fields (38,000) really grabbed their attention. I’d only discovered that little snippet when preparing for the paper I presented at the National Army Museum on the role of women during WW1.

The questions that followed in the smaller class settings were just as insightful and thought-provoking. Two students wanted to know what kept me inspired to study the topic. Wow, what an opportunity to influence young people. Quite simply, my answer was, the humanity of man. Seeing how people worked together – people of all races, colours, creeds, beliefs and gender coming together to survive. There were a few gasps in one class where I told them I was a pacifist. Yes, I study war and had been answering questions about guns and ammunition and all sorts of military things that generally tend to interest boys. How can we work to avoid war, if we don’t know what causes it? War is a fact of life and it requires people to carry it out. It’s not my role to judge and many of my good friends and colleagues are in military fields, I respect that, knowing that the work they undertake is valuable and that unfortuantely somebody’s got to do it. They are striving to make the world a better place too, and sometimes someone has to stand up to that bully in the only way the bully knows.

Another wonderful question from these young people who ‘don’t know’ was whether Africa should have got caught up in the war. Another myth could be debunked. Telling students they would soon be learning about Kitchener not getting enough weapons to the front and that he would suffer a bad reputation because of this and other things, I had only good things to say about him when it came to the war in Africa. K wanted to keep Africa out of the war as he knew what it would entail. However, his colleagues in the War Office and the politicians led by Lloyd George counter-acted him, as did war plans and individual personal vendettas. This ‘easy’ question was then followed by ‘so, what do you think Africa would be like today if it hadn’t got involved?’ How does one answer that? I chickened out by saying it was a difficult question, the borders in Africa would be different, possibly wouldn’t have had Burundi and Rwanda and genocide in the latter but who knows. I left him with the thought that he could answer this question himself in future by studying history and exploring the field of Virtual/What if History.

I left feeling rather upbeat. There is hope for the generations coming through despite, in my opinion, the education systems which in numerous countries are working against educating the masses to be involved, critical players in determining their futures.

A little more disconcerting though, were the challenges posed by a colleague historian who had joined us for the day. She insisted on emphasising racism: all officers were white and the rank and file black. The first black officer trained in the British Army happening in 1942 (I haven’t confirmed). Colonialism was bad, Africa is poor and the slave trade was the cause of all ills. I purposefully mention she is white as I know a number of my readers would automatically assume she was black. She too, like me, is a foreigner in Britain. Her comments and challenges resonated with an email which another friend then forwarded to a number of us. This contained an article entitled The reality of the SA situation by Daniel Lotter. I’m not linking or copying the article here as I don’t believe in perpetuating myths of the nature Daniel is stating as historical fact.

The challenges in the classroom were relatively easy to deal with, pointing out that racism did exist and that hierarchies and bureaucracies meant that some people couldn’t achieve rank, it didn’t mean that there was racism all through. One of the things I love about the East African campaign is that there was no victor. Everyone lost out – mother nature remained dominant. What a levelling ground. All involved had much in common: the story of survival and the need for others to help them through. No-one could do it alone.White officers recognised they needed their black rank and file and co-depended on each other, individuals taking the lead when their skills would be best utilised. FC Selous the famous hunter and inspiration for the Selous Scouts wrote that he wouldn’t have been able to survive without his gunbearer who saved his life on many an occasion. Alas, Ramazani was no match for the sniper hiding in the Beho-Beho bush in January 1917. (Wits archive)
Another colleague, a black woman who had arranged for me to be at the school, challenged the idea of Africa being poor. If Africa was poor, why was there all the fighting and corruption today? People wanted what Africa has. She grew up in Lagos and had never seen a well until she moved to England.

Returning to the article by Daniel Lotter, it came with a sub-line, presumably written by the person who started its circulation ‘Presumably all facts are correct??’ As with my colleague historian, yes, the facts as stated were correct, but they were selected and not the full picture.

My response to the email chain was:

I haven’t got time to write a full response to what he’s said but people are very selective when they put an argument together to suit their case. There is evidence of black development and intelligence from before whites arrived in SA. Much was hidden away by the Apartheid government to ‘prove’ the superiority of the white man over the black etc.
Whatever happened in the past is the past. It’s time for attitudes like Daniel’s to be put far away and for people of all colours to recognise that by working together and respecting each other we can move forward and build a better world than the one we leave behind.
Constantly blaming people for things that happened in the past is not helpful at all.
It’s important to understand the past and it is incredibly complex – far more than set out below. For every statement Daniel makes I can add at least another 2 or 3 perspectives. But more important is taking that understanding of the past to understand who we are as individuals and communities and then turn it around and build something beautiful. This might be idealistic but I do believe it can be done and am seeing attitudes change amongst people of all colours when I emphasise this and break the myths of World War 1 in Africa.

