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Africa: Fighting for Britain in World War II

Posted on Tuesday, 14 September 2010 12:24

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Fighting for Britain?
David Killingray 289pp,
James Currey

by Gemma Ware

Social histories like this about Africa are a rare treat. Historian David Killingray narrates the journey from recruitment, through training, to war, army life and decommissioning of the 450,000 African soldiers who fought for Britain during World War II. Written accounts from African recruits are hard to come by, but this book draws on a wealth of material collected during a 1989 oral-history project led by the BBC’s Martin Plaut.

The voices from the past are historical gems. We hear Tanzanian Mussa Kilwelo explain how he was forced to join the King’s African Rifles in 1940, why some better-read Ugandans were propelled to sign up by propaganda about ?Hitler’s racism and how mistreatment by white officers fuelled occasional mutinies. Photos help bring the war experience to life. A grainy black-andwhite shot on the cover shows a smiling Ghanaian soldier walking up a gangplank, a pack on his back, on his way home from Rangoon.

Killingray’s thesis is that despite some of the bragging of ageing soldiers, there is scant evidence that veterans had any real impact on post-war African nationalist movements. Although there were some literate and politically- astute soldiers whose eyes were opened to a life beyond racialised rule, the vast majority of recruits were from rural areas and they returned there after the war.

While some often felt abandoned by government upon their return and challenged the authority of chiefs and elders, white colonial rule was placed under no great threat. This was contrary to the fears of many white settlers, particularly in South Africa, where white authorities refused to arm Africans. However, Killingray’s argument that it was Britain’s readjusted post-war attitude toward its empire that did more to change the course of political development in its colonies than their soldiers’ experiences during the war, goes a step too far in downplaying the impact of war service on Africa’s own political identity.

Birth of a Nation?
Gerard Loughran
328pp, I.B. Tauris?

by Parselelo Kantai

Among the items commissioned for the Nation Media Group’s (NMG’s) 50-year anniversary in April was a three-hour, six-part documentary and the book, Birth of a Nation. Loughran, an editor at The Nation during its early years, has penned a fascinating account of the NMG’s history, which is as much a history of the paper as it is of the Kenyan nation.

There are new revelations that highlight the sometimes-tense relationship between the Aga Khan, the NMG’s founder, and Jomo Kenyatta’s regime. In the mid-1970s, Kenyatta fronted his nephew to take over the editorship. The Aga Khan demurred, and although there were no overt consequences, this kind of overture exemplifies the knotty state-media relationship. Kenya’s history of assassinations, dissident detentions and corruption, all untidily covered by the propaganda of nation-building, has often been consumed as rumour and whispered speculation. Loughran’s account goes some way in clearing the air.

The Struggle Over Land in Africa?
Ward Anseeuw & Chris Alden (Eds.)
289pp, HSRC Press

by Gemma Ware

The Zimbabwean experience looms large in this scholarly approach to the ever-simmering tensions over land in Africa. Ex-settler states Namibia and South Africa have acted with a “curious mix of equivocation, fear and support” of Zimbabwean land distribution measures, which struck a chord across Southern Africa, say the editors. Expectations placed on former liberation movements continue to define reform agendas, however uneasily. With case studies ranging from land policy in Ituri, Democratic Republic of Congo, to a historical overview of land claims in Kenya’s Mount Elgon, this collection of essays is a welcome contribution to Africa’s shifting land-reform debate.

These reviews were first published in the June-July edition of The Africa Report