They don’t know…

How often do we hear these words? I heard them often as a teacher educator and admit that once upon a time, I used them myself about my students. That is until a colleague challenged me about ’empty vessels’ and discouting the life experiences students brought to the classroom. This was revolutionary and freeing.It’s also empowering – not least for a recent visit to a school in Kent to introduce them to the First World War in Africa. The group was Year 8 (12-13 year olds) who had not started learning about World War 1 at school. Teachers were understandably a bit concerned as the only time they had heard me speak was when I presented a more formal academic paper on the Feet of Endurance. After reminders about the students not knowing anything about the war and the introduction of Western Front memorials into the slides I’d sent across, I wasn’t sure what I’d be facing.

A few challenging questions such as ‘How many languages do people speak at the school?’ and ‘Am I African?’ soon broke the ice and when asked what came to mind when they heard the words ‘World War 1’, I got sufficient answers to lead into the story of Africa’s involvement. One young man ventured Adolf Hitler as a response. What an opportunity for lateral thinking. Thank goodness my school history teacher had taught us (she always gave us ‘3 useless facts per lesson) that Hitler had been a runner during WW1. On the spur of the moment, I decided to ask students to think about their weight – not to tell me, that’s far too personal, but to think of what they weighed. Then to imagine carrying 30 pounds or 20kgs (1/2 – 1/3) of themselves across the African field. Puts the carrier role into a slightly different light.
During the talk, another young chap (interestingly only the boys asked questions in the large setting) asked about the involvement of women. Being able to describe the size of a white settler farm in terms of football fields (38,000) really grabbed their attention. I’d only discovered that little snippet when preparing for the paper I presented at the National Army Museum on the role of women during WW1.

The questions that followed in the smaller class settings were just as insightful and thought-provoking. Two students wanted to know what kept me inspired to study the topic. Wow, what an opportunity to influence young people. Quite simply, my answer was, the humanity of man. Seeing how people worked together – people of all races, colours, creeds, beliefs and gender coming together to survive. There were a few gasps in one class where I told them I was a pacifist. Yes, I study war and had been answering questions about guns and ammunition and all sorts of military things that generally tend to interest boys. How can we work to avoid war, if we don’t know what causes it? War is a fact of life and it requires people to carry it out. It’s not my role to judge and many of my good friends and colleagues are in military fields, I respect that, knowing that the work they undertake is valuable and that unfortuantely somebody’s got to do it. They are striving to make the world a better place too, and sometimes someone has to stand up to that bully in the only way the bully knows.

Another wonderful question from these young people who ‘don’t know’ was whether Africa should have got caught up in the war. Another myth could be debunked. Telling students they would soon be learning about Kitchener not getting enough weapons to the front and that he would suffer a bad reputation because of this and other things, I had only good things to say about him when it came to the war in Africa. K wanted to keep Africa out of the war as he knew what it would entail. However, his colleagues in the War Office and the politicians led by Lloyd George counter-acted him, as did war plans and individual personal vendettas. This ‘easy’ question was then followed by ‘so, what do you think Africa would be like today if it hadn’t got involved?’ How does one answer that? I chickened out by saying it was a difficult question, the borders in Africa would be different, possibly wouldn’t have had Burundi and Rwanda and genocide in the latter but who knows. I left him with the thought that he could answer this question himself in future by studying history and exploring the field of Virtual/What if History.

I left feeling rather upbeat. There is hope for the generations coming through despite, in my opinion, the education systems which in numerous countries are working against educating the masses to be involved, critical players in determining their futures.

A little more disconcerting though, were the challenges posed by a colleague historian who had joined us for the day. She insisted on emphasising racism: all officers were white and the rank and file black. The first black officer trained in the British Army happening in 1942 (I haven’t confirmed). Colonialism was bad, Africa is poor and the slave trade was the cause of all ills. I purposefully mention she is white as I know a number of my readers would automatically assume she was black. She too, like me, is a foreigner in Britain. Her comments and challenges resonated with an email which another friend then forwarded to a number of us. This contained an article entitled The reality of the SA situation by Daniel Lotter. I’m not linking or copying the article here as I don’t believe in perpetuating myths of the nature Daniel is stating as historical fact.

