2019 Centenary Commemorations in Taita Taveta County
Speech by James G. Willson.
High Commissioners and Ambassadors ….Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome.
I am delighted to be here in Taita Taveta for this third Commemoration to remember the soldiers, porters and carriers, who fought miles from their homes during the East African Campaign of the First World War. We remember those who died AND also those who survived and returned home; not only with stories of adventures and hardships, but also with new talents, skills.
This month also marks the 100th anniversary of the annual Remembrance Day commemorations, For the last 100 years the British Commonwealth of Nations have on the 11th of November stopped to remember and pay tribute to their dead from the two World Wars, and subsequent wars, who died in the line of Duty.
I would also like to compliment the Tsavo Heritage Foundation, under its CEO Mr Jacob Kipongosi, and the many people, especially from this Taita Taveta County, who are certainly embracing the culture of commemorating their porters, carriers and soldiers who perished during the First World War. This is good that they are taking ownership of this commemoration as all of us would like to see this as a possible annual event on this occasion marking the end of the East African Campaign on 25th November 1918. just 101 years ago this week and two weeks after the armistice in Europe.
I would also like to take this opportunity to perhaps correct some of the discourse that has resulted from the recent somewhat controversial Channel 4 program, on the Unremembered by the British Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy.
I did indeed take part in this program and even appeared for about a minute or so. I was very happy to participate, as I hoped this would advance our desire for a more tangible recognition for the unremembered porters and African soldiers who have no known burial place. This thinking therefore, allows the program to become a stimulant rather than an irritant which was the initial impression of many who watched the program.
If I may recall, the situation just 6 years ago, the East African Campaign of the First World War was virtually unheard of. There had been very little research in the public domain on this forgotten front of the First World War, which comprised of the countries bordering the western Indian Ocean. Very few people, regardless of race, colour or creed visited the beautifully kept Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique and elsewhere on the African continent. Few questioned what happened and why these cemeteries even existed.
Thankfully, today, this subject is being discussed widely. It has reached the world through several publications, including my own book ‘Guerrillas of Tsavo’, that portrays the situation between 1914 to 1916. My book undoubtably opened the door on this forgotten history of the activities here in Taita Taveta during the East African Campaign. However, since my publication, so much more information has been unearthed which in itself, is a step in the right direction to help record this forgotten history. Very shortly on our Guerrillas of Tsavo web site we shall be featuring short stories on the activities of the Kings African Rifles on a monthly basis.
Taita Taveta County has featured in the television channels in Europe and in the UK, with a few episodes being filmed about the First World War here. I continue to believe strongly that the County should enlarge upon this free opportunity to showcase Taita Taveta County to the world.
We are at long last being recognised by the international community. With this latest Channel 4 program, I see it as a marvellous opportunity to expand an ever-growing interest in the campaign, and the people that took part in it.
Yes, David Lammy put forward his views on the lack of memorials and head stones for the African soldiers and porters rather forcefully, in this he is absolutely right. He also put forwards his thoughts about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and how they have been unable to recognise the African soldiers, porters, and carriers. I believe this is a misconception….. because, if they don't have the material with the requisite names, how do they memorialise them? I don’t believe it is the fault of the Commission but rather the fault of the leaders of the period. Here in the 21st Century the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has been continually working on just this. We also have a small dedicated group working on the same issues here in Kenya.
Back on the 20 May 1928, Chiefs from around Kenya congregated with war veterans and Government officials in Nairobi on what is now Kenyatta Avenue for the unveiling of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Memorial to all the King’s African Rifles and the Carrier Corps who served during the East African Campaign. At the same time memorials were being erected and unveiled in Mombasa and Dar es Salaam. These have all been recently upgraded and revamped during the last 18 months. Plans are also well advanced for the Kariakor cemetery in Nairobi to prevent further encroachment. There are also numerous memorials to the African soldier in Germany, in West Africa and elsewhere in Southern part of Africa that commemorate their services. Clear visual memorials.
Just recently in the UK county of Staffordshire in the National Memorial Arboretum, a new memorial to the Kings African Rifles was unveiled to commemorate the 100 years. Here in Taita Taveta, a memorial has been erected to the askaris and porters which was dedicated only last year at Mwashoti Fort.
Regarding the issue raised about the Voi Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery; this was established three or four years after the end of the Great War, when war graves from various localities were brought into a central cemetery. This was the practice worldwide. The graves outside the cemetery are, to the best of my knowledge, not of any military personnel but of civilians buried much later after the cemetery was completed.
There is actually a need to get to the bottom of who is actually buried there -and I am sure it is appreciated the complexities of this process, It is a challenge that someone needs to take up.
The greatest shame of all, is that so many of the records of the Porters and Carriers have been lost or destroyed. However, I am sure that hidden away in many personal archives, or institutions that existed in those days, there must be some of these records which could still see the light of day, with the help of investigative journalism. But this requires a dedicated person with time, patience and the energy to search out and scrutinise these records.
Someone like Professor Clara Momanyi, Ph.D., EBS. Professor of Kiswahili, Researcher & a Consultant, in her free time she has already begun collecting, researching and recording the names of porters and carriers from within Taita Taveta County. This is, as I can attest, a most tedious job but is very necessary. In order to dedicate the necessary time she will need funding, and with a bit of money anything can be made possible.
Local educators should also be encouraged to promote relevant projects in this connection. The Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development, military institutions and the Kenya Library Services all have a role to play in this. It is after all Kenya’s heritage, so please help Professor Momanyi in compiling this information.
In the UK, for example, there are several programs such as the ‘What did your Grand Dad do during the War’, which was being correlated by the Imperial War Museum in London. It is remarkable what has been revealed and continues to be revealed. Surely, we can do something similar for our school children, students, historians etc. These stories are rapidly becoming forgotten and will disappear for ever, so the need for them to be recorded for posterity is important. One should recognise the fact that numbers are reducing by natural attrition when much of their knowledge will finally disappear as they slowly depart this life. Time, therefore, is of essence.
Some help, however, could be around the corner. The most detailed and authoritive reference book on the activities of the Kings African Rifles from its inception to its disbandment in the 1960s, is now almost complete in three volumes. It will catalogue the activities and awards, especially the several Victoria Crosses awarded and the hard-won Distinguished Conduct Medal awards of each and every Kings African Rifles soldier who served. This has never been recorded in such detail up until now.
The Great War in Africa Association, based in the UK, is extremely active in this respect, with a very informative monthly news blog. But more on this can be discussed later.
Standard Media Group, Nation Newspapers and other national media outlets do a sterling job of keeping the momentum and interest going by publishing and broadcasting stories and articles about the East African Campaign.
It is my contention therefore, that the askaris, carriers and porters are certainly not completely forgotten, but I do acknowledge that there are many anomalies and more needs to be done, especially by Kenyans, for future generations to appreciate their forefather’s sacrifice, by participating in these functions and activities.
So, welcome again everyone and enjoy this commemorative weekend in Taita Taveta County, whilst we remember the activities and lives of the askaris, porters and carriers.
© James G Willson
Author Guerrillas of Tsavo