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 – Chiwaya War Voices: Melvin E Page

One of the benefits of being a publisher and coordinating the Great War in Africa Association is early access to some material. One of these has been Chiwaya War Voices by Melvin E Page published in March 2020 by the Great War in Africa Association.

In discussion with Mel about what best to do with the hundreds of interviews he’d conducted back in the 1970s and some later in the 1990s, we decided it would be helpful to future researchers for these to be printed and made generally available. I hadn’t seen the full scope of the interviews at this stage but was fully aware of the quality and range of interviews through my thesis work on the Great War in Africa.

Rather than use Mel’s Chiwaya War book or KAR: A history of the King’s African Rifles , I had chanced upon his thesis and what a treasure trove as it contained transcriptions of the interviews as opposed to their essence being integrated into a monograph. Now, we have access to over 140 interview transcripts in a two-volume book with no commentary other than Mel setting out in how he conducted his research and the structure of the material. The Index at the back of the book is a table rather than the traditional-style index. This was done purposefully to assist researchers in identifying the the broad type of material they are after – KAR, askari, carrier, male/female, WW1 or WW2. Mentioning WW2, there is some reference to that in Chiwaya War Voices as comparative to WW1 experiences with some fascinating insights although the main World War Two interviews will be made available in a future publication which Mel is currently working on: Chiwaya War Echoes.

Chiwaya War Voices is a valuable addition to the published primary source material on the war in East Africa. To date, most researchers have quoted Geoffrey Hodges’ interviews for black African experiences. Having looked at the Hodges collection at the Bodleian Library, there is no comparison between the two collections. Chiwaya War Voices is wider reaching in terms of people interviewed, quantity and topic covered. For anyone interested in war burials you will find numerous mentions in Chiwaya War Voices, but not one in any of Hodge’s interviews, However, this is not to discount Hodges’ work but rather to encourage researchers to consider their material carefully within the regional context. Hodges’ interviews were Kenya based whilst Mel’s are Malawi based. Hodges had an interest in the political repercussions whilst Mel’s is more social, The differences continue to echo – relationships appear far more egalitarian between different cultural groups based on the interviews Mel conducted than those by Hodges.

And for anyone questioning some of the experiences in Distinguished Conduct, Mel’s constructed history of Juma Chimwere, Chiwaya War Voices is a good place to look (and then the KAR records at TNA).

The African Army Band

Many of us in and of Africa are aware of the importance and significance of music, ranging from the talking drums to the crooned lullaby to soothe tiny people to protest songs and religious choral harmonies etc. Jazz and pipe bands also feature, the latter having their roots in the military, I think here of the Transvaal Scottish and Irish regiments who alternate in their support of the annual Remembrance Day services in South Africa.

And it’s not just South Africa which has military bands. At the ceremony to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War in Zambia on 25 November 2018, the Zambian Army provided a brass band, a practice which dates to before the 1914-18 war as explained by Mel Page in a fascinating article on the role of song over time (“A continuing legacy of song: From Asilikali lyrics into Malawian culture” in Society of Malawi Journal, 2020, 73:1). One of his references is George Shepperson who, in another article in the Society of Malawi Journal (“Malawi and the poetry of two World Wars”, 1990, 43:2), discussed two poems he wrote, one of them emulating the songs the Nyasalander men he led in Burma sang telling of their trials and tribulations but also their successes. Of all the King’s African Rifle units, the Nysalanders were well known for their singing.

Within the same week of reading the above, I then happened by chance upon a 2006 thesis on musicians in the Buganda Court after 1937. A quick look through, invariably such studies have a scene setting chapter which on occasion mentions the war, resulted in the little discovery that

British rule, including their introduction of European brass instruments, influenced the Kabaka of Uganda [Kabaka Chwa II’s reign (the thirty-fourth Kabaka,1897-1939)] to establish a military band for his private army. Native recruits (musicians), who learned skills on these European band instruments (on which they played European tunes), later used these Western instruments to compose and arrange indigenous melodies for their bands. In other words, among the influences of the military band, the musicians adopted non-indigenous musical instruments, which they used in their own shows or parades.

