By Basia Lewandowska Cummings
We British are very good at honoring the dead.
Last Friday Prime Minister David Cameron, his deputy Nick Clegg et al attended the annual Remembrance Day ceremony; our political elite competed to appear most sombre, respectful. Central London was peppered with war memorials–heavy sculptures in dark metals, the lists of names seemed endless. However, what Britain isn’t good at remembering – never mind honouring – are the thousands who fought alongside the British; the Nigerians, Kenyans or Sierra Leoneans who enlisted in the colonies, fighting on the multiple fronts of the war, for a country whose interests were far from their own. In the newsreels that show hundreds of African’s marching toward possible death, the voiceover remarks: ‘strong, tough, the most magnificently built race in the world! Negro soldiers march bare foot to their encampment …Africans fight for their cause, and ours’. But it wasn’t their cause and therein lie the fascinating questions that Barnaby Phillips’ documentary “Burma Boy” addresses.
Through the remarkable figure of Isaac Fadoyebo, a Nigerian who fought for the British against the Japanese in Burma, the story of the 100,000 Africans enlisted in the Second World War is told.
Isaac, still alive in Lagos today, sustained appalling injuries during a confrontation in the Burmese jungle. Left for dead, he managed to survive thanks to the generosity of a family in a nearby village who nursed him and his friend David Kagbo back to life. For nine months the two men hid with Shuyiman and his family. Sixty-seven years later, by some miraculous stroke of luck (and a good researcher) Phillips is standing in monsoon season in the Burmese jungle–rain thundering on a tin roof–face to face with the family who saved Isaac, showing them photographs of the man who has become part of their family history, and part of village mythology.
We went to Burma not knowing we would find them, I was sceptical. Isaac’s directions were not the best, they were along the lines of ‘if you are coming down the river from India, its on the right hand side’… which means that’s the west bank of a river that is 300 miles long’. And yet, they found the family thanks to another soldier’s account of the skirmish, where many men were killed. ‘We just didn’t know if the village was still there … it was incredibly emotional for me that we found them…even once we located them I had no idea what they thought about it, and