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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

Zambian women in World War I

WHEN many people think of participants in the First World War, they automatically picture white men with guns. When they contextualise it to Zambia, then they conjure up images of black men in school uniforms standing behind their white bwanas.
Even records in the archives create the impression that there were only male participants in the war. Something is wrong with this impression because one component is glaringly missing — the countless and faceless Zambian women who have remained hidden. In this renewed fever for all things to do with the World War, it is surprising that we still ignore the women who also took part in the war.
Women perhaps made the greatest contribution to the war effort as they provided food for all the participants fighting on frontiers between Mbala and Tanzania. They pounded cassava, smoked fish and game meat, brewed beer and other nutritious opaque drinks. Growing maize and cassava became the preoccupation of women.
Of the 120,000 taxable men in Zambia in 1915, 80,000 were scheduled to be used in the war. This means that there was a severe shortage of agricultural labour in the villages. But since Britain’s demand for food was insatiable, women had to step up and fill the gap left by the men. Women thus kept the home intact while the men were away. When all the food was requisitioned for the war, it was the women and children left in the villages who died from starvation.
Other women who headed villages organised labour in form of carriers, servants and soldiers for the war. For example, Chieftainess Mwimbi of Lunga district helped to organise transport. Historian Jan-Bart Gewald has shown that many women were employed as carriers in the carrier corps or tenga tenga. These women carried heavy loads to distant areas in Tanzania, Kenya and Malawi with death looming at every corner. Youthful women who were supposed to be building homes were forced into carrier service.
Records show that between 50,000 and 100,000 Zambian men and women were used as porters. Without this porterage labour, the war in Africa would not have taken four years. Thus, labour took on a new meaning for women as for the first time, their labour was most sought after in different capacities. This labour was not voluntary. Chiefs employed violence or the threat of violence to ensure adherence. Through such draconian measures, women were dragooned into wage labour. Those who resisted recruitment had their houses burnt. Captured women were strung along a rope and then presented as volunteers, a practise reminiscent of the slave trade.
Notable among these women who worked as carriers are the Ngoni, Bemba, Lozi, Luvale, Unga, Twa and many others from the North-eastern, Kafue and Western provinces. Because tax collection usually accompanied labour conscription, men ran away into the bush when colonial officers arrived. So, the recruiters pounced on the women they found. This specifically happened at Lusengo village in Mumbwa.
To transport goods, different women between Livingstone and Kabwe carried goods which were loaded on trains and unloaded at Sakania-which is 10 kilometers from Ndola. More carriers awaited the goods at Sakania and carried them through the pedicle to Kabunda or Kapalala on the Luapula River. At Kabunda, they were received by Sergeant Clarke who earned the nickname of ‘sergeant Kabunda’ or ‘Kapalala Clarke’. From Kapalala, goods were then loaded onto canoes, paddled through Lunga district and came out from Lukulu River, a tributary of the Chambeshi. Another group of carriers then carried these loads for the last 48 kilometres to Kasama and beyond.
There were also other women who worked as servants and nurses, tending to sick and injured members of the party. Interestingly, women were used as spies for the British force. They would be sent to seduce the enemy and gather intelligence. Captured women were also converted into spies and then released on the enemy. It is funny to imagine my great mother taking part in some secret espionage mission, but it is also awe inspiring. This spy work might have given women in the north the courage to protest the number of black deaths in the war and forced conscription. This protest found expression in the Watchtower Movement of 1919 whose members mostly consisted of women and children. The Watchtower Movement is seen by some historians as Zambia’s “last ditch attempt by people to retain their independence”.
The First World War had enduring consequences not only for men, but women too. Though the exact number of deaths resulting from the war has not been calculated, Gewald assures us that on the British side, 400 carriers died every month from wounds, malnutrition, exhaustion, accidents, execution for desertion, and ulcerated feet and legs. This number included women. The Germans often attacked the carriers as a subversive measure so it was actually the carriers, not the combatants who bore the brunt of the violence of the First World War. Not only did women die in the war but they continued to die after the war from the Spanish influenza brought from the war front.
Civilians, especially women and children, also suffered during the war. In Isoka, Mbala and Kasama, scared women and children were forced to flee their homes as the Germans advanced, burning through the towns. The nuns at Kayambi mission were also forced to flee, but not before one of them wrote an emotional letter for the enemy leader begging him for mercy. Women of Kasama followed the orders given by the African Lakes Corporation to destroy all the depots, depriving the approaching Germans of supplies. When the Germans arrived, they found Kasama burning.
I cannot even begin to talk about the immeasurable losses the women faced. The war had demanded the fittest Zambian men and some of these men never returned home. Those men were husbands, fathers and brothers. This is how Nthombiyenkosi Nyangulu (Yangose) (grandmother to distinguished historian Professor Ackson Kanduza) lost her husband. Nthombi was widowed at a young age and left with a five-year old child because of the war. That generation of young women, together with their husbands and fathers, lost their innocence and their futures.
You can see that women contributed immensely to the war effort, yet history has treated them with the utmost disregard. Now when you think of the World War, you should paste in the faces of the great grandmothers for they too, deserve to be mentioned.