A hot train

In the centre of Cuba lies a town called Santa Clara. Here, the revolutionaries under the guidance of Che Guevara derailed a train carrying military equipment and soldiers. In memory of this event, a museum has been created using the train wagons captured on the day. Inside each closed wagon, a part of the story is told. Visiting this at 4pm, when we thought things would be cooler, proved how much we underestimated the heat.

A step inside the first wagon, was a step into pure airlessness and I couldn’t help my mind wondering to another train derailment – that by the Germans of the British line in Tsavo in 1915. And whilst writing this yet another sprung to mind – the derailment of the Whisky Train near Val during the Anglo-Boer War. The soldiers in all were in an unenviable position and stood no chance against those ambushing the train.

An intriguing feature in another Cuban wagon, one pock-marked with bullet shots, contained a section inside showing how the wagon was protected. A board was placed around the inside of the train and between that and the outer casing, sea sand was poured in. This created a protective layer which deflected the bullets as evidenced by the marks on the side of the wagon. It’s unlikely the trains in Tsavo had such protection but similarly, Batiste’s army hadn’t realised the value of having a wagon or two at the front of the train to provide a buffer for mines and to lure hidden gunmen into giving themselves away.

While there was much fraternising when the contents of the whisky train were offloaded, there was little in the Cuban scenario. Guerrilla fighting continued in the town as evidenced by the bullet holes in the walls across the road from the 1726 church. Apparently the rebels moved through the houses and scaled down walls from the second storeys in order to make it difficult for Batiste’s soldiers to hit them.
The final wagon was dedicated to the women who had served the revolution. Interestingly all the info was only available in Spanish – this was the case for all the wagons except the first overview one and those showing weapons and the bullet marks (is this what most English speaking visitors are interested in?).

One thing I found intriguing in all the places we’ve visited in Cuba is the absence of AK-47s – weapons of choice (used) by the Angolans and Umkomto uSizwe during the struggles in southern Africa. The rebels had very few weapons, hence the need to derail a supply train. But what was rather startling – with the Bay of Pigs incident was that the invading army (Batiste’s men) were using 1897 and 1903 US weapons: this in 1961 and it has generally been regarded that the 1870 black smoke rifles used in 1914/18 Africa were outdated! One almost got the impression that the Americans did not expect Batiste’s men to be successful and so set them up to fail with poor quality weapons. The absence of Russian weapons for use by the rebels suggests that this relationship only developed after Castro and the rebels were successful and by all accounts the derailing of the train in Santa Clara was the turning point which saw the rebels gather support and succeed.

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It’s cultural – masculinity

In a conversation with Cuban artist Vladimir Rodriguez at his studio in Cienfugos, Cuba, the topic of masculinity came up as we were taking our leave. We’d spent some time talking to him and on leaving he gave us a Cuban farewell – a kiss on each cheek. Looking at my husband he said ‘and one for you too. Here in Cuba, showing emotion and men hugging each other is a sign of masculinity, not with all the connotations it has in America and Britain. Handshakes are also more gentle – not a showing off of power.’

How refreshing!

Recently reading Zukiswa Wanner’s London Cape Town Johannesburg, the same point was raised. African men don’t cry says one of the ANC stalwarts to his young mixed-race nephew. When the young lad witnesses two men in a relationship, his mother cleverly guides him along the lines of respect for people rather than the social/moral rights and wrongs of same-sex relationships. It’s often struck me rather odd to say ‘Boys don’t cry’, as it’s not a manly thing to do, yet often you will see black African men walking down the road fingers interlocked. I’ve seen this in south, central and east Africa. In no way is this intimacy a sign of sexual preference – it’s a sign of friendship, trust and being comfortable with one another. In Africa, and as recently discovered in Cuba, touching and showing emotion is far more natural than in Europe and particularly Britain and America. Where people in Africa do keep apart such as in Tanzania, where holding hands and kissing is a ‘no-no’, it’s been the result of religious teachings.
Why is it in these hotter climate territories, men are more affectionate than in places where it’s colder? Naturally one would assume, at least I do, that colder temperatures would lead to more physical contact in order to keep warn, yet it’s the other way round.

