Engaging Africa in remembrance

Does having a list of African High Commissioners due to attend a remembrance event prove inclusivity? I’m not sure. It shows engagement at a basic level. I put my theory to the test, again and introduced myself to various of the High Commissioners and/or their Military Attachés. As expected, they were [pick your term] polite, politically correct, giving lip service, saying what they expected others to want to hear. And of course, wearing a poppy. They were present but not engaged in any meaningful way.

This war which was being portrayed as inclusive still had/has no direct resonance with many from the African continent. How do I know? Well, in my encounter at this particular event, as with others, I’ve got to know the signs of polite tolerance, until you hit with a snippet that says, ‘I am serious, this is about YOUR country, how you can start engaging with the commemoration at a local level. It’s about people, not Empire.’

For Zambia, it was realising there was a black Zambian who served on the Western Front in an armed capacity. He was not just a name but a person with a history; not all positive, but that’s life. We won’t know why Samson Jackson (aka Bulaya) really enlisted, and the military records are no longer available, but he served and stayed until 1921.

Tanzania’s moment came when it was realised that the whole territory had been caught up in the war and that everyone was affected in some way, not least the local population having their homesteads overrun and having to supply food and manpower to the various forces. Added to this were the Askari and King’s African Rifles which forms the basis of the present military system. And the fact that their first President, Julius Nyerere’s policies around land were no doubt influenced by his early life experiences in the 1920s.

Kenya is an interesting one. A look at Wikipedia for Jomo Kenyatta shows he joined Masaai family members to avoid enlistment whilst Geoffrey Hodges in Kariokor notes Kenyatta worked for the British administration learning the value of organisation to achieve a goal.

I can go on, but what difference will this engagement make? In the big scheme of things, I don’t know, but it might well help fill in gaps and give confidence to a people told they should remember but who can’t see why. At a more altruistic level, it should create a more level playing field to overcome divisions as greater understanding of the past is understood for what it was.

Of one thing I’m clear, remembrance as it is currently practised in Britain and other British-influenced communities is not (yet) inclusive. This will take time – Hew Strachan points out in an essay on remembrance: ‘[The] 1914-18 [war] drew a clear distinction between the theory and practice of war in their own [European] continent and wars waged outside it.’ It’s taken Britain a century to reconcile these two points at an intellectual level. The challenge now is for Britain and others to explain this at national and local level, and develop an understanding of the African context of the war.

The impetus to remember does not rest with Britain and the European powers alone, Africans can, by looking outside the traditional European narrative, create their own remembrance as witnessed in Zambia in November 2018.


Bravery recognised

Working through files I’ve copied, I came across a file entitled Act of Bravery by Constable Mwamba Wa Mboya. It warranted reading – and sharing…

A letter from LH Macnaghten, Executive Engineer, Public Works Department, Nyeri dated 24 July 1916 reads as follows:

I wish to draw your attention to an act of bravery performed by Police Constable Mwembe Mkamba who accompanied me on my last safari and hope that he may be suitably rewarded.
At the Mathioya River Police Constable Mwamba without a moment’s hesitation leaped into the river which was running very strongly to the assistance of my syce who had been washed off his legs and was being carried rapidly downstream with one of my ponies. By his plucky action Police Constable Mwamba succeeded in overhauling the syce and in pushing him and the pony into the bank thus avoiding in all probabiluty a tragedy.
I am of course willing to pay for the brass police badge beloning to the hat which was lost in the Mathioya River.

On 5 September 1916, he expanded:

No 2900 3rd Constable Mwamba Mboya – Bravery of

In confirmation of my former letter dated 24 July 1916, I beg to state that on 26 June 1916, I was proceeding from Fort Hall to Embu and on arriving at the Mathioya River I gave instructions to my syce to lead one of my ponies across the river – at this point 100 feet wide – as the bridge, being under construction, was not passable for animals. Where the syce entered the river on the right bank, the water was approximately 2’6″ to 2’9″ deep and all went well until he and the pony were about 30 feet from the left bank, where the current was considerably stronger than on the right bank, strong enough to lift both syce and pony off their legs and the depth of the water increased to about 4’6″ to 5′. Police Constable Mwamba Mboya, who was standing on the left bank realising what had happened, immediately leaped into the river to their assistance – in my opinion at the risk of his own life – and managed as already stated to overhaul the syce and the pony and push them into the bank about 70 yards downstream.

