Currency issues

Without getting into the ongoing debate of Britain’s relationship with Europe, I was intrigued to read on 24 April 1919 of a suggestion to introduce “an international note of currency”. Its purpose would be “to supply the credit which will pay for food, raw materials – not to speak of reparations! Two birds with one stone.” 

The one bird being finance, the other linking people/countries together as a means to maintain peace. (Smuts papers iv, p127). This tied in with the idea behind the League of Nations, the single currency idea being put forward by Keynes and backed by Smuts.

So often, we see rates of pay, income, salaries and costs stated without any context. This is fine when working in a single currency at a particular time, but it can cause problems working cross-culturally and over time.

Over the years I’ve been researching the First World War in Africa, I’ve come to realise that there were different currencies in operation in the same East African theatre: the Indian rupee in the north as it was the main currency in British East Africa (Kenya) and the shilling in the south, as used in Nyasaland (Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). The Germans had their own currency too. What is therefore helpful in books mentioning rates of pay etc, is the comparative such as Sana Aiyar notes in Indians in Kenya. In the 1920s when the currency was changed from the rupee to the East African shilling, the income level of black Africans effectively reduced by 33%. The rate of pay was not changed but the cost of living increased based on the exchange rate of the new currency.

In 1915, the hut tax in BEA was 3 rupees 5, increased in 1920 to no more than 10 rupees each.  At that time, the rupee exchanged at R1,500 to £100, ie 1 rupee 4 was the equivalent of 1 shilling. With the new currency, the exchange dropped to R1,000 to £100 (pp86-90, Indians in Kenya). In Chiwaya War Voices, covering the experiences of Nyasalanders in the war, hut tax was between 2.5s and 6s.

Some years ago, I came across this little site ( which measures the purchasing power of the British pound since 1270. It’s quite sobering. Taking 3s as the most commonly quoted hut tax charge in war-time Nyasaland, today it would be the equivalent of £12.29 or £108.20 depending on what you take into consideration. So, if we take the BEA hut tax as equating to 4 shillings, this equated to £16.39 or £144.20. What we need to know for both, however, is what their respective earnings were. The Nyasalander soldier was paid £1 1s 4d = £87.42 or £769.40. One assumes this was per month.

Concerning West African currency during the war years, Bamidele Aly explores the monetary policy and introduction of bank notes in Southern Nigeria in 1916 in There Came a Time.

If nothing else, a single currency would make historians’ lives easier when it comes to comparing standards of living and other such factors.

Review: Weep Not, Child – Ngugi wa Thiong’o

I hadn’t expected to come across World War 1 in Weep Not, Child by Ngugi wa Thiong’o but I did. And what a little gem. The short book (136 pages) written in 1962 was published in 1964 and deals with the life of a Kikuyu family in Kenya leading to independence.

While most authors on the GWAA list of novels concerning the war and those I’m covering in the Novelist posts have the war as a feature or setting, Ngugi’s characters refer back to it comparing it with World War Two. Both are referred to as the Big War – first and second. This correlates with my discovery of speaking to older generation people in Africa who do not associate the Great War with what we in the west call World War One, the First World War or even the Great War. I’ve generally come across it referred to as ‘the war between the great white queen and king’ or ‘the war where white men fought each other’.

What was more fascinating about Ngugi’s references to the Big War was how they were perceived. The first being of little consequence other than giving people a hard time by making them carriers, whereas the second was more fearful where black men were fighting the white man’s war which featured poison, bombs etc. The immediate horrors of the Second World War tower over those of the first. This contrasts with the veteran interviews Mel Page did in Malawi (Chiwaya War Voices) where the First World War was seen as more destructive than the Second. In fact a number of the veterans comment that Europe should be told about the Great War which happened in Africa as they have no idea about it, the Second being fought in Europe. These two texts bring to light the very different experiences of the same events by peoples of Africa – Kenya and Malawi – and the impact of these two great wars on the local communities.

Whether it’s intentional or not, Nugi’s telling of the story of young Njoroge who is the first in his family to go to school provides an insight into the impact of war. There was a justification for the First World War, being to prevent German slavery across Africa whereas the Second was purely for British interests. Those who participated in the First were not as severely impacted as those who served in the Second where killing and death from military action was more intense than that of 1914-1918 (fewer than 10% of losses in WW1 East Africa were directly war related). One can see the result of the disillusion of returned soldiers leading to freedom fighters linked with Mau Mau.