The author, Damascus Kafumbe continues to discuss how music and dance impacted on society, drawing on the past and linking to the present.
It’s one of those things we tend to forget – thinking there was nothing before – there is often a rich heritage which adapts and develops when new ideas and experiences are encountered. No one is an empty vessel waiting to be filled, and the development of the African Army Bands and the influence they had on society speaks strongly of this continuity.

REVIEW: Distinguished Conduct – Melvin E Page

Distinguished Conduct: An African Life in Colonial Malawi by Mel Page is not quite what one would expect from someone like Mel, but it works.

Thankfully Mel explains at the outset that this is not an historical narrative, so those who don’t appreciate the value of footnotes will be pleased. For those of us trying to get a better grip of the events in Africa at the time, this is frustrating, but then as Mel explained, he has not written a history book per se but a novel.

However, this is a novel with a difference. The lead character, Malawian Juma Chimwera was real and the information concerning his military service is based on fact, as are some of the other characters. Chimwera’s experiences, though, are conjectured, as is the role of a white officer who provides the linking thread through the book. So, where does this leave the history scholar?

Effectively, Mel has used his extensive research and knowledge of the King’s African Rifles and Malawi, for most of the novel Nyasaland, to provide a context for Chimwera’s life as a soldier, looking at why he enlisted and his experiences from before the First World War through to Malawian Independence. There are many white missionary and other settler accounts of this period, but few on local black experiences and this is what Mel has tried to encapsulate and in my opinion, succeeds.

Having the advantage of knowing Mel’s academic work, broadly knowing the wider history and at the time of reading Distinguished Conduct literally wading through the whole Colonial Office collection of KAR correspondence, War Diaries and other accounts, I could see how the book was grounded historically.  Yes, literary licence has been taken but one could argue that has been necessary to provide an overview and the feel for the Yao community which has not been known for its written literary record. Mel is not the first to do this, and won’t be the last. Giles Foden took a similar approach with Mimi and Toutou go forth, and I have recently become aware of a South African publication of the life of 688 Sgt Charles Henry Carelse DCM of the Cape Corps – They said we could not do it – written by his great grandson M Adeel Carelse. As Adeel explained, there was insufficient information to write an historical book, but also that wouldn’t ‘bring the characters decorated for valour to life’. I haven’t yet had the chance to read Adeel’s book but I have read Mimi and Toutou by Foden which as an historical account is sadly lacking and which was one of the main reasons for the GWAA embarking on the mammoth project which culminated in The Lake Tanganyika Expedition 1914-1917: A primary source chronology being published (vol 2 due out later in 2020). I do not foresee a similar project having to be undertaken to set the record straight concerning Distinguished Conduct. While recording the life of one man, Mel has remained an objective historian and it’s that which makes this very readable novel a valuable contribution to the novels and history of the First World War in Africa. My only concern is that it gets used as evidence/footnote material for the wrong reasons. So, I nearly end this review with a plea to anyone wanting to use it as reference material, by all means do, but let us know the reason you’re using it and if for historical accuracy, please find further supporting documentation.

Thank you Mel for sharing the life of this little-but-well-known Askari. If only your editors had shown as much care in proofreading the book – there was one too many typographical gremlins for my liking and the non-justification layout of the text took a little while to get used to.

The Native Red Cross

You can probably tell I’ve been doing some work with newspapers over the past while. There are some fascinating discoveries to be made, not least this one.

