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WWI veterans were heroes, Chongwe

DR Chongwe (right) poses for a picture with Lusaka National Museum director Victoria Chitungu

FRANCIS LUNGU, Lusaka
“I refused to spend a night in a chalet (at a lodge in Livingstone) named after (German army General) von Lettow Vorbeck. I said this man killed my grandfather during the First World War,” says Rodger Chongwe, whose grandfather, Chilemba Zulu, died fighting for the British army against Germany.
In reminiscing the anecdotes of the First World War (1914-1918) passed on to him by his ancestors, Dr Chongwe narrates that his grandfather, and his two brothers, Liwonde and Moses, were recruited as soldiers from Fort Jameson, present-day Chipata.
The First World War originally broke out in Europe after the murder of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by a Serbian national.
This climaxed into the declaration of war by Austria-Hungary on Serbia on July 28, 1914, affecting most parts of Europe, including Russia before it eventually spread to the colonies in Africa.
Before the war, Europe got into a system of alliances and secret diplomacy pacts which led to two hostile camps, Triple Alliance [Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy] and Triple Entente [Britain, France and Russia].
When the war finally got to Africa in 1915 on the Northern Border of Abercon, now Mbala, the German troops of General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck had a battalion of 2, 600 German nationals and 2, 472 African soldiers in the initial stages of the war.
The British armies had equally mobilised manpower from most parts of present-day Zambia and Dr Chongwe’s grandfather, his brothers and many other Africans were recruited to go and help the British fight the Germans.
According to Dr Chongwe, his three ‘grandfathers’ were among the preferred Ngoni militant natives of the time because they had credentials of having earlier fought in the 1890 war in which the Ngonis under their leader Nsingo defeated the British in Fort Jameson.
Five years later, according to Dr Chongwe, the British came back and this time around defeated the Ngonis and that his grandfather again fought in this particular war.
He says his grandfather and his brothers, together with their peers in Fort Jameson were referred to as Askari, a Swahili word for soldier, because they had a record of being warriors.
On the impact the First World War had on his family after his grandfather lost his life at the hands of the Germans under Gen von Lettow Vorbeck, Dr Chongwe says those who fought in the war were seen as heroes and were admired.
When they were being recruited, they joined the British army with pride and that most parents encouraged their sons to go and fight, according to Dr Chongwe.
He recounts that his great grandmother even nicknamed herself Mpikila Nkhondo, translated as ‘I cook for soldiers of the war.’
Dr Chongwe says his great grandmother and many other parents of the time who had gladly released their sons to join the First World War did not even know what was being fought for.
“All they knew was that there was a war that needed to be fought in Bikoloni, meaning Abercon [now Mbala]. They could not pronounce Abercon, they would just say Bikoloni. But fighting in the war was an achievement and dying in the war was a pride of the family,” he said in an interview at his farm in Chongwe.
Dr Chongwe, age 80, is a renowned lawyer and was conferred the status of State Counsel on May 17, 1985 by the first Republican President Dr Kenneth Kaunda. He became the second lawyer in private practice to have that status after the late Edward Shamwana.
Now a retired politician, Dr Chongwe says his mother, Leya, was only five years old when her father Chilemba left in 1915 for war in Abercon.
He recollects that growing up in Eastern Province, some war survivors held memories of Abercon so dearly that they would swear upon ‘Bikoloni’, to mean Abercon, whenever incensed about something.
“They would swear upon Bikoloni to emphasise that they were telling the truth. It was an important place for them,” he says.
Dr Chongwe says only his grandfather Chilemba died in the war while his brothers, Liwonde and Moses, survived but never returned to Fort Jameson after the war, they instead went to Shabani in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, where they enrolled in the police.
As Zambia is expected to host more than 1, 000 delegates from around the world this November to commemorate the centenary anniversary to mark the end of the First World War, Dr Chongwe wishes to visit the mass grave in Mbala, probably where his grandfather Chilemba could have been buried.
“I went to Mbala [a few years ago] to meet chief Tafuna of the Lungu people and told him that I lost my grandfather in the war. I want to see the mass grave in Mbala [during the centenary celebrations] where war warriors are resting,” he says.
Lusaka National Museum director Victoria Chitungu, who was present during the interview with Dr Chongwe, chipped in that actually the great-grandson of General von Lettow Vorbeck will be flying in from Germany for the centenary festivities in Mbala.
“I would love to meet him and tell him that we are not done yet. I will remind him that your great-grandfather killed my grandfather. I refused to spend a night in a chalet named after [General] von Lettow Vorbeck. I told them that this man killed my grandfather and the lodge owners moved me into a different chalet,” Dr Chongwe said with a smile.
He says he had grown up denied an opportunity of ever seeing his grandfather all because he had been killed along with many other Africans in the First World War.
With all the sacrifices made by Africans to help the British protect their African colonised territory against the Germans, Dr Chongwe feels the natives have not been appreciated enough by the colonial masters.
“The British little refer to the contribution of Askari. The people of this country deserve to be congratulated for what they did. But the British being our colonial masters, they do not know how to say ‘thank you – It is sad,” Dr Chongwe says.
Nonetheless, Dr Chongwe observes that the poorly documented history on Africa’s contributions in the First World War should be repackaged and taught in schools.
“We even need radio and television programmes to tell our story and what we did in that war,” he says.
Dr Chongwe represents many living Zambians whose ancestors fought in the war and their families were directly affected and afflicted by the war and have lived on telling the story of the war.
Zambia is on November 25, 2018 commemorating 100 years marking the end of the war when the last gunshots were fired in Mbala, weapons laid down and thrown into Lake Chila by the defeated Germans, signifying the end of the First World War.

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