I fell into studying history, it was a dream and I’ve been lucky enough to follow my dream as it’s taken me. Not being in an academic institution and funding my own research means I retain freedom of research interest. I’ve only ever made three specific decisions about history. One was to become an historian rather than follow my career path back in 1994 and become an Organisation Development Consultant. The second was not to get funding for my research (sociology does have its benefits) and the third was back in November 2011 when I decided to take on the co-ordination of the Great War in Africa Association. It meant that would become my focus rather than British and South African relations post 1910.

So, why study history? Although aspects had become apparent in the years before, my purpose has only become clear in the past year or so. Being an historian carries a great responsiblity: to tell the story as fully as one can without judgement, recognising that there’s truth in everyone’s version of the same event and experience. Reconciling these versions is the task of the historian, probing and challenging where needed. We’re all ignorant of the other’s view – until we put ourselves in the other’s shoes, we won’t know why they acted the way they did which led to our reacting the way we did.

My role as an historian, therefore,

is taking that understanding of the past to understand who we are as individuals and communities and then turn it around and

as a citizen of the world, work to

build something beautiful

And in response to Daniel Lotter (and those against others settling in ‘foreign’ lands), I can’t help but think of a story I read recently attributed to Jesus by a Mohammedan scholar: Passing through a field, Jesus was asked to reprimand his disciples from eating the owner’s wheat. Rather than do so, Jesus responded by calling to life all the previous owners of the field. Who, he asked, is the real owner? We all are custodians of the land we are placed in.


Keeping an open mind

As an historian I’ve come to realise that I need an open mind especially when using original documents of the time. History is like a big jigsaw puzzle under construction; it can also be thought of in terms of GoogleMaps: you have the overview but can zoom into get the finer detail. In my jigsaw puzzle analogy, the artist has mixed layers of depth in one image. My other way of explaining the multiple versions of an historical event is to use a diamond. There are so many facets individually or severally caught by the light, all making up the whole of what is a diamond. How we look at the diamond, determines which facet(s) we see.

For me, this is an invaluable position to be in – you’re always expecting the story to evolve in ways to accommodate new information, including that which appears to be completely contradictory. Working on World War 1 in Africa, watching the story evolve can be more radical than say the war on the Western Front or other episodes of our lives which have been the focus of lengthy detailed study. How do we fit the Christmas Truce into the ‘lions led by donkey’s’ idea of the war? How does knowing Belgium was so much more active in the Lake Tanganyika diminish or add to Spicer-Simson’s achievements? What does it do for race relations knowing that white South Africa had as much trouble getting military equipment to fight in the war as carriers and soldiers of all ethnic groups had getting food in West and East Africa?

Recently (December 2016), I came across an image on Pinterest which piqued my curiosity and which demanded verification before putting into the public domain (annoyingly, I didn’t keep the Pinterest link). It was to do with the book of Barnabas of which you can read a summary on Wikipedia (most comprehensive and referenced). The latest discovery is a copy of this text in Aramaic suggesting it might be older than the other two known copies of the text. The question I have is if this book is found to be legitimate and the contents verified as far as possible, how does this impact on what many of us were taught as children? Finding a reliable source for this latest discovery has been a challenge (which in itself raises questions) but here’s a sample of reports found: Daily Mail (Feb 2016), LatinTimes, Catholic Answers. In my search for a reliable source, I discovered that this story was ‘big’ in the press in 2014 where we find a slightly more reliable account in The Guardian, but even this is challenged by views in Counter Current (2014).

My questions now are: why this revival in 2016? If the document is false, what was the purpose of putting it into the public domain? Who did so? If it is true? I go back to my earlier question: what does this mean for many brought up believing that religious texts are the absolute truth?

My cross-cultural experiences suggest that whether or not this document is proven to be true, it’s about having an open mind, allowing ourselves to be challenged in understanding why individuals (including countries) acted the way they did. By doing this we are able to shed more light on the diamond and gain a more indepth and holistic picture of the time. Experience also suggests such an approach reduces the temptation to lay blame at specific feet, something we humans tend to relish in.

WW1 – an education tribute

This post has little direct connection with Africa, other than that it started me on my journey into the First World War in Africa and provides an opportunity to thank all those who’ve educated me along the way. The Polytechnic and World War 1 is responsible for this post.

It’s generally the institution where one completed one’s PhD that gets the accolades and that carries an unspoken acknowledgement of status/quality stamp. Yet, behind the work that goes into a PhD is all the previous learning, encouragement and development.

I had the great privilege of having a liberal, challenging history teacher for all 5 years of secondary education in South Africa during the last years of Apartheid – Mrs Ansell managed to bring history alive, whilst teaching us all the skills an historian needed – rapid legible handwriting, seeing ‘useless’ information as enhancing and not to be discarded or ignored as it adds to the picture and how the past links directly to the present. This approach stood me in good stead for later studies but not for my degree where we were still expected to answer questions in line with government thinking (I had chosen not to go to an ‘English’ university as my ‘local’ was constantly experiencing police raids and I wanted a ‘proper’ education).