The challenges in the classroom were relatively easy to deal with, pointing out that racism did exist and that hierarchies and bureaucracies meant that some people couldn’t achieve rank, it didn’t mean that there was racism all through. One of the things I love about the East African campaign is that there was no victor. Everyone lost out – mother nature remained dominant. What a levelling ground. All involved had much in common: the story of survival and the need for others to help them through. No-one could do it alone.White officers recognised they needed their black rank and file and co-depended on each other, individuals taking the lead when their skills would be best utilised. FC Selous the famous hunter and inspiration for the Selous Scouts wrote that he wouldn’t have been able to survive without his gunbearer who saved his life on many an occasion. Alas, Ramazani was no match for the sniper hiding in the Beho-Beho bush in January 1917. (Wits archive)
Another colleague, a black woman who had arranged for me to be at the school, challenged the idea of Africa being poor. If Africa was poor, why was there all the fighting and corruption today? People wanted what Africa has. She grew up in Lagos and had never seen a well until she moved to England.

Returning to the article by Daniel Lotter, it came with a sub-line, presumably written by the person who started its circulation ‘Presumably all facts are correct??’ As with my colleague historian, yes, the facts as stated were correct, but they were selected and not the full picture.

My response to the email chain was:

I haven’t got time to write a full response to what he’s said but people are very selective when they put an argument together to suit their case. There is evidence of black development and intelligence from before whites arrived in SA. Much was hidden away by the Apartheid government to ‘prove’ the superiority of the white man over the black etc.
Whatever happened in the past is the past. It’s time for attitudes like Daniel’s to be put far away and for people of all colours to recognise that by working together and respecting each other we can move forward and build a better world than the one we leave behind.
Constantly blaming people for things that happened in the past is not helpful at all.
It’s important to understand the past and it is incredibly complex – far more than set out below. For every statement Daniel makes I can add at least another 2 or 3 perspectives. But more important is taking that understanding of the past to understand who we are as individuals and communities and then turn it around and build something beautiful. This might be idealistic but I do believe it can be done and am seeing attitudes change amongst people of all colours when I emphasise this and break the myths of World War 1 in Africa.

I fell into studying history, it was a dream and I’ve been lucky enough to follow my dream as it’s taken me. Not being in an academic institution and funding my own research means I retain freedom of research interest. I’ve only ever made three specific decisions about history. One was to become an historian rather than follow my career path back in 1994 and become an Organisation Development Consultant. The second was not to get funding for my research (sociology does have its benefits) and the third was back in November 2011 when I decided to take on the co-ordination of the Great War in Africa Association. It meant that would become my focus rather than British and South African relations post 1910.

So, why study history? Although aspects had become apparent in the years before, my purpose has only become clear in the past year or so. Being an historian carries a great responsiblity: to tell the story as fully as one can without judgement, recognising that there’s truth in everyone’s version of the same event and experience. Reconciling these versions is the task of the historian, probing and challenging where needed. We’re all ignorant of the other’s view – until we put ourselves in the other’s shoes, we won’t know why they acted the way they did which led to our reacting the way we did.

My role as an historian, therefore,

is taking that understanding of the past to understand who we are as individuals and communities and then turn it around and

as a citizen of the world, work to

build something beautiful

And in response to Daniel Lotter (and those against others settling in ‘foreign’ lands), I can’t help but think of a story I read recently attributed to Jesus by a Mohammedan scholar: Passing through a field, Jesus was asked to reprimand his disciples from eating the owner’s wheat. Rather than do so, Jesus responded by calling to life all the previous owners of the field. Who, he asked, is the real owner? We all are custodians of the land we are placed in.


The identity diamond

The issue of identity has featured rather frequently the past few weeks, not least at a talk I gave on Breaking the Myths around World War 1 in Africa (Feet of Endurance: World War 1 in Africa; images). I am lucky enough to hold dual citizenship however, as I’ve commented to people since the start of the commemorations of the centenary of WW1, and more expecially with recent developments in the UK, my African identity has started to dominate. I regularly hear black colleagues complain about being asked a variety of questions which they interpret as racist. At the conference a young school lad came to me in the break asking how I had remained calm as a member of the audience asked a question about black rank and file soldiers ‘falling to pieces’ when their white officers were killed. How, this young black Zimbabwean asked, could this white man with Rhodesian roots even dare to ask the question he did.

