Living Memories in our midst

Volume 14, Issue 1  | 
Published 03/07/2017


Tucked away in villages in various Kenyan counties are old men in their sunset years. Some are grandfathers and some are grand uncles who fought in the Second World War. Unfortunately many of these wazee have passed on to the next life without sharing their stories with the succeeding generations. It is not about passing judgement or the lack of conviction on our part as Kenyans - these men  and  women are important because the founding story of Kenya is invested in them.  Although we have the Kenya National Archives as a custodian of many records and documents about Kenya, most are of colonial origin.  These wazee hold the living memory of Kenyan history.

During Remembrance Day, which is commemorated annually in the month of November, surviving veterans of the Second World War attend the ceremony. They worry  that the world is fast forgetting them and their fears and concerns are valid, because here in our own country they have been forgotten. Therefore it becomes a matter of urgency to document and record the stories and experiences of these former veterans.    

Who are these men and where have they been all this time? Even though they have been residing in our rural villages and cities, why have we ignored them? Why are their stories not a part of the history curriculum in our schools so that our children can get an opportunity to learn about them?  We have ignored them because we think that their experiences in a world war may not be relevant to us because they wore British military uniforms. Some of these veterans fought to defend their country as Rev. Dr John Gatu recalled during his interview. He remembered the call to enlist was to defend their land against the Italians and that Mussolini was close to the Chania River.  

Savano Maveke KAR Veteran Signaler

In a span of 25 years, the world experienced two world wars. In both cases, Africans were not just by-standers in these wars. They provided resources and manpower which were a critical part of the war effort. Along one of the busiest sections in Nairobi’s Central Business District, is Kenyatta Avenue (formerly Delamere Avenue). On this street, stand three larger than life bronze sculptured men. The man in the middle stands at attention, rifle resting on his right hand, with a knapsack firmly placed on his shoulders. This sculpture of these three men has been a part of Nairobi for the last 90 years. This war monument was erected as a memorial to the  Carrier Corps and soldiers of the Kings African Rifles in the First World War.  

The Kings African Rifles was a colonial army which was drawn from the Central Africa Protectorate (Malawi), Uganda, and the East Africa Protectorate (Kenya) and later Tanganyika. This early KAR mostly collected taxes, rounded up labourers, enforced land alienation and conducted punitive raids on communities that resisted  British rule.  It was therefore unprepared for WW1. The colonial military was  equally unprepared and possibly unwilling to care for the non combatant ‘carriers’ it conscripted as labourers and porters to support their troops; and many died as a result of neglect, disease and fatigue.

Maithya Mwangea Copyright Mwingi Interviews 2009 Askari Project

The colonial forces of the Second World War, unlike their First World War counterparts, were well developed and were organised as fighting units. In addition to the KAR infantry battalions,the East Africa Command recruited men to the Medical Corps, Signals, Engineers and Pioneer Corps. It also did a better job of keeping  records about soldiers’ families than was done in the First World War, especially when it came to issues of family remittances. 

Enlistment in war time colonial forces varied from one individual to another.  Some men were attracted by how well the khaki uniform looked on the other soldiers. None articulated this better than Mbiti Muthengu. He was stationed in Gilgil and was part of the East Africa Army Education Corps. For him, that khaki look was more appealing than anything else he had seen.

Conversely, other veterans were forcibly conscripted for the KAR by the colonial government. Savano wa Maveke’s entire class from Machakos Government School suffered this fate when the government took them into the army as signallers. Savano helped to free Ethiopia from Italain rule, but his own education was cut short.   The army had to conscript students like him because students had better employment opportunities and were therefore reluctant to enlist voluntarily.

But there were veterans who did enlist voluntarily because to them colonial military service paid far better wages than what they could get on settler farms or from the government. Men like Maithya Mwangea, Mungate Kalunda and Wambua Nguli felt the military gave them the opportunity to earn wages which aided them in paying dowry, helping out their families and having a stable financial position.   While settler farm wages ranged between 6/ and 10/- shillings per month, the East Africa Military Labour Service  paid a minimum salary of 14 to15 shillings per  month for unskilled labour and a KAR private could earn 28 shillings per month with accomodation, clothing and food.

While men like Mzee Philemon Eboyi earned good wages for their askari work, their families worried about their safety. The high death rates among the recruits of the KAR was something all the veterans never forgot. Tedayo Musashia  was a nurse orderly  in Italian Somaliland. His somber expression when he remembered soldiers who succumbed to their injuries clearly painted a picture of the challenges he faced while he was in the war. He said that getting home after the war was ‘pure luck’.

Communication between family members and the soldiers was not a simple matter because it depended on the level of education on both sides. Koki Mutune Mulaa found herself in such a position. Her husband, an infantryman, wrote letters to her but she needed assistance from someone who was able to read. She didn’t go to school and as such she was unable to read and write.

The conclusion of the war in 1945 raised questions on what would be done for the demobilized African soldier. The colonial authorities worried that, the ex-askari coming back with worldly knowledge and experience, would no longer be content with settling in the rural areas. Besides they had fought alongside their colonisers and learnt of their weaknesses. They would demand political rights and economic rewards for their services.  To placate these men the Kenya Government built a centre  in Kabete where askaris learned to set up businesses in the rural areas and work for private employers as tradesmen.  

But only 4% of the veterans were re-trained and those with little or no education were not admitted to the centre. These soldiers went back to their former lives with little reward for their services.  Their families, especially the wives, were privy to their problems and frustrations as Rose Vidali and Daina Migare recalled the challenges their husbands faced after coming back from the war. These veterans had a hard time getting employment, nevertheless most of the wives continued to stay with their husbands.  

The veterans who were re-trained also faced a difficulties. They had to overcome post war  realities such as lack of adequate housing, a high cost of living coupled with inflation and in many cases, no work at all. Philemon Eboyi was re-trained in public health in Kisumu in 1953. Many employers did not trust any training which was associated with the army.

Wambua wa Nguli Copyright Mwingi Interviews 2009 Askari Project

Re-integration was not simple and had its own complications. Military life was different from civilian life. The former led to a wide exposure because of travelling and interacting with people from other countries.  It set the askari apart from his civilian counter parts. His experiences were not aligned to the local administration which had not moved at the same pace as he had. As a result, many veterans felt like strangers in their own communities. Savano remembered veterans being called Makovo (cops) by villagers. They were warned that cops used to arrest and beat people up. Such labelling  made acceptance back into the community difficult.  

The world has just celebrated the 71st anniversary of the Second World War. Surviving veterans converge at the war cemeteries every year, a reminder of lost lives and unfulfilled dreams. Mzee Tedayo spoke of how wives and children suffered when their husbands and fathers never came back. Rememberance should also be seen through the eyes of children of former veterans.  One of them, Charles Mutua, suggests that funding of a war museum would be a good way to preserve the war medals, certificates, service booklets and other memorablia of surviving veterans. By placing them in the museum, future generations would learn about the contributions of their countrymen. 

All these veterans contributed in the society and to our freedom in many ways. Muusya Kiondo learnt the importance of education and took his children to school. Lazarus Mutisya Kavumbu was an elder in his community. The day he was interviewed about his wartime experiences, he was not at his home but was resolving a dispute between two families. Savano fought for Kenya’s independence and was jailed for six years when he took a Mau Mau oath.

Many more stories need to be researched and recorded. And as we have done with the Mau Mau veterans, we need to recognise these old men and honour them.

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