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.

Two sides of a coin

How do we approach the writing and understanding of another culture’s history? I was talking to a senior diplomat a little while ago about how so many texts on the First World War in Africa although trying to include the African (or more specifically, Black) perspective remain Eurocentric. This is something that I’ve been quite conscious of for many years, coming from a background which is mixed in so many ways. For various reasons, since about 2009, how we see the same thing so differently has started to be revealed thereby opening up alternative options to understanding the past (and the current memory).

1. Death

A few years ago now, we were in Tanzania when news of my brother-in-law’s sudden and unexpected death came through. We’d just survived a most incredible and terrifying bus journey (see religion below) when the call from South Africa came through. A close Black Tanzanian friend who we were with, very quickly followed up her ‘Pole Sana’ (I’m sorry for your loss) with ‘But now you have a little bit of them with you all the time.’ A discussion naturally ensued and it was revealed that the person was not actually dead until the very last person who remembered/knew them was dead too. What a very different way of looking at the next stage of life – compared to the person has gone to heaven (or elsewhere) or the open-ended wonder of what happens if a person doesn’t believe in an after-life… Related to this too are the accounts I’ve told of the Massai women we met at the bottom of Salaita Hill wanting to know what interest these White people had in a dusty hill that they thought was only good for goats to scavenge on.

Another difference which is linked, is the naming of things. It’s a very Euro-centric thing to do to name animals and babies (almost as soon as they are born). I fell into this trap whilst visiting Tunisia many years ago and wanted to know the name of the camel I had become attached to in the Sahara Desert. The owner looked at me condescendingly and said ‘Monica’. However, a little later on the same trip, I discovered that they have a standard name for people like me who ask the question. For the owner of ‘Monica’, she was a beast of burden, an asset who helped him earn a living which was challenging enough without an emotional attachment to the tool of his trade. The same explanation was given to me when a friend in Tanzania was showing me her cows (of which she was very proud). The issue was that if she named them, she would find it more difficult to sell them later on and their purpose was to earn her a return on her investment in them. And in some cultures still today, the late naming of children can be linked to the age after which a child is more likely to survive – forming a personal attachment too soon can be too distressing but what a fine balance to manage…

2. “Laziness

Some memoirs I’m currently working on mention an area in southern Tanzania as having ‘the biggest concentration of serpentine life’ known. This made me recall Cherry Kearton’s comment in Adventures with animals and men about the ‘laziness’ of his porters. He’d instructed some porters to clear away debris from a camp and was shocked to see the porters slowly moving the debris using sticks. He quickly realised the reason why, when he set out to demonstrate how to clear the area quickly, as a puffadder emerged from the pile of debris in his arms. Kearton left the porters to carry on using their sticks.

On a more personal note, the simple past-time of walking seems to be differently regarded. As an African I don’t tend to ‘go for a walk’ unless I’m with a British friend. Any other walking I do, and I do like to walk, has got to have a fixed purpose or goal at the end of it. Watch most Africans, who often walk for miles and ages, and you’ll note that they’re doing so to get somewhere or for some tangible output. Africans do not tend to go for a walk to look at the scenery or for exercise. This sense of purpose to walking has clearly had an impact on those, including myself, I know who grew up in Africa.

3. Religion, Nationality, Loyalty

This is an incredibly complex area and to make assumptions about a person’s loyalty or stance on war because of their religious background is asking for trouble. We know that on both sides in the East African campaign there were Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Animalists and a range of other religious affiliations. The Governor of German East Africa even tried declaring a jihad against the British but it failed. All these groups fought alongside and against each other for reasons which only the individual may know (cf David Mannall in Battle of the Lomba). The chaplains in the armed forces recognised this and I was astounded to see in the WW1 War Diaries for the East African Chaplaincy how diverse a service these men offered. It reminded me of the episode in M.A.S.H where Catholic Father Mulcahy presides over a Jewish circumcision (Life with Father).

Similarly, making assumptions around nationality is bound to lead to sticky situations. In the East Africa Campaign, nationality is a thorny issue. Black askari quite happily (?) changed sides depending on which leader they felt would be strongest and who paid, fed and clothed them. The disbanded KAR unit from before WW1 joined the German forces as they were recruiting and later, during the war when the Germans were losing ground and moving into Portuguese East Africa, some of these same men returned to the British force. Reading through memoirs and diaries, individuals classed themselves as South African, British, Canadian, American etc despite being born in another country. Technically, all those born in the Dominions and Colonies etc were ‘British’ until after 1926 yet there are clear distinctions in unit names. An attempt is being made on the Great War in Africa site to see how many national groupings can be identified, see for example East Africa.

So, where does this leave us?

For myself, the above is a synopsis of my discoveries concerning the ‘two sides of the coin’ – there are many more to be considered and to take into account, and no doubt I’ll be writing more about this in future too –  and is a reminder not to assume that someone else is behaving the way they do just because it’s how I would do naturally. It sets the challenge to continue exploring and uncovering why and how other forces, units and individuals participated in the Great War in Africa. Thanks to all who have helped, and continue to help, me on this voyage of discovery – our frank and open discussions have been most revealing and is testimony to the values of open-mindedness and mutual respect.