As a white African, I often correct white and black colleagues (in both Britain and on the African continent) when they make the assumption that I am British and have to explain that there are whites who are born in Africa, along with many other cultural groups such as Indian and Arab. Usually this is when the person concerned is moaning about how ignorant British people are of Africa or telling me that ‘you’re responsible for …’, ‘it’s obvious why Africa is so corrupt…’ etc. In one of my discussions following such an introduction, a Nigerian who has spent more years outside of his home country than in it, worked through a variety of identity labels eventually deciding that at heart he was Igbo. An Englishman in the same discussion associated himself with the village he was born rather than where he was brought up. In another context, an Italian living and working in the UK introduced himself as BrItalian – wonderful, I thought, does that really make me BrAfrican? It doesn’t quite work for BrScottish or BrFrench though…

An issue I find rather intriguing is what white South Africans call themselves. I have heard reference to SAE (not self addressed envelope) but South African English but if you listen to white South Africans talk and read historical books, they refer to black South Africans as African. So, what/how do white South Africans see themselves? Epecially being seventh or even eighth generation in the county with little other than tangential cultural links to a few European countries. Interestingly, if someone asks what I am, I’ll say South African but I generally associate more with Africa and sub-Sahara Africa than even South Africa.

I am African, born and bred there, but I’m more than that. I’ve taken on a fair amount of Britishness having lived in that country for so long, but I’m also an educationalist and historian (according to my business card), others describe me as an academic although I don’t have a university or other official academic post. And the list could go on – wife, friend, daughter …

It was an email reference to the ‘fairer sex’ by a male colleague who regularly challenges labels which made me decide to write this post. He wouldn’t have used the term indiscriminately leading me to  wonder what the origin of the term was considering that the women he was referring to (consciously or otherwise) all had dark hair and most, not all of Middle Eastern descent. Given the different uses of the word fair, I can take my pick as to what was meant and not be offended.

A student from the Caribbean once told me that a customer at the place she worked had made a racist comment asking her how she had blue hair (she had blue braids woven in amongst her black braids). For over 10 years now, this comment has stayed with me and I’m no closer to working out how it is racist. Another, also Caribbean, student told me emphatically I shouldn’t be wearing traditional African outfits (…) as in her view I wasn’t African and therefore not allowed to wear what I wanted. These occasions provided opportunties to open conversation and break down barriers. Similarly, the little children in the villages who come walking alongside me taking my hand, turning it over and comparing it to theirs or gently pulling the hairs on my arm – they don’t have any and their hands are two different shades compared to mine. This is curiosity – a way of discovery, learning and developing identity. My A-level French teacher welcomed my confused, often ‘stupid’, questions around the language – she told me she could see I was engaging with the language and working through the anomalies to get to the core (the truth).

And as for the diamond? It’s an analogy for what I am – a human being made up of many different facets. Some shine more brightly than others depending on where you the observer are standing and how closely you want to peer or stare. They say ‘diamonds are a girl’s best friend‘ – I’m not so sure about that really, but I do see some endearing traits in diamonds – steadfast and unchanging (once cut), light reflector and yet transparent and penetrating (they can cut through glass). We’ve put a value on them deciding they’re expensive.

Reading Tim Butcher’s Blood River, I can’t help but recognise the damage assumptions around identity have caused. A discussion group on the book commented how selfish he’d been putting so many people at risk for a personal whim. Perhaps, but if Tim hadn’t undertaken his journey, what misconceptions would many still be holding about the Congo? Diamonds are the consequence of unpleasant levels of heat and pressure – out of horror comes beauty. It depends on how I look at it and choose to interpret what I see. Now more than ever, I try and find the positive in order to build bridges and understanding – the alternative is unthinkable.

West Africa in World War 1

Saturday 15 October saw a wonderfully diverse gathering of people at The National Archives – all interested in what happened in West Africa during World War 1.