In this increasingly global community where cultures are mixing more – I wonder which masculinity is going to win through. I certainly hope it’s one which shows more respect and empathy for others, irrespective of strength and power. What’s also rather fascinating in connection with this topic, comparing Cuban men to white South African men in general (I distinguish here as this is the dominant culture I have experienced), is that Cuban men are more gentle than the white South Africans who tend to be more ‘macho’ – both groups in question having had compulsory military service – some Cubans having served in Angola against South Africa in the 1980s. Military training is therefore not a great determining factor in the formation of the macho male identify – there is something else at play…

Year 8 Q&A on WW1 Africa

Following the talk I gave to the year 8s and some work they did with their teachers, here are some of the questions the young people came up with regarding the First World War in Africa. As with all such things, there are some I’m amazed have been asked – I know the point was addressed in the talk and in class. But I’m also aware there was so much new information that sometimes the message is lost. What is rewarding is that they’re asking the questions and some are absolutely brilliant. Thank you. So here are some brief answers for now, others I might come back to later on.

What did the Africans do in the war?
The short answer is the same as what people in Britain and Europe did.
Some men fought. In Africa the idea was that only white men would fight in what was hoped to be a ‘white man’s war’. France recruited black soldiers to fight in Europe – for example from Senegal. However, there were black soldiers such as the West African Frontier Force (today’s Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and The Gambia).
Others worked as porters or carriers and others as labourers. There was much work which had to be done such as clearing away bush for camps, roads, airfields. Cooking and cleaning of camps and hospitals, washing of clothes and so on. It is estimated that there were over 1 million porters alone in East Africa during the war – they were local but also from West Africa, Seychelles, China and Southern Africa.
The women carried on looking after the farms and houses, helped with carrying and doing other tasks where they could.

How much did the war cost in Africa?
We know the figure for Britain’s involvement – £72 million or the equivalent of four years war budget in 1914.

What was the population of Africa before and after the war?
This is a difficult question to answer and we will never know exactly because there was no accurate data kept and the systems were not developed enough to undertake a census. The size of the countries meant that those living in remote places might never see a government official.

Why is Africa not so well known for fighting in the war? Why don’t people remember them as much? How do Africans remember the Africans that have died in the war? Do they at all?
The African campaigns were seen as secondary. They had no direct impact on what was happening on the Western Front, which for Britain was the most important theatre. If Britain lost there, it would lose everything in the same way Germany did in 1918. The fighting in Africa was a distraction for those running the war except that the territories could be used as bargaining chips at the peace negotiations if needed. In addition, very few men from Britain fought in Africa compared to in the European theatres and the Dardanelles. Further, there were few reporters and people able to get messages to Europe for publication and when they were able the stories were often too depressing to publish when things were not going too well in Europe. It was therefore decided to keep the stories, unless they were about victories, out of the press to keep the Home Front morale up.
When the British men who had fought in Africa got back to Britain, they did not tend to talk about the war because family and friends assumed they had been on holiday and had it easy compared to those in Europe. This was because of the idea of Africa being a place of fun and adventure such as hunting. It was also not as exciting or heroic to tell people that you spent much of your time in hospital or sick because of malaria and other illnesses when they were talking of being shot or caught in a bombardment.
For all these reasons the war in Africa was not remembered.
For the people in Africa, the war was just another of many wars they were involved in and because life was already a struggle to survive, they carried on doing what they could. It wasn’t their war, they got involved because their masters asked/told them to. There is also a very different way of remembering in Africa to that in Britain. This is due to the mainly oral traditions which are found in Africa rather than a written one. People told stories and eventually the stories disappear because new ones take over.

Were there African generals? Why weren’t African soldiers treated the same as European soldiers? Who led the Africans? Who commanded the Africans?
There were white African generals such as Jan Smuts and Jaap van Deventer from South Africa who commanded the forces in East Africa after 1916. Although there black, Indian and Arab soldiers fighting in Africa, there were no generals from among them. This was because Britain controlled the Empire and preferred having its own people, who were white, manage things. This was part of the belief at the time that whites were more intelligent and able than people of other backgrounds. The war helped the white imperialists to see that people of colour were as able and intelligent so that in World War 2, there were officers of different races. Some of the leaders of African independence had served during the First World War and learnt from their roles about how to organise and manage people to bring about change.