On 14 November 1918, the following was published in the Nyasaland Times:

In our last issue we published some facts in connection with the various War Funds. It was indicated then that the Native Red Cross Fund was in need of support and we confidently appeal to our readers to give it all the support necessary. During the last two years it has done all it could to send comforts – save the mark – to the men in the field. Comforts, a little sugar and tea, a few cigarettes, some snuff, a bit of tobacco, or a common calico bag to be stuffed wiht grass for a hospital pillow. But paltry though some of the comforts seem it is the presence or absence of these which makes all the difference. When a sick or wounded askari is told that the Azungu [white man] have sent him a ‘prize’ of, let us suppose, some of the above items, not only is the item welcome to him but it is doubly welcome because it is a present from the whitemen and it warms his heart to know he is not forgotten. The mere fact that the Azungu have sent these things to them is sufficient to give them a value apart altogether from their intrinsic value… Ask a soldier in the trenches after some time without cigarettes or tobacco what he would give you for a packet of ‘faggs’ and you would be surprised at the answer. It is the same with the native. After weeks of hard work on short commons to get anything in the nature of comforts is a delightful surprise and one which makes a distinct and favourable impression. Among notices we published some little time ago none striking than that told by a medical officer of the pleasure and expressions of gratitude with which a carrier dying from dysentery received his little daily present of cigarettes up to his last few hours of serving the white man. We are sure therefore that although the campaign is so near a close – and because it is so near a close – that the people of Nyasaland will see that the Native Red Cross has sufficient funds to continue its good work. All our military leaders speak in the highest terms of what the native soldiers and native carriers have done and it is only our duty to show them that we appreciate their work for their country and the Empire. Should there be any balance left over when the last sick and wounded have left hospital, we may be sure that the remains of the Fund will be judiciously used in helping those who have been disabled in the Empire’s service. As a sort of thank-offering for the good news from Europe let us open our heartstrings for this and other deserving funds and show our gratitude for the final ‘strafing of the Hun,’ to those natives who have served so well.

What a rich article. Despite some of the paternalistic language, there seems to have been a genuine sense of care and interest in the well-being of the men, from across the ethnic spectrum. It got me digging further…

The article the week before, 7 November 1918 notes that by the end of October, £719 17s had been raised. £178 12s 11d was spent in providing hospital necessities, and £330 for the regular native troops and carriers. £166 7s 7d was through special supplies such as tea, sugar, note paper, envelopes etc. This latter point suggesting there were European literate askari serving, so perhaps hidden in a corner of a house somewhere or in a trunk, we might find some crumbs of letters home?

A letter from General Hawthorn explained that every corner of the Empire supported the British Red Cross, but until the Native Red Cross was started, there was no source through which comforts for the Nyasaland native could be dispensed.

In one of the hospitals [the print is not very clear] there were between 120 and 130 carriers who had been very ill. The Officer in Charge was looking to make their hospital stay as comfortable as possible given all the hardship they’d had in the field and was grateful for the comforts. Various other officers and hospital officials wrote in to express their thanks for items sent to comfort the carrier and askari.

The Nyasaland Times of 17 October 1918 lists some of the financial donations received to the Native Red Cross: chiefs, local native police regiments and others all sent in what they could as well as white settlers and an article on 5 September 1918 suggests that black women were making items which when sold were supporting the British Red Cross. A month before the totals given above for the Native Red Cross, the British Red Cross in Nyasaland had raised £1,984 13 1. Regular updates including donors were noted from local churches and communities. On 1 November 1917, Colonel Hawthorn himself donated £10 to the Native Red Cross Fund. The fund was administered by Mrs Wylie and Baird at the Blantyre Mission with Miss Christie in Zomba assisting there. On 8 September the black women had held a bazaar which raised over £93 for supporting the askari and carriers. Although the two white Fund organisers had been behind the bazaar, it was noted that the day was run by the black women themselves with Lieutenant Colonel Barton opening the event.

From the newspaper records, it appears that the bazaar was the official opening of the Native Red Cross Fund, a point supported by Mel Page in the Chiwaya War. Before that, however, the askari had not been forgotten based on the report on 23 December 1915 which noted that at least 3 companies donated tobacco roles for both European and native troops.