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Untold story of African ‘Tenga Tenga’ in WWI

FIRST World War carrier corps recruited by the British army would cover a distance of 15 kilometres every day with loads weighing an average of 60 kilogrammes. PICTURE: LUSAKA NATIONAL MUSEUM ARCHIVES

FRANCIS LUNGU, Lusaka
THE First World War, whose centenary commemoration will be held this month-end in Mbala, had attracted numerous labour-intensive works making thousands of Africans getting recruited as carrier corps.
During the war that raged from 1914 to 1918 in Europe and some African colonies, an organisation known as Carrier Corps was created in East Africa’s Kenya to provide military labour to support the British campaign against the German armies fighting for territorial supremacy.
By 1917, the British had conscripted about 80,000 Africans as carriers, of whom 14,000 of the Northern Rhodesian contingent are commemorated on the War Memorial at the entrance of Abercorn, now called Mbala in northern Zambia.
The war carrier corps were locally known as the Tenga Tenga, meaning someone who carries an assortment of heavy loads from one place to the other.
The Tenga Tenga were not soldiers but civilians, although just as much exposed to the war front.
They were recruited from across the territories, with a large contingent from what was then Barotseland in North Western Rhodesia.
The Barotse King Litunga offered 2,000 of his subjects as war carriers and released his son Mwanawina to serve as commander of Barotse Carriers in East Africa from 1916 until the declaration of the ceasefire signifying the end of the war on November 25, 1918.
Mwanawina was later honoured with Allied Victory and British War medals for his role in the war.
Carriers formed one of the largest unit parts of manpower in the war as the labour intensity of the war made the British armies to even conscript women as careers.
The conscription of the carriers was so vast that it depopulated many parts of the country.
For example, Abercorn (Mbala), a sub-district which had an estimated 8,500 taxable males, had about 5,000 males registered as carriers with the soldiers across the border in German East Africa and about 800 more on roads by August 1916.
Kasama, a sub-district and a major food and carrier depot, had about 5,000 taxable males, and the British armies had recruited close to 5,000 war carriers.
“Official figures estimated that the average carrier or porter travelled over 15km per day and seven days a week. The net load was 60kg to which was added the carrier’s cooking pots and blankets,” Lusaka National Museum director Victoria Chitungu said.
The British army required up to six carriers per soldier and the carriers were commandeered to carry food, equipment and ammunition.
The major routes started from the interior of the country as far as Lealui in Western Province, Namwala in Southern Province and Kasempa in North-Western, all connecting to Broken Hill, now Kabwe.
From Kabwe they would go by train up to Ndola, then walk to Kasama until they reached Abercorn, the fierce battle front where the British armies were fighting the German military forces in East Africa, commanded by General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.
The route included what was known as the central route, from Broken Hill (Kabwe) to Serenje, Mpika, Kasama and then to Abercorn.
Other routes used by the Tenga Tenga’s were Fort Jameson, now Chipata, via Lundazi to Fife, present-day Nakonde, and the Ndola-Pedicle-Luapula, a route that cut through the Bangweulu swamps to Kasama.
In the early stages of the war, according to Ms Chitungu, many people had volunteered to provide war services as carrier corps mainly because of a relatively high wage scale.
The attractive wage provided a clear incentive to enlistment which enabled many taxable males to have a means of meeting colonial tax obligations such as poll tax, as well as a means of purchasing ‘luxury’ goods with the surplus cash.
Just like with the military hierarchy, the carrier corps also had a hierarchy – at the top was the gun carrier who enjoyed greater status than all the other carriers.
Following gun carriers were the food carriers and at the lowest of the rank were the officer’s own personal servants or batmen, also known colloquially as “boys”, and then the cook.
The “boy” and cook were directly employed by the soldiers themselves. Soldiers often shared the cost of employing a “boy” and cook.
According to Ms Chitungu, the turning point in general attitudes to war labour as a carrier came after 1916 when the war intensified and the demand on war carriers increased.
“This was exacerbated by a rapid deterioration of the condition of service of the carriers. To begin with, the carriers were not provided with adequate protection measures on their long routes and therefore were easy targets for both the enemy army and the wild animals,” she said.
It is documented that in some instances, certain essentials such as blankets were not provided for. Worse still, carriers were given very little to eat even if some carried food to the war front.
“They were not allowed to help themselves from the loads of food that they carried even when their own rations finished along the way. The Lundazi-Fife route was the worst because of the famine that prevailed on this route and the rough terrain,” Ms Chitungu said.
The route that was good was the Ndola-Luapula one because starving carriers frequently stopped to raid and loot villagers’ maize fields along the way.
As the war conditions further worsened, numbers of carrier corps dwindled due to deaths and just abandonment of the service. Those who remained were over–burdened, carrying beyond the standard of 60kg.
“Their commanders who were mostly European soldiers were allowed to whip any unsatisfactory performer such as slow marchers with a sjambok (rawhide whip). The conditions of service of the carriers were also grossly breached. Most carriers who were enlisted for a short time were often forcibly absorbed into other columns and forced to work for longer periods than what their contracts stipulated,” the Lusaka National Museum director said.
With this kind of scenario, recruitment of carriers started becoming difficult. From 1916 onwards, an irrevocable tide of resistance increasingly characterised Africans’ attitudes to military requisitions as war carriers.
Recruitment was now done by force because thousands of young men fled from their villages to join major native armed rebellions against colonial rule.
For instance, wartime suffering had exacerbated colonial exploitation to such a degree that John Chilembwe, a Malawian Baptist minister, led a revolt against British carrier recruitment.
This created political instability in Nyasaland (Malawi), and for this reason, the British were forced to rely heavily on Northern Rhodesian carriers.
Death rates were also high even amongst war carriers employed along internal lines of communication.
For instance, large numbers of Lozi second-line carriers died from pneumonia and dysentery on the Lealui-Broken Hill route.
For all this suffering, the families of dead carriers were only entitled to a paltry death gratuity of two British pounds, currently equivalent to about K30.
These sacrifices by the African people will be commemorated from November 20 to 25 in Mbala when Zambia hosts the centenary celebrations to mark the end of the First World War.

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