Who looked after the injured Africans?
There were Field Ambulances which consisted of stretcher bearers and dressers who collected the injured soldiers from the field. An ambulance in World War 1 was not a vehicle but a group of people. From the front, the injured went to a Clearing Station where it was decided if they needed to go to hospital or be treated on the spot before returning to their regiment. From the Clearing Station they went to Stationary and General Hospitals for more specialised and long term treatment. There were hospitals for Europeans (whites), Black Soldiers (King’s African Rifles) and Carriers. The Pike Report into the medical conditions in East Africa in 1917 noted that the Carrier hospitals were some of the best they had seen which was a great improvement on how the situation was in the early years of the war. For those from other countries such as South Africa and Seychelles, they were sent home on Hospital Ships before going into a hospital at home to recuperate or be sent home.
Before a soldier or carrier was discharged for medical reasons they attended a medical board which decided what happened to them and if they received a pension pay out. According to the Medical Boards for the Cape Corps (Coloured or Mixed race force from South Africa) many of them were given three months R&R (rest and recuperation) before being discharged. This allowed them to get an additional three months’ pay without having to do any work. They also received free accommodation and food for those three months. This was one way the white doctors could help people who were discriminated against by law because of their colour and position.

Were there any sea battles in Africa?
There was only one real ‘sea’ battle in Africa which was on Lake Tanganyika. However, there were a number of naval engagements.
In the Indian Ocean, the German cruiser the Konigsberg had disrupted shipping from the start of the war, sinking the first British Merchant ship of the war (carrying tea). The Konigsberg eventually went into hiding in the Rufiji Delta where it took a hunter and aeroplanes to find the ship. Because the delta was so narrow, special monitors had to be sent out from Britain which could navigate the narrow streams to bomb the Konigsberg with help from spotter planes.
It is said that the Hedwig von Wissmann was the first German ship to be captured by the British in the war. The Hedwig von Wissmann was on Lake Nyasa at the southern end of Tanzania. It was captured by the Captain of the British boat Gwendolyn. The two captains used to meet every year for a drink when their boats passed each other, so when the Gwendolyn came alongside the Hedwig which was in dry dock being repaired, the German captain didn’t realise he was going to be arrested. The German captain hadn’t been told that war had broken out.
On Lake Victoria the British boats were bombarded by the Germans from the coast line as they were trying to transport troops across the lake to Bukoba to participate in a land battle in early 1915.
The most famous of the ship encounters were those on Lake Tanganyika where two boats, HMS Mimi and Toutou were transported overland from Cape Town to Lukuga in the Belgian Congo. On 26 December 1915, the boats captured the German boat the Kingani which was renamed HMS Fifi. Not long after the Hermann von Wissmann was sunk. The black stoker from the Kingani survived and continued to serve on Fifi once he had recovered from his injuries. The Germans then sank their newly built ship the Gotzen so that it did not fall into British hands. The Gotzen was later restored and still sails today on the Lake as MV Liemba (the local name for the lake).
In West Africa, ships were used to transport troops along the rivers in Cameroon and Togoland.
Ships were also used for blockading the coast to prevent German goods from getting to the armed forces. In East Africa, two blockade runners were able to get through and resupply the German forces.
Where possible, the British Navy bombed the German radio stations along the coastline. This happened in Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania) and Luderitzbucht (Namibia).

What side was Africa on? Where did the troops come from in Africa?
Africans fought on both sides. This was determined by the country which controlled them. The African countries had been divided amongst the European Imperial powers in 1884. The Imperial powers were Britain, Germany, France, Belgium and Portugal. Each had colonies in Africa:
Portugal: Mozambique and Angola
Belgium: Congo
Germany: Namibia, Togo, Cameroon and Tanzania
Britain and France had the rest between them, most of West Africa was controlled by France whilst East and Southern Africa was controlled by Britain.
Italy had a tiny piece called Jubaland.
Neutral Spain had Equatorial Guinea and Fernando Po which accepted German refugees from Cameroon and Togoland.
The French used soldiers from their colonies in Europe whilst Britain refused to do so.

