Sunday, November 11, 2018

Remembering World War One

From 1914, British Empire soldiers fought a four-year guerrilla campaign against a small German force in East Africa. It lasted two weeks longer than the conflict in Europe. On November 25, 1918, Allied and German forces received and accepted the terms, bringing an end to four years of conflict that had cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of African soldiers and civilians over 750,000 square miles - an area three times the size of the German Reich.  The war raged in Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi (then German East Africa) and spread to Mozambique and Zambia.
There was less trench warfare. Instead, the Germans and the Allies chased each other up and down the region, often at a pace of 30km a day.  They levelled villages for supplies and enlisted civilians as soldiers to fight and carriers to shift their supplies. Most soldiers and porters died from malnutrition, fatigue, malaria, tsetse fly and black fever, rather than bullets. Britain brought in forces from across its colonies: troops from Ghana, Nigeria, the West Indies, Jamaica, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa.  Together with Allied forces of Belgium and Portugal, their numbers made up 150,000 soldiers. German forces numbered around 25,000.
More staggering was the number of carriers needed over the four years, at a total of more than one million.  And wherever soldiers went, they recruited more. The official loss of life was around 105,000 although these numbers are almost certainly downplayed. Fundamentally, the deaths of carriers were seen as dispensable and not accurately recorded. We may never know how many Africans died during WWI.  There are no official cemeteries for African soldiers and carriers and there are few traces of the battlefields.  In the south of Tanzania, it is hard to find any trace of the battles. Even at the place of one of the bloodiest battles, Mahiwa, where the death count reached the thousands in just three days, there is little trace of WWI.  Churches kept records of daily life in the run-up to the war: they recorded villagers selling all their livestock so they would have enough money to flee, they recorded student numbers in school plummeting. Meanwhile, British missionaries wrote opportunistically about the lands and congregations of German missions that would become available to them after the war. 
Sukuma, a people from northern Tanzania, traditionally farmers and they were heavily recruited as carriers and soldiers by German forces.
One folk song has the lyrics:
 'Boulders fighting one another on the plain
the Germans and the English
they run about taken to flight
 because of cattle'.
The 'cattle' line means assets: resources, land, livestock, money. In other words, the carriers were fully aware that this conflict was fundamentally a colonial project.

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