This correspondence was sent to the District Commissioner who forwarded it onto the Governor who in turn sent it to the Colonial Office. They in turn sent it to the Royal Humane Society for consideration of an award. Unfortunately it is not recorded in these documents whether Mwamba wa Mboya received any official recognition for his bravery and I’ve not been able to source a copy of the East African Standard to see if he was mentioned in that (the online copies at the British Library only go to 1915).

Exploring where the Mathioya River is, I came across this article recording the death of Chief Karuri Gakure in 1916, a year after inviting Italian missionaries into his area and the first female chief (another view) in Colonial Kenya.

Intriguingly, and refreshingly, none of these stories concern the Great War despite all three taking place in 1916. Life went on…

Ref: The National Archives, Kew – CO 533/170 file 61878


On my last visit to Rwanda I discovered the book Detained: A writer’s prison diary by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Many years ago now, I think it was about 2011, I heard him speak on education in Dar es Salaam and have found him an attraction since.

Detained, written during his incaceration by Jomo Kenyatta’s government post independence was a fascinating and insightful read. Where the other books (more later) I’d read by detained people had been under colonial powers, this was the first by someone who had participated, in his own way, in the independence struggle of his country, Kenya. Now he was believed to be an ‘enemy of the state’. During his stay, Ngugi was able to write a novel and keep this record of his experiences and thoughts – all recorded on toilet paper. As a fellow author, my heart dropped along with his when we recounted how a search of his cubicle led to the removal and anticipated destruction of his creation. Similarly, on the return of the document, my heart soared. I’ve lost writing on my computer before and know the anxiety of wondering whether the back-up will work etc.

Other fascinating insights included how the prisoners communicated to each other, how they could pick up on news despite the black-out and how they dealt with bullies. What was also intriguing was Ngugi’s discussion on religion – how he became aware of Islam and the differences with Christianity. Perhaps society can learn something from this…

The other two books by detainees that stick in my mind are Ruth First’s 117 Days and Winnie Mandela’s Part of My Soul.

I recall 117 Days being an emotional read – how Ruth managed to survive all they did to her and her resiliance in not giving in to what she believed was right. I couldn’t put it better than this blogger.

It may seem a bit odd having a ghost-written autobiography by Winnie Mandela included but in her early days as an activist she was someone to be admired. Winnie’s detention was quite different to both Ngugi’s and Ruth’s. She was under house arrest in Brandfort in the Orange Free State during Nelson’s early days on Robben Island. Again, how Winnie coped with her situation and maintained her values was fascinating reading.

In essence, none of the three authors differed much in how they coped. It must be one of mankind’s inbuilt processes.

What made reading Ngugi’s book more poignant is the fact that a friend is currently being detained with few hearing of his well-being. I take hope from those who’ve gone before and survived that he will too. I know prior to his being detained he was working on a book of South African involvement in World War 1 – a project which helped him escape from the harsh realities around him. The day I was meant to get the complete manuscript was the day he was taken. That is now over four months ago.

I can’t help asking myself, what does detaining people in this way achieve? It didn’t change Ngugi, Ruth or Winnie’s outlook on life or what they believed and I don’t think, from the conversations I had with Will that his detention will change his views. And for those doing the detaining? What do they achieve? In the big scheme of things, not much! Apartheid still fell, Jomo Kenyatta died and Kenya continued struggling – we still wait to see what will happen in the Sudan and elsewhere where others are currently detained.

Winnie and Ngugi continued their struggle and still do, whilst Ruth continued hers until she was exterminated by a letter bomb. Will felt strongly about helping those who were being bullied, as did Winnie, Ngugi and Ruth – for me Will is a humanitarian. May he and all others standing up for what they believe be set free soon to help make the world a better place. And as Ngugi so aptly put it – not let the innocent family members and friends suffer simply for their association with the detained person.




Review: Red Strangers: The white tribe of Kenya by CS Nicholls

I happened upon Red Strangers: The white tribe of Kenya by Christine Nicholls whilst checking some facts for a family memoir on World War 1 East Africa that I’m helping to edit. Red Strangers is a monumental effort to document the 70 year history of the white colonial settler in East Africa – a task achieved in 260 pages.

This is not the story of colonising Africa but rather the account of those who chose to make that little part of East Africa now known as Kenya their home. The telling is personal, almost autobiographical in nature, shedding light on the individuals and families who struggled against the elements and, more often than not, the British Government in their attempt to forge some sort of order for their lives.

What struck me in reading this book, and I write this review at least a month after having read the book, is how resonant it would be of the history of the white tribes of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. The differences would be in the detail, but the struggles, the issues around town planning, the arrival of new technologies, accommodating the influx of people of the same colour sponsored by the home government as a way to deal with unemployment and forging a relationship with those of other colours and cultures already settled in the land would be no different.

Christine sheds light on how the motley crowd of white settlers became a community, accommodating the different classes and cultures their different backgrounds brought to the mix. The development of modes of transport and language stands out in particular, as does the evolution of medical practices.

A book of this nature and its length cannot be everything and this one doesn’t purport to be. So don’t be disappointed if when you get towards the end of the book the section on Mau Mau and the Independence movement appears thin and more superficial than the rest. We all know that for colonial Kenya, the story didn’t have a happy ending as many autobiographies tend to have. It’s difficult to write about a time that one has lived through and has strong emotional attachment to, especially if it is featuring again in the press at the time of writing. Red Strangers was published in 2006, a year after two ground breaking studies appeared on the topic and the British Government is still dealing with the aftermath. Should the last part have been left out then? Personally, I don’t think so as it brings the autobiographical account to a close in the only way such an account can. Although fifty years have passed since Kenya gained its independence, it’s still too raw and political for any truely objective account to be written by anyone with a personal connection to Africa.

Others might also take exception to the fact that this book doesn’t spend enough time exploring the relationships between the white colonists and the black, Indian and Asians resident in the country. Here too, I would say that’s not the purpose of the book, although by its nature some facets of these relationships do make an appearance: no community within a community can be completely isolated and independent of those around it.

The one thing I would have liked to see (and here I speak as a researcher) is an index. Trying to locate that one specific snippet (or ten) I want to reference in the text I’m editing has been a nightmare to say the least. But I’ve succeeded (at least I think I have) as this short history is crammed with little insights into so many individuals and events which haven’t been recorded elsewhere that it has been of immense help in shedding light on remarks others have made about their life in colonial Kenya.

Despite its few shortcomings, this is an important book providing a wider context to the already existing biographies and autobiographies on the white minority of Kenya.

Elephant guard

Why an elephant as the header?

This is not just any old elephant. In fact it’s a rather young male standing guard duty at the entrance to the Maktau fort in Tsavo, Tanzania AND it stopped us revisiting the site in 2011!! He has a reputation which precedes him.

Although a little difficult to see with the glare of the sun, there is a pathway on the far side of the elephant. This leads to the remains of a fort which has been cleared by military enthusiast James Willson (author of Guerillas of Tsavo) and Willie Mwadilo (Salt Lick Lodge) and now forms part of a battlefield tour.

You can read more about the fort and associated battlefields at: Historian4Africa

Surprisingly, given the number of elephants around during the war, they feature very rarely in diary accounts. The animals which feature most tend to be lions and crocodiles – a few soldiers and porters met their end filling these beasts tummies… The odd hyaena and jackal features too as do numerous buck. A number of these were shot for food when this was permitted. More often than not, it was not permitted as the sound of the gunfire would alert the enemy to where one was. There is one mention of a rhino stampeding a soldier to death – DD Dobson, Nyasaland Volunteer Reserve on Monday 10 July 1916 (Peter Charlton’s Cinderella’s Soldiers and In Memory refers).

Many of the soldiers who wrote home tended to write about the fauna and flora they encountered. They knew this would be better suited to family members back home compared to the horrors they were facing – jigger fleas, malaria, dysentery and starvation. The downside of writing home about the wonders of nature was that some family members and friends thought the men were on safari and having a good time whilst their colleagues were suffering on the Western Front. This was not helped by the appearance of taxidermy ads in newspapers offering to mount the trophies gathered during the war.

Many letters talk of hunting, but one has to be careful as hunting referred to both shooting for the pot and also shooting with the camera!! Although banned in war, a large number of soldiers seemed to have cameras and with hunting banned but also the realisation that shooting for the fun of it was damaging, many took to literally hunting with the camera, using the same techniques to get the best photo as they would to get the best shot. Where men didn’t have access to cameras, they reverted to pen and paper and there are some wonderful drawings in letters and diaries – those of Richard Meinertzhagen at Rhodes House Library (Oxford) being a prime example.

It’s quite tempting to start a record of which accounts record animal sightings… perhaps one day…