Was Africa also controlled by European countries in WW2? Yes, most of the continent was controlled by European powers. France, Britain, Belgium, Portugal, Italy and Spain had the main share. It was after World War 2 that African territories fought for their independence. Many of the leaders at independence had either been been alive during WW1 or were born soon after so experienced the devastation of the land and the struggles parents and others had to rebuild their lives. A list of African leaders who were influenced by World War 1 can be found here.

What guns did they have? What weapons did they use?
There was a mix of guns. The Germans used black smoke guns from 1871, there were machine guns, Mausers and Lee Enfields. Different size canons were used, some having had to be restored as they had been ornaments for many years. The 10 and 6 pound guns from the ships Konigsberg and the Pegasus were converted for land use.
Although the Germans started off with their own guns which differed to the
British ones as described by Peter Abbott, by the end of the war the Germans were using a mix of weapons having replaced their with British and Portuguese supplies. Gregg Adams provides a good comparison of the two sides –
Some potentially useful history of the different weapons used throughout WW1 – not just Africa.

Who made the materials? How did they get the weapons? Who supplied materials?
The materials were made in European factories or in America for the British territories. Most supplies for Africa came from India which was the traditional supplier of material for the armed forces in Africa. South Africa also supplied some material. Very little was made in Africa. The Germans in East Africa experimented with making what they could out of local material rather than relying on imports.
Some of the weapons were already in the different countries because of the slave trade and hunting expeditions. Weapons had also come in with the colonial wars and African communities had their own weapons too. During the war, weapons were sent from Europe, America and India. Portugal gave South Africa 10,000 mauser rifles at the start of the war and Malta sent them two canons because South Africa had said the British Imperial Garrison which was in South Africa could leave for the Western Front. They took all their weapons with them which meant the new country (only formed in 1910) and its army (formed 1912) had no weapons of its own.

Who had more weapons?
The allies (Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium) had more weapons because they could import them into the African territories. The Germans had to use what they already had in their colonies. In 1918 the Germans replaced their weapons with Portuguese guns they were able to obtain when they invaded Mozambique.

How much was a single rifle to make? How much did artillery cost?
This will need some research into the budget and treasury files. It doesn’t look as though an historian has written about the specific costs yet. Weapons were also bought in large quantities which would have affected the price. See here for an idea of the number of rifles ordered.

Is there an unknown soldier grave in Africa?
Some countries have tombs for the unknown soldier. Wikipedia has a list:
The South African one is not in South Africa but at the South African cemetery at Delville Wood in France.

Are there any statues to African soldiers in England?
Yes, there are. One was recently unveiled in Brixton, London.
There are memorials to Africans and Indians in the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire
A memorial to the King’s African Rifles was unveiled at Sandhurst in 2015

Does Africa have a remembrance day?
Today, Africa is a continent made up of 54 different countries. Countries like Rwanda and Burundi only came into being after the First World War (as part of the Versailles peace discussions). Each country has its own remembrance day although most whites across Africa will recognise 11 November.
In South Africa, there are 4 Remembrance Days connected with World War 1:
21 February – Mendi Day
19 September – Square Hill, Palestine
11 November – Delville Wood and the war in general
16 December – Jopie Fourie (1914 Afrikaans rebels) as part of Day of the Vow/Dingaan’s Day. Today it’s the Day of Reconciliation
Remembrance Day is a particularly British commemoration. The two minute silence was suggested by a South African, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, as a way to remember everyone: different religions, those who survived and were damaged by the war, those who died and those who weren’t able to serve for various reasons.