My experience of studying history at a conservative Afrikaans university, although challenging at the time – I never seemed to pass South African history but excelled in ‘European’ – has since been of huge value in understanding the complexities of the country I grew up in. I’m grateful too that I’m practising as an historian now and not then – how my lecturers managed to reconcile their beliefs in how history should be studied and what they produced was no easy task, and I believe this accounts for the huge number of narrative accounts there are. I deal with this in my thesis, published under the title Britain, South Africa and the East Africa Campaign, 1914-1918: The Union comes of age (2006). I also hadn’t realised the huge divide between historical networks in the country and now have the privilege of access to a few, and to have seen how the more conservative establishments have opened up.

Through ignorance of the UK education system, I enrolled for an MA at the University of Westminster as it had become and am eternally grateful for the education I got there, in more ways than one. You cannot (and should not) judge a book by its cover! Apart from developing my skills as an historian, two lecturers had a subtle but significant impact on my later teaching career. Tony Gorst taught me how to embed numeracy into teaching history, whilst Martin Doherty showed how video and images could be used as historical sources (back in the late 1990s) – I still make a point of watching every James Bond movie to come out although haven’t managed to watch a complete Rambo. Above all, the team broke down the barriers I’d experienced between student and lecturer through discussions in the pub after lectures. Quality learning doesn’t necesarily take place in a classroom but when people are relaxed and enjoying themselves (and not just in the pub either).

But this doesn’t bring the link to WW1 in Africa. I’d vowed in my naivety to never look at SA history again and was going to explore Russian Communism as that had been the reason South Africa was involved in Angola and why the ANC was “bad”. I wanted to know more, however, the requirement for our dissertation was that we had to speak the language of the country we were looking at, and that put Russia out of the picture – I couldn’t learn Russian and complete a dissertation in 2 years. This meant a return to something South Africa and somehow, I can’t quite remember how, I decided on coal mining and Smuts in 1916. The mining didn’t work out though, thanks to Maggie Thatcher’s nationalising of the coal mines in 1985 – I couldn’t find what I was looking for – so Smuts became the focus, specifically how he got to sit on the British War Cabinet. And that in turn led to my discovery of South Africa’s involvement in East Africa during WW1. Discussions with Tony (the person behind the Polytechnic and World War 1) and Paul Ward led to me going to Royal Holloway, University of London for my PhD where Tony Stockwell and John Turner together did their part in trying to turn this rough stone into something of a competent historian. In particular, they encouraged challenging the myths and generally accepted truths using the evidence (be true to your sources – let them do the talking), and taught me that you’re never to old or qualified to learn or to revise your argument.

Since then, many others – academic and enthusiast – have worked, and continue to work, at challenging my thinking and smoothing the rough edges. Together, all have taught me the value of the minority voice and not to discount anyone’s story. Thank you all, and let the education continue – our own and of others!

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.

Doris Lessing – a lessin (sic) learned

I had intended to go to Doris Lessing’s memorial service at St Martin’s in the Fields, London on Monday 7 April 2014. However, my discussing commemoration of the forces in East Africa with a fellow researcher was so engrossing that by the time I realised what the time was, it was too late to go.

Doris Lessing has a special place in my life as an historian – ever since I read The grass is singing (1950) whilst working on my thesis. Although she had spent time in Zimbabwe, which is where The grass is singing is set, she could well have been in South Africa. I had been looking for a way to describe race relations in South Africa since World War 1 and here, in one novel, she had hit the nail on the head. Co-incidentally, The grass is singing was her first novel and the first of hers I read. Unfortunately I cannot claim to have read her last… the nearest I get is to The Cleft (2007), her second last publication.

I was drawn to The Cleft following an interview which Lessing did on Radio 4 – I can’t believe it was 7 years ago already. It was her comment that she had annoyed the feminists which got me interested and so, despite all the other reading pressures, I succumbed, got a copy and was soon engrossed. What an amazing author! As a woman, to be able to put yourself into the shoes of a Roman male historian and write the history of the world as might have been seen at that time was something I couldn’t imagine doing, and here she had done it. She seemed to grasp the issues of then and now and, again through the novel, convey this message strongly. Although, I don’t know what it is about my take on the book, but I don’t think I’ve yet managed to convince anyone else to read about the Squirts and Clefts.

There are very few novelists who have left a profound impression on me – probably only a handful to be honest – and Lessing is one of them. For me, she captures the essence of the time, in a way few other authors can, or do, and conveys this feeling in a way I as an historian can only dream of doing. It is thanks to authors like Lessing, that I can experience and help my readers understand the social environment in which my real-life characters lived. Long may her books keep her memory alive.

It’s time to add another Lessing book to my pile of ‘must read’ soon – the only other book of hers I’ve read is Particularly Cats… and Rufus (1993). I do have a shelf of novels by her but missing volume 1 of Martha Quest has slightly delayed getting stuck into that series – excuses I know, but not for much longer…

So, what have I learned from Doris Lessing? The value of novelists to historians and to be your own person.