FRANCIS LUNGU, Lusaka
THE centenary commemoration to signify the First World War a r m i s t i c e this November in Mbala will also avail a historical opportunity to highlight the immense role played by Africans in the war which lasted from 1914 to 1918.
It has always been a wonder as to how Africans found themselves supporting either the British or German troops that waged war after it broke out on July 28, 1914 in Europe.
Now, before the war reached Abercorn, present day Mbala, and other regions of Africa, it started after the murder of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria in Hungary by a Serbian national.
This incident culminated into the declaration of war by Austria- Hungary on Serbia on July 28, 1914 and this was immediately followed by the system of alliances and secret diplomacy pacts.
Europe got divided into two hostile camps; Triple Alliance [Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy] and Triple Entente [Britain, France and Russia].
The war eventually spread to colonies in Africa and Mbala became a centre of activity because it was one of the main slave trade routes where the British and German armies were battling for territorial supremacy.
The war created an increased demand for labour to construct roads, produce food, carry war materials, dig trenches and provide medical services among other labour intensive tasks, and Africans were befitting for the jobs.
Nonetheless, the war impacted negatively on the Africans as it disrupted families and communities through military recruitment and other labour demands.
WAR IN NORTHERN RHODESIA, NOW ZAMBIA
According to the National Museums Board of Zambia director general Flexon Mizinga, 1915 is the year that Zambia, then known as Northern Rhodesia, joined the fight in the First World War.
Being under the British protectorate from 1911, the year the present day Zambia was named Northern Rhodesia and colonised, recruitment of Africans to help out in the war was initially on voluntary basis for fighting or as carriers of military ware and goods.
Mr Mizinga said the First World War in Africa was all about colonial territories as the warring European forces were trying to defend their territories from their enemies as well as trying to increase them by occupying their enemies’ territories.
“The British were defending Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland as British territories from the Germans in German East Africa, now Tanzania and Burundi and German West Africa, now Namibia,” he said in an interview.
The geographical location of Northern Rhodesia between two German territories (Germany East Africa and German West Africa) had put it in the middle of the two European fighting forces.
Stressing the involvement of the Zambian people in the First World War, Mr Mizinga said all monumental items used during the war are being collected from the museums countrywide.
The collections will be taken back to Mbala for the 100 anniversary exhibition festivities climaxing on November 25, the day a ceasefire telegram from Europe reached the warring British and German armies to stop fighting in 1918.
“Some of the articles that have recently been acquired from Livingstone Museum include a sword of honour, a bayonet, boots for senior British officers, a powder flask, some guns, a Northern Rhodesia Police (NRP) helmet, a Northern Rhodesia Police emblem,” he outlined.
However, Mr Mizinga said all the gathered items required advanced verification from the military to ascertain their association with the war since some of them were collected and donated by lay people that might not have the precise information.
The documented history indicates that in 1915, King Lewanika dispatched his own son Mwanawina III to lead 2,000 men as carriers in the war to support the British army against the German army on the Northern Border, in Mbala.
The German troops of General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck had a garrison of 2, 600 German nationals and 2, 472 African soldiers in 14 Askari field companies in the initial stages of the war.
Northern Rhodesia having been created in 1911, just three years before the war broke out in Europe, was being administered by the British South African Company on behalf of the British government.
Lusaka National Museum historian, Chilala Mutumba said being a private company, the British South African Company had no army but only had the NRP, to maintain law and order.
Ms Mutumba said the NRP was headquartered in Livingstone which was the capital of Northern Rhodesia then, and that at the beginning of the war, the police comprised of a few Europeans and more than 600 Africans.
The Africans wore dark blue jerseys, khaki shorts, and a black Fez hat, with no shoes, while the Europeans wore a long sleeved khaki shirt and khaki short with black boots, Ms Mutumba said.
“When the war broke out, the Northern Rhodesian Police needed more men and therefore started to recruit more local people in the police unit,” she said.
“Some people volunteered to join the police to fight the war, especially the warring [ethnic] groups such as the Ngoni, the Lozi and those that were involved in the slave trade raiding such as the Bemba, the Yao, the Bisa and the Chikunda.”
At the same time, other Africans were forced into the war, especially those that were recruited as porters for food supplies for the soldiers on the supply route.
Ms Mutumba said porters formed one of the largest manpower units and thousands of local people were conscripted to work on the supply line that stretched from the railway line at Ndola or Kapiri Mposhi to Kasama moving supplies in a relay format.
These porters, according to Ms Mutumba, had a very dangerous task as they could be caught up in the crossfire and when there was a shortage of military men, could be given orders to join the fight.
“In this manner, many of them lost their lives in the war. However, being civilians, they did not have military identification numbers and thus, could not be named or recorded when they died,” she said.
CENOTAPH MEMORIAL IN MBALA
The Cenotaph (war memorial or monument) in Mbala is a special one as it is dedicated to commemorate the unknown and unnamed Northern Rhodesian porters who gave so much for a war that was not their own.
The National Museums Board of Zambia says the planned exhibition to commemorate the war would give special focus to those Northern Rhodesian gallant men and even women for their role in the First World War.
FRANCIS LUNGU, Lusaka