What did African women do in the war?
See the attached: https://thesamsonsedhistorian.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/african-women-at-war-paper-may-2017.pdf

How many Africans died? here’s the best answer for the moment
How many African soldiers survived the war?
https://thesamsonsedhistorian.wordpress.com/2016/04/11/carriers-labourers-and-others-in-ww1-ea/
https://thesamsonsedhistorian.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/gwea-numbers.pdf

What planes did they use?
See here https://thesamsonsedhistorian.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/flight-in-ww1-africa-paper.pdf

Why are there not many records of Africa during the war?
The main issue is that the records are in different places. Depending on who recruited the soldiers and others, determines where the records are kept. In addition to the records at the British National Archive, there are records in Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa. The Indian records are at the British Library.
Some documents were destroyed during World War 2 when a German bomb fell on the archive. The bits that remain are called the ‘Burnt documents’. The records include men who served in Africa.
A lack of infrastructure at the start of the war in 1914 meant that there was poor record keeping. This improved in 1916 when the War Office sent out a staff to East Africa. They kept better records. In West Africa, the officers had better record keeping as they had been working with the system for many years. Some records which were sent back to Britain were destroyed when ships were torpedoed and if there was a supply issue, reports and records could not always be kept. We know there was a shortage because some British letters and records are written on German headed paper.

Where were the battles?
There were not many battles in Africa during World War 1. There were mainly skirmishes.
Some of the places which are best known for fighting include:
Sandfontein (southern Africa), Duala (West Africa), Tanga (East Africa), Kilimanjaro (East Africa), Mahiwa (East Africa), Kasama (Northern Rhodesia), Tabora (East Africa)

How many landmarks were destroyed in Africa?
The answer to this question depends on what you define as a landmark. There were no big buildings as there are in Britain. Houses, factories and radio stations were destroyed along the coast when the naval ships bombarded the areas. Sometimes hospitals were hit accidentally because they happened to be in the path. One soldier complained that ‘the most important building had been destroyed in Dar-es-Salaam’ before the British arrived and that was the brewery.
Of more consequence than landmarks, was the number of farms destroyed. This meant that the local people suffered from starvation because little was imported for them. Most imports were to help the war effort.

Who ended the war in Africa?
There were different endings to the war in Africa.
The first German colony to surrender was Togo on 24 August 1914. The German commander realised his men did not stand a chance and decided it was better to end the conflict early.
German South West Africa (Namibia) was the second to surrender. This happened on 9 July 1915 after the South African commander and Prime Minister General Louis Botha gave the Germans an ultimatum which the German Governor, Seitz accepted. Most of the German forces in South West Africa had been defeated or captured by this time.
Cameroon was the next to fall – in March 1916 after the German forces there had been defeated by a joint British and French attack.
In East Africa, the war came to an end because the war in Europe came to an end. When the armistice was agreed in Europe it gave a month’s notice for the instruction to stop fighting to get to the German Commander Paul von Lettow Vorbeck. He eventually got the notice on 13 November (the day they fought a battle) but didn’t believe the Germans had surrendered in Europe. He was eventually convinced on 18 November that the Kaiser had abdicated and Germany had lost. The Germans in Africa, around 3,000 in total officially surrendered on 25 November 1918 in Abercorn, Northern Rhodesia (today Mbala in Zambia).

Which country was the strongest in Africa?
A tough question to answer. There were different aspects at play in the different theatres which determined how well they coped with the war. For example, in Togoland, the German commander did not see the point in wasting lives to prolong what would be an obvious eventual defeat because he was outnumbered. One could say he was strong in character making this decision so early in the war.
In German South West Africa, the German army officers did not want to prolong the war because they too knew it would end in defeat but the Governor, Seitz, insisted they do so to help the German fatherland. In East Africa, it was the other way round where the Governor, Schnee, wanted to protect his people and their economy but the commander, Paul von Lettow Vorbeck refused to listen to him and pushed for the army to override the Governor (who was technically in charge of the army).
The stamina of the soldiers could be another way of looking at who was strongest. Nigerian and Ghanaian troops served throughout the war first in West and then East Africa, some white soldiers, and especially doctors from Britain served throughout the war with very little break as did Indian soldiers. The German soldiers (askari) in all the colonies showed lots of stamina too. Ten percent of the force which served with von Lettow Vorbeck surrendered with him at the end.
Another factor to consider is the number of local rebellions which broke out during the war in the different colonies. Some of the more well-known rebellions included the Makonde in southern East Africa 1917 (Mozambique and Tanzania), Chilembwe uprising in Nyasaland 1915 (Malawi), and in Nigeria after 1915 there were various rebellions against taxes and other legislation. In 1914 some white South African Afrikaners objected to going to war with Germany in support of Britain. The Senusi in Eritrea and in Egypt also took the opportunity of Britain’s attention being occupied elsewhere to continue their struggle for independence.

