Perhaps his name was wewe or kuja hapa or kijana or askari or kss kss. More likely, it was Maasai or Somali or Kikuyu or Kamba or any of the ethnic appellations used in place of given names. At least in casual conversation, or when a superior was calling. For bureaucratic functions, it was a bureaucratic number: soldier A2957399 or H3049810, a mix of letters and symbols as meaningless as wewe and Kikuyu. We remember him as first-to-die, best-carrier-of-loads, sacrificed-to-lions, forgotten-in-service.
Today, amateur historians are trying to name him: “Africans who fought in World War 1.” “Africans who fought in World War 2.” “Africans who fought against fascism.” “Africans who fought against Nazism.” Africans who fought for global freedom.” It’s an attempt to “write Africans” into “global history” and “recognize African contributions” to “global history.” Africans participated in the wars between imperial powers we have been taught to call World Wars, but as vassals, as the least respected and most disposable. He—surely he has a name—disappears into efforts to reclaim him.
If he was from those people considered “martial,” he was handed a weapon, perhaps a gun or sword or spear or stick and told to kill “those other white men” and “those other black men fighting for those other white men.” Martial people had “hot blood” and were “always looking for a fight.” They were handy weapons in wars between imperial powers. “You fight good, kill enemy,” he was told in English and French and German and Spanish and whatever was cobbled into pidgin military talk. Point the African and fire.
If he was from those not considered martial, he carried loads. Perhaps he was part of the carrier corps, a work designation transformed into a place name in Kenya’s Kariokor area. He was a beast of burden, carrying what everyone else needed. Perhaps digging the pit latrines. And, if he had enough talent, perhaps he learned a few simple recipes, enough to help the camp cooks, enough to taste a small ladle of soup for those who commanded him. Perhaps one day he tasted a few too many ladles of soup and was demoted back to the carrier corps, to whatever meals were scrounged and scrapped and gathered and shared and fought over.
Did he—could he—write letters to his sweetheart? Was his sweetheart recruited to fight for the other white men, those called “enemies”? Did they arrange secret meetings: “place three branches in these positions—one to indicate where to meet, another to show how long we can be together, and the last to demonstrate what we shall do.” Perhaps they used four or five small twigs.
We know so little. We are asked to celebrate so little.
In the official accounts, Africans who participated in wars between imperial powers returned to their countries newly radicalized. They had seen that power could be challenged: those who imagined themselves powerful and invulnerable could be overcome through force and cunning. In the official accounts, imperial powers radicalized Africans by exposing them to modern warfare, to modern strategy, to modern command structures, to the shock of modernity. Even in these accounts that ostensibly celebrate African agency, Africans learned effective resistance from their imperial masters.
In the official accounts, radicalized Africans returned to their still-colonized countries to demand independence. The books that taught us history in primary and high school said nothing about trauma, nothing about psychic damage. Kenyan soldiers who had fought in second imperial war of the twentieth century—clunky, but accurate—went into the forests to become radicalized guerrillas, adapting what they had learned abroad to fight against the British.
I have encountered one book that discusses the trauma young Africans conscripted into colonial armies faced, but it is by Elspeth Huxley. Given she authored the very racist Flame Trees of Thika, I prefer not to give her space in my brain.
Perhaps those three branches or five twigs splayed strategically on the ground spoke a language of African fraternity and intimacy, where those deemed martial in the imperial imaginary discovered shared languages of trade and faith, exchanged dreams of freedom and home cooking, shared their favorite myths and legends, embraced as brothers and lovers. Perhaps those who met while serving under imperial powers saw in the faces of those they were supposed to attack boys and men like them, faces of cousins and friends, gaits of brothers and uncles. Perhaps wewe from this imperial power met kuja hapa from a different imperial power, and in word and gesture, they created other names: friend, comrade, brother, lover.
Touch by touch, gesture by gesture, worlds could be reformed, alliances forged. Meeting not as imperial vassals, not as subjects of arbitrary borders. Meeting as A who enjoyed watching birds and C who would imitate the sound of any animal and H who could dance like an ostrich and W whose smile made the world brighter. It might be that they spoke the language of stars and insects, of falling leaves and rare fruits, of secret remedies and dangerous love potions, of freedoms they wanted and revolutions they pursued.
In nod and handshake, embrace and kiss, promises were made: to meet as free people, to remember the joy of fraternity, to keep secrets, to pursue joy.
In official accounts, he supported the good imperialists against the bad imperialists, knowing that bad imperialists were worse than good imperialists. It is an absurd account. Are we to believe that forced conscription and burdensome taxes are better when imposed by this imperial power instead of that? Are we to believe that this imperial power is better than that one?
We find ourselves on odd, unshared ground: the worst that Europe can imagine for itself is taken as unremarkable for Africa. There is nothing as banal as imperialism. There is nothing as dehumanizing as imperialism. All imperialism is banal dehumanization. Even now, I find it difficult to imagine how African men and boys forced to fight in imperial wars tried to imagine freedom.
But they did.
We have wanted stories about their bravery and resistance. We have wanted stories about how they learned to fight. We have wanted stories about how resilient they were, how stoic when faced with defeat, how defiant when faced with death. We have not asked about tenderness. Or how five boys and men recruited from across Africa laid down in the grass and counted the stars.