The inspiration for the day developed out of a project the African Heritage and Education Centre in East London were undertaking into what they called The Untold Story: West African Frontier Force in World War 1. I became aware of the project after being approached to help with background research and thought the group had embarked on a task which would be impossible to achieve. But I am more than glad to say, I was wrong – and the proof was in the display and resource pack which was launched at the conference by a representative of the Ghana High Commission in London.

The display boards which were on display will be touring schools highlighting the role of Africa in World War 1 – it’s the tip of the iceberg but an important start. For further information on getting the display to a place near you, contact AHEC direct. Their education packs are interactive and thought provoking for primary and secondary students – and match the Key Curriculum. The online version should be available from February 2017.

There were two unexpected inputs to the day. The first an overview of Nigeria’s role in the war from a senior military official of the Nigerian High Commission and the other an overview of BlackPoppyRose by Selena Carty. The former had been scheduled but only to give a few words of introduction, whilst Selena stood in for a speaker who had fallen ill and was unable to attend.

Nigel Browne-Davies gave an insightful overview of local involvement in the war – how the educated elites differed from the rural peasants in terms of their attitude to the war, involvement and experiences. And finally, Bamidele Aly spoke about the introduction of a new currency into Nigeria in 1916 – the reasons for this and the reactions of the local poplation to its introduction. Did you know that Hausa was written in Arabic script until about the 1950s? I didn’t…and that was in colonial Nigeria.

In response to some of the questions raised today, here are some links which might be helpful: number of forces involved; Medals won by black participants (in British forces; further details can be found in John Arnold’s The African DCM  and Military Medal).

Discussion flowed throughout the day – it was good to see old friends – Garry from Recognize and Lyn from Away From the Western Front (@aftwf191518); so many new connections were made: all in the spirit of opening up the African front to wider audiences. This was the closest I’ve come to Africa in Britain – thank you to all who made the day!

Review: Forged in the Great War by Jan-Bart Gewald

Forged in the Great War: People, transport and labour, the establishment of colonial rule in Zambia 1890-1920 is the second book regarding the Great War and Zambia’s role to have been published during 2015. The other is Ed Yorke’s Britain, Northern Rhodesia and the First World War: Forgotten Colonial Crisis.

I recommend both and although my intention is not to review Ed’s book here, I need to refer to it, not least because Jan-Bart does. Interestingly Jan-Bart feels that his argument contradicts that of Ed’s. However, I think the two compliment each other as they are looking at slightly different aspects of the same thing. Added together, we have a very rich new understanding of the politics behind Northern Rhodesia / Zambia’s involvement in World War 1.

I’ve more to say about Ed’s book elsewhere (still to be published) and as the heading of this blog indicates, I want to focus on Jan-Bart’s short expose (174 pages incl bibliography) of labour and the making of Zambia.

As with the recent studies coming out on the East Africa campaign, we are starting to get a deeper understanding of the subtle differences between the micro-nations involved in the conflict and how these interacted with each other and the dominating colonial power structures both locally and internationally. While Ed’s book has looked at the broader internatonal position with a greater focus on the role between te British South Africa Company’s (BSAC) relationship with Britain, Jan-Bart has tended to focus more internally and it is in this regard that the ‘difference’ in argument is perceived.

Jan-Bart claims that the reason the BSAC was able to take control of Zambia during the war was because they were given carte blanche on expenditure by the British government. Here I have to differ as this was not the case. The British War Office certainly (with Kitchener in the chair) believed that no expense should be spared to enable Britain to win the war. However, this is too superficial a reading of the situation. Kitchener was known for saving costs and being frugal but not at the expense of quality. He did not believe in throwing money at a problem and certainly not in a battle he did not think necessary (or where the final decision would be made at the peace table). In this he differed to the rest of his War Office staff and back in London there was a constant struggle between the War Office and Colonial Office about expenditure in Africa and who was paying for what in connection with the war. The Colonial Office was hesitant to incur costs it, or its territories, would have to pick up at the end of the war. The BSAC was responsible to the latter for its work in Zambia and a careful reading of Forged in the Great War points to this.