When did they go in to the war?
Officially the different territories went to war when their controlling Imperial power did. This was because of the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised. In reality, each territory entered the war as a result of local conditions. The first shot of the war in Africa was fired on 7 August 1914 in Togoland, the second against Dar-es-Salaam on 8 August. Between 15 and 22 August, German forces in East Africa raided into British East Africa where they occupied British territory (Taveta), Belgian Congo at Kivu, Nyasaland (Malawi) and Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). In South West Africa the campaign officially stared on 14 September when South Africa sent troops across the German border in response to Germans having been spotted in South African territory in August (there is some dispute over whether this really happened).

Is the mud that Dr Samson was talking about still there?
The mud comes and goes depending on the rain. It’s the same as in Europe. The challenge with the mud in Africa is the soil. In the clay areas, the rain runs over the soil making it very slippery to walk on. In other areas where there is black cotton soil, the mud becomes very sticky stopping all movement. Vehicles have to be dug and pulled out of it.

How did Africa deal with their problems during the war when it was really muddy and they couldn’t move.
Life slowed down. This was the time to regroup, try and fix supply lines and move food as best one could. All sides were affected by the rains, but they persisted in carrying on as best they could. An hour’s journey sometimes took eight hours or more to do in the rain.

Where did they sleep in the war and how did they stay awake?
It depends on where they were and what was available. In the worst cases, the men slept under the stars and if they were lucky had a blanket. Others slept in tents either with or without mosquito nets. Where there were camps, bandas or more permanent wooden and mud houses were built for the men to share. Some soldiers wrote about spending nights in trees to keep away from wild animals.
Staying awake was probably easier than falling asleep as the noise of the wild animals kept people awake especially when they weren’t used to the noises. However, lack of food, malaria and walking the long distances meant people were exhausted so slept through everything. One soldier got into trouble because he had rigged tin cans to a wire so that if anybody crossed into the area whilst he was on guard duty (picquet) he would be woken up if he had accidentally fallen asleep. The problem for him was that it was his commanding officer who walked into the cans.
When the men were on piquet this was usually for about two hours at a time and in pairs which helped keep them awake. They would also walk around. Talking was difficult/banned because sound carried very easily and they would miss hearing the enemy creep up.

What flowers grew in the battlefields of Africa?
Local plants grew which varied depending on where you were. In South West Africa it was mainly desert. In northern German East Africa there were lots of thorn trees, in West Africa, there were forests and all through what is known as savanna – large open spaces where grass grows to 6 feet tall.

Do poppies grow on African battlefields?
Poppies do not grow in Africa. This flower is particular to Europe.

What flower symbolises war in Africa?
There isn’t one. Although wearing the poppy and laying poppy wreaths has become the norm for remembrance services in the old British colonies

Medical discoveries

My most recent trip to South Africa was significantly focused on medical things. Having fallen ill on arrival followed by three days in bed, I eventually visited a doctor as I was due to record an interview on the Versailles talks and SA with Classic FM with no voice. The day of the doctor visit, a colleague had commented that I was no longer sounding like a frog but rather like a bullfrog. Miraculously, having seen the doctor at 4.35pm on Wednesday, I was able to speak, and feel human, by 12.30pm the following day when the recording was scheduled.

Getting into the SANDF archive in its new location in Irene and delving into things medical made me wonder how the chaps out in the bush during WW1 suffering from malaria and pneumonia managed to get themselves to medical support as they did. How medical treatments have developed in so many ways(!), yet remain the same in others. A trip through a game park in Limpopo Province highlighted the use of the Buffalo Thorn for medicinal purposes and cleaning teeth.