This is one of the few books I’ve read where the legacy of war has been addressed at a local level – where the outcome is not ‘moonlight and roses’. It’s one of the reasons Ngugi is such a powerful writer: he’s not scared to tell it how it is.

Review: Prisoners of Tsavo – Lalchand Sharma

I read Prisoners of Tsavo by Lalchand Sharma and Vishva Bandhu Lalchand Sharma with mixed reactions. Published by LifeRich, 2020

Lalchand Sharma’s experiences and recollections opened up many new windows on life in East Africa and Indian involvement in the First World War, not least his being found guilty and sentenced to death for espionage/assisting the enemy.

It was further fascinating to read about his return travels to India and how eventually Africa was to be regarded as home. Although he didn’t answer the question about when one’s cultural identity changes, the process of how it did was apparent. It was also clear to see how early experiences coloured later attitudes – Lalchand’s anti-British feelings were triggered by multiple events, both personal and historically passed on. One significant comment was his recognition that individuals from a country could be completely different to the national generic personality of that country. 

One of the challenges with the book was both authors’ assumptions that the reader would have a deeper understanding of the Sikh and Hindu faiths in terms of naming and caste systems and their relationships with one another. The early part of the book was in effect a written family tree with a few hazy diagrams at the end. At the request of his daughter, Lalchand had included the female connections as well as nicknames. This in itself is fascinating but it would have been more so had there been clearer explanations of Indian/Asian society at the time – especially as this book is aimed at an English speaking general readership.

Most disappointing however were the contributions by Lalchand’s son, his co-author. The additional context and commentary needed much editing. Duplication of information and poor grammar, almost streams of consciousness, vied with my feelings of frustration at his use of biased source material and myth perpetuation to support his own anger at the treatment his father underwent. I persevered but was tempted to gloss over his inputs in order to focus more on his father’s incredible story – twists of fate and determination which resulted in a family that achieved remarkable heights against all odds.

The result of this read is a list of questions to be investigated and trails to follow as archives open and new pieces of the ever-growing jigsaw that is the East Africa campaign of the First World War fall into place.

Propaganda and Public Relations in Military Recruitment

Propaganda and Public Relations in Military Recruitment: Promoting military service in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries edited by Brendan Maartens and Thomas Bivins (Routledge, 2021) is another book which is difficult to review as such as I have a chapter in it looking at how recruitment varied across Africa over the span of the First World War. However, the book is more than just one chapter and although there was only the one chapter on Africa, there were resonances in the other contributions and simply some fascinating reads.

Elli Lemonidou’s contribution on Greece in World War One reminded me of the fear Britain had about the National Party in South Africa after the 1914 rebellion. I hadn’t realised Greece had experienced a coup during the war – Portugal had seen its move from monarchy to republic in 1910 while the Union of South Africa had come into being within the British Empire in 1910 and the 1914 attempt to leave failed. The chaos in Greece reflected that of Portugal and in all the challenge of recruiting in volatile climates with the resultant impact on the home fronts.

Emily Robertson considered the Australian recruitment effort of 1916 where the Australians objected to conscription. This differed to Kenya where the settlers were one of the first in the British Empire to propose and accept conscription as a war time measure. That the war brought a form of central control to the federal system again took me back to Kenya with people like Jomo Kenyatta and Harry Thuku realising the value of cooperation and working across cultural boundaries to achieve a common goal.

Thomas Bivins’ chapter on the use of women in USA First World War recruitment posters was a fascinating read and I couldn’t help but think of Ian Hamilton’s quote about ‘women being powerful before they put themselves on the pedestal’ (ref Kitchener: the man not the myth).

Jessica Hammett and Henry Irving’s chapter on civil defence in Britain during World War Two again brought home the importance of co-ordinated and centralised approaches. The importance of getting individual buy-in – ‘it all depends on me’, the value of word of mouth transference of information and ideas all seem to resonate with messages and calls for action since March 2020.