On p31 Jan-Bart states:

it was precisely on account of the war, and in particular the limitless funding made available to the BSAC by the War Office during the course of the war, that the BSAC was able to establish an effective administration in Northern Rhodesia

This is in line with my findings but what Jan-Bart hasn’t picked up on was the relationship with the Colonial Office where on occasion, I imagine, somewhat heated discussions took place over who was responsible for what costs. By 1917 Jameson is less eager to spend money in Zambia as he is aware that the company might not be reimbursed. And I would go so far as to say this is the reason the chiefs do not receive in full the rewards they were promised for recruiting labour.

This is the only area I could see were the two text differ in their argument and hence the conclusions they draw.

What is more significant than differing conclusions is the information which has been brought to light  especially from the Zambian National Archives which few students of the Great War are likely to be able to visit.

Through Jan Bart’s account we get a chronological overview of how labour practices in Zamabia changed over 30 years and some of the reasons behind these changes. He looks at the slave trade and the changes end ending of that brought, how  farming practises changed and the impact of the introduction of cassava as a food source.

Of particular note is how the administration sought to find alternatives to using human carriers and the challenges introducing mechanical transport posed. Who would have thought using a truck wouldhave been so expensive to run when one thinks of the overcrowding on our roads today (p117/8):

In the course of 1916 a road was cut and bridges built from the railhead at Broken Hill to two points on the border. Up to 17 motorcars were obtained via South Africa and converted into lorries able to carry 700 lbs plus a driver and his kit. The road was an earthen track, with exception of approximately 80 miles of sand where, ‘wheel tracks in the sand were filled with soft stone and the cars ran on two slightly sunken ribbons of Macadam thus formed’.

Taking into account the amount of food carriers would need to survive a journey (p119):

Administrator Wallace wrote:
I hear from Colonel Masterman that he has asked Mr. Chaplin for authority to buy 10 more motor lorries and cars for the road Kashutu to Kasama, this will make a total of 26 cars with which he hopes to be able to deliver 2,000 lbs per day at Kasama. I estimated that three tons per day were needed and I am now informed that the amount required is nearer five tons per day. It is evident that if the motor transport had to be depended upon we should need a very large number of cars. The road will be a safeguard against failure but I hope that except for urgent stores we shall not have to use it much as the running costs alone cannot be less than £70 to £80 per ton.

Man power was still the most efficient, reliable and cost effective.

Another option which opened for the duration of the war, was river transport. The administrators, were despite today’s views, very conscious of the need to look after their labour as it was scarce and deaths or losses of any kind would have a major impact on the delivery of food – for all.

Goodall, based at Nsumbu Island, systematised and supervised the transport route through the numbering: ‘a numbered metal label nailed to each craft’, and registering of all craft. Canoes and paddlers were collected from all the river systems, and Goodall ‘soon had registered over 12,000 paddlers and 2,000 canoes’. The canoes were hired for whatever period they were needed and the owners received hire payment at the rate of 6d. per load per trip. Paddlers were engaged for two complete journeys and received 6s. pay and 2s. food allowance per journey. An extra shilling was paid to those who completed the journey in under one month. Canoes in need of repairs were dealt with at Kabunda, free of charge to owners. In this manner boats, ‘ranging from small ones of not more than 12 inches wide which with only one paddler carried 120 lbs, to large ones which with 5 or 6 paddlers would carry half a ton’, transported nearly 70,000 loads of an average 25 kilogram a piece between January 1916 and February 1917.

That the administraton was concerned is also evident in its reaction to the outbreak of the Spanish Flu and the lack of food availability. I can just imagine the confusion and anger there must have been with the government insisting that all farmers who had produce sell it to the government which then saw to it being distruibuted more fairly and widely to ensure that all had something rather than many having nothing. I’m not naive enough to ignore the ideas of misappropriation of goods and some getting more than others for various reasons (the same happened in the UK with rationing and in other countries), but it does serve to show that at least on a local level there were whites with a conscience.

Finally, it was also refreshing to see Jan-Bart’s take on The Lake Tanganyika Expedition. This is something I’ve been very aware of through the photographs of the expedition and as he notes, there is very little in the written documentation, but it is there if you look.

For May, I’m going to review Richard Smith’s Jamaican Volunteers in the First World War: Race, masculinity and the development of national consciousness. I mention this here as it provides a very insightful take on British attitudes to micro-nationalities outside of Britain.