On the last day of my last trip to the ‘old’ SANDF Doc Centre, we (myself and an archive colleague) discovered some medical files which apeared untouched since being filed in the 1970s. This trip we worked out how they linked together. I was able to discover some useful material on General Sir Jaap van Deventer for my talk (more in due course) and a young academic can develop some case studies for his MA dissertation on the Cape Corps as a result. This will also help provide supporting evidence and documentation for the GWAA Medical project which is focusing on the Pike Reports (context and composition added since last related post).

For those interested, the type of information contained on the Medical Cards can be seen here. Two records have additional information from the medical reports as an initial example of how the medical boards related for one person. A sample of information contained on the Death Registers for the EANLC (East African Native Labour Corps) recruited in South Africa promises further insights into those who supported the fighting forces. These records as well as the Catalogue listings will continue to be updated as time permits.

Buildings – a sign of community

WW1EAfricaCampaign regularly tweets items from the East African Standard telling us about auction sales and other daily events which continued despite the war being fought a bit further south in German East Africa. It’s also been rather insightful looking into the lives of Indian (that is the sub-continent – today’s India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) settlers in East Africa and their war-time involvement. It appears to be very little. The Indians who served in East Africa were contingents which had been raised on the sub-continent specifically for service in East Africa once it had been determined they were not needed in Europe. The Indians in East Africa were building businesses and running the railways, although there is an indication in Pandit Shanti’s (1963) The Asians of East and Central Africa that a handful did get involved in wartime service.

Further south, in South Africa I’ve been working on various histories of Presbyterianism. One concerns the denomination as a whole and its position in South Africa, but another is more local – to the town I grew up in. There the Presbyterian Church building turned 100 years old on 25 November 1916 – well, that’s the date the foundation stones were laid. In the more general history, comment is made about a church in Meikle Street Johannesburg having its foundation stone laid on 20 May 1917.

I’ve often wondered about church buildings. I love the one in Boksburg. It’s an old friend – one I was baptised, confirmed and married in (and the image I use for Minority Historian). The names on the walls are family and friends. I was in St Paul’s Cathedral in the week before Easter to listen to a friend play in Bach’s St John’s Passion. A beautiful building but with awful acoustics and a little ostentatious for my Calvinist background. Then there’s Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. The former is my preferred building – the inside, at the time I last visited, still needing to be completed because they’d run out of money so the ceilings were painted black rather than be covered with colourful mosaics. Yet, the two places of worship that top my list are a tiny wooden church in a village in Senegal and one of the oldest mosques in Kenya. I happened to visit the church in Senegal one Christmas Day. The rough branches that had been used to create the structure were lopsided and the gaps between enough to allow enough light (and rain) through whilst keeping the heat of the day away. A hewn piece of wood resting on two stumps formed the communion table decorated with a jam jar filled with a few cut wild flowers. The pews were rough wooden boards resting on stumps and a goat stood on the dusty sand floor looking round the door.

The mosque was just as simple. A small white-washed rectangular building split in two – one side for men and the other for women. The building not big enough to cater for all its adherents.

Another church building I have close connections with is one in Northwood, UK. This church building was completed in 1915, the foundation stone being laid in March 1914. On the outbreak of war, the community offered the building, then a tin tabernacle as a VAD Hospital. This was accepted in November 1914 and by the time of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, the newly constructed sanctuary was also turned over to the War Office becoming a hospital. The mother of artist Roger Hilton, Louisa Simpson, captured the interior in a watercolour she painted whilst working at the hospital where her husband was the senior doctor.

Why was there this need to continue building religious buildings during war? As indicated by WW1EAfricanCampaign’s tweets, life goes on and people in uncertain times look for sanctuary.  But is a building necessary? On a previous visit to SA, I was told by a young Malawian that his community back home was desperate for a church building. They were currently meeting under the trees. Given the poverty of the area, I wondered, what will a building help? Yes, it will provide shade, but the trees already do that… It will keep people dry if it rains, but that happens so seldom, I wonder if it’s worth the community investing the amount of money required.

