Abdulrazak Gurnah on the Conflagrations of the First World War in Africa

Posted on 9th September 2020 by Anna Orhanen
In his novel Afterlives, the Nobel Prize for Fiction winner and Booker-nominated author of Paradise, Abdulrazak Gurnah reflects on the experiences of individuals caught up in the conflicts in East Africa during the First World War. Triggered by European colonial interests, these battles and guerrilla campaigns all around the continent  imposed conscriptions and forced labour on African populations in a war whose ultimate aim was their domination. 

In this exclusive piece Gurnah discusses, through his own family history, the destinies of the military carriers and mercenaries recruited by the German Empire, the devastation the colonial ambitions left in their wake, and what ultimately inspired him to write Afterlives.
On a side-table in our house in Zanzibar there was a photograph of a young man in the uniform of the Kings African Rifles (KAR). As a child I would not have thought of him as a `young man` or even known what KAR was. It was the hat that I noticed most of all, with its chin strap and its left rim folded and clipped to the side. It was a photograph of my uncle, my mother’s brother, and later I learned that he had had it taken in a studio just after he joined up to fight for the British in WW2. He was 18 years old and in the photograph he is proud and smiling. He was sent to fight the Italians in Abbysinia and came back safely but he never talked about his time in the KAR, or at least not in my hearing. We know that that kind of silence is not uncommon among veterans of war.

My grandfather, on the other hand, did not mind talking about his war. `Grandfather` was really a courtesy title. To be precise he was really my mother’s uncle. We are generous to relatives: cousins are addressed as brothers or sisters, aunts like to speak of their nephews and nieces as their children. There is no word for grand uncle in Kiswahili, and I don’t know if there is one in English either, so maybe uncles only come in one generation. In any case, grandfather sounds much more courteous.

One of my grandfather’s stories was his conscription as a carrier for the German army during WW1. When I first heard this story I did not really understand its full meaning. I was struck by his description of how the carriers were forced to ride on the roof of the train carriages. I had not yet seen a train in real life but I had seen one in the cinema, and seen the hero running across the carriage roofs while the bad man shot at him. I imagined my grandfather and his fellow carriers clinging to the roof too as the train hurtled across bridges and canyons. I did not know at the time that colonial armies in our part of the world used human carriers to transport equipment and supplies in their wars, and that often they had to be coerced into the job. I don’t know where my grandfather was when he was conscripted as a carrier. He was a resourceful and canny man, and it was unlike him to be caught in a conscription drive.

We grew up with stories of German sternness in their wars of conquest on the mainland, how vicious they were, how ferocious in battle, how merciless against rebellion. What did not come through in these stories of German ferocity was that all their soldiers – the schutztruppe – were Africans. The first recruits were remnants of the Sudanese mercenaries the British had used in the war against the Mahdi in the late 1880’s, who were later joined by the Zulu Shangaan and finally by local recruits. Their officers were German and they trained their soldiers to be disciplined, obedient and ferocious.

All the colonial armies were made up of African mercenaries. The British had their KAR, formed in a similar way to the schutztruppe with Sudanese recruits as well as local people. They had their Royal West African Frontier Force and their Nigerian troops, and the Belgians in the Congo had their Force Publique. At the peak of the war in East Africa, the majority of the soldiers were Africans killing each other for a cause whose vanity and futility they had no knowledge or understanding of, and whose ultimate objective was their domination.

The worst casualties were not among the troops but among the people whose land they trampled over and plundered and laid waste. It is not known for certain how many died from starvation and disease. No one bothered to count. Nor did anyone bother to keep an accurate count of how many of the carriers died but many more of them perished than the troops. My grandfather survived, but knowing him, I expect he deserted at the very first opportunity.

I was not primarily concerned to write a war novel but about the lives of people caught up in these bewildering and violent ambitions of strangers. Nor did I want to write a novel about an oppressor and the oppressed, although largely that was how it was. Nevertheless, there were people who chose sides, people who joined up to fight for reasons that would later seem incomprehensible. I tried to imagine how people survived and endured – not necessarily triumphed – and found reprieve and succour in the midst of what they had to cope with.


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