Roger Reece looked at Eastern Europe and the Soviet attempts to win hearts to help conscription made me wonder what overlaps there were with the South African Apartheid government’s attempts at winning conscript hearts during the ‘war against Angola’. This was also the thought reading Jessica Ghilani’s piece on USA army recruitment in the 1970s.

How Canada has embraced social media was explored by Tanner Mirrlees whilst Orna Naftali considered how China’s approach to building a positive perception of its army has occurred and Halim Rane and Audrey Courty look at how ISIS has conflated religion and military ideologies to achieve a goal. Unlike the other chapters, this last focused on an international war fought by individuals.

Brendan Maartens tops and tails the publication, and has a chapter on Britain under Attlee between 1946 and 1950, the latter causing me to wonder how it compared with Apartheid South Africa’s management of both a Permanent Force alongside National Service. These contributions put the role of media in context over time and space as well as drawing attention to the gaps still to be filled and significantly how such studies can be used positively to work for peace – well, that’s my take on learning from the mistakes of the past.

As with other compilations, its value is the wider picture and how there are similarities and differences across time and space. And with this collection in particular, another alternative take on an aspect of war, editor Troy Paddock’s World War 1 and Propaganda (Brill, 2014) being a complementary study across space but within a specified time.

Shakespeare in Africa

Back in 2016 I wrote about a Shakespeare exhibition and the man’s connection with Africa as I knew it then. Well, the man has come back into consciousness unexpectedly on two fronts, both inspired by consciously working through my collection of unread books – someone once mentioned that the average person never reads more than 1/3 of their collection, so I set out to prove otherwise but as the argument goes, you can’t really work out an accurate figure as there are so many variables. According to Penguin UK, the average person who reads manages 12 books a year in the US while only 34% in the UK managed 10 or more books in one year. Given that my job and hobby both involve reading and that I read for pleasure, I’m definitely one of the 34% who reads more than 10 or 12 books a year, but it’s only having done a clear out of my library (lots of teaching/text books I won’t go back to) and removing reference books such as dictionaries from my list (yes, I have a list with dates when I finished a book), that I’ve finally made it to 35% excluding those recently bought…

So where does Shakespeare fit in? Apart from working through the collection of his writings, I happen to have read concurrently (I’m a book in nearly every room kind of person) the Brian Willan biography of Sol Plaatje and Antony Sher’s The year of the King in which he records his experience of performing Richard III. It was following my earlier encounters with Sher from his Titus Andronicus performance in South Africa and in ID about Verwoerd’s assassination, that I started collecting his written work and it’s taken me until now to read one. At one point he sees Lion’s Head in Cape Town as an inspiration for how Richard III will look – in case you’re wondering he’s also a sketch artist so has some amazing illustrations to show his thinking. This is all happening in 1983/4.

However, just over 80 years earlier, Sol Plaatje had discovered Shakespeare and saw Hamlet amongst others reflecting society as he knew it being a Barolong. In May 1916, while in England to lobby the British government to stop the SA Native Land Act of 1913, he is able to celebrate the Shakespeare tercentenary on the bard’s own soil. Plaatje watches a performance of Julius Caesar* in Stratford-upon-Avon, wrote a South African Homage to Shakespeare which was published that year in a commemorative compilation and on route back to South Africa later that year he starts translating The Merchant of Venice into Setswana. He would translate 6 of Shakespeare’s plays. Since then there have been numerous (relatively speaking) other translations and adaptations by South Africans.

And it’s not just South Africa where Shakespeare features. Alamin Mazuri considered Shakespeare in Swahili back in 1996, while in 2019 there was a Shakespeare Youth Festival. Shakespeare in Africa has podcasts by various people on the topic while Nigeria seems to have explored some alternative ways of performing/interpreting the man. You can also listen to some Hamlet in Yoruba. No doubt other African countries have their links too which Google et al will help source.

What is remarkable is how this man writing so many years ago still resonates today across continents, cultures and language.

*I wonder if Kitchener got to see the performance at Drury Lane theatre in the week before he drowned. Kitchener was one of the founding members of the Drury Lane Masonic Lodge, for actors, and had “directed” a battle scene at a preview following his return to Britain after he had conquered Khartoum.