Having asked the question on numerous occasions before and since my Malawian encounter, what is the purpose of a church (or equivalent), I came across an answer in Calvin Cook’s history of the Presbyterian Church of South Africa. He says, ‘Buildings are a sign of community.’ It’s a thought provoking statement. They’re a place communities can come together, passers-by recognise and assume they know what goes on in buildings of a certain look – there’s a logic behind a church building’s construction as noted in How to read a church (wikipedia; video). The same with a mosque and synagogue. The latter I was told in South Africa only being allowed if there were ten or more Jewish families in the area.

The interior often tells you much about that community – the people who contributed much to its development or who are significant to its identity. I can’t help but think of the Rand Club, set up by Cecil Rhodes and others, which has recently gone through some financial struggles and uncertainty regarding its future as a result of the mining houses undergoing various changes since the end of Apartheid. Parliamentary buildings too, tell a story about the communities they represent (or try to control). Many of these buildings are no longer fit for purpose, yet many are reluctant to see any changes – the historian in me rails against removing bits of our past – I’m often caught by visitors who say things like ‘it’s good to see there are still pews’, ‘oh, and that’s a real organ, wonderful!’ Churchill too, was reluctant to change the set-up of the British Parliament in 1945. Nostaligia reigns.

I wonder what an all-inclusive, genuinely equal, building would really look like? I already see a difference in approach: Africa vs Europe vs Asian …

Review: Katrina – crossing the colour line

Katrina was released in 1969 in South Africa and is now available on DVD and Youtube. It was directed by Jans Rautenbach (interview in Afrikaans; Abraham) and starred Jill Kirkland who was also sang the theme song. The rest of the cast included Katinka Heyns, Don Leonard, Cobus Rossouw, Joe Stewardson and Carel Trichardt.

Looking back, it is incredible to think that this film was even made and shown in South Africa in 1969 given the storyline.  It tells of an Anglican priest, newly arrived, who falls in love with Catherine Winters. As their relationship develops so it becomes apparent that Catherine is also Katrina September, a Coloured woman who is light enough in skin colour to pass for white. This revelation has significant consequences for all involved, not least Catherine’s son Paul who returns to South Africa as a qualified doctor wanting to work in a deprived Coloured area.

This was a brave film to make given that Hendrik Verwoerd had only been assassinated three years previously and BJ Voster was Prime Minister. Although the latter was slightly more lenient in his approach to Apartheid, his notoriaty as Minister for Justice was well-known. One wonders what the establishment’s reaction would have been had they actually seen the film – would they have found a different way to classify people, in particular the Coloured community? What I also find incredible is that Jans originates from Boksburg, my home town, which was notorious for its ultra conservative approach to Apartheid. (There was clearly something in the water as a number of cultural activists hail from Boksburg.)

The implications of the colour line and how it was applied hit full-force in this movie. It’s one thing to read about it in books and to use one’s imagination, but to see it depicted on the screen is something else. All credit to the director and cast. What strikes home though, and is really sad, is how fickle human nature is, despite all intentions of doing otherwise. This is a film of real human emotion, getting to the core of identity and cultural cohesion. It’s not difficult to see how, on a wider scale, nationalism has an attraction causing division and heartache by forcing people apart and to conform especially in communities where people have started to break down the barriers.

What is striking is that in 2017 a film made in a specific context in a specific country in 1969 has so much resonance for the world we live in today. The colour divide issue was not (and is not) unique to South Africa as a recent Guardian article reminds us. Sad to say, colour and cultural divisions still impact on our lives despite all the progress we’ve supposedly made. Perhaps if enough people watch Katrina and work to overcome the fickleness of man(kind), we might create a better world for all. (Yes, I am an idealist at heart, but as a sociologist whose name I can’t remember used to say – strive for perfection even though you know you won’t achieve it fully).

Other films by Jans Rautenbach:

Jannie Totsiens (with English subtitles) (1971)

Pappa Lap (1971)

Ongewensde Vreemdelinge (with English subtitles) (1974)

Eendag op ‘n reendag (1975)

Blink Stefans (1981)

Broer Matie (1984)

 

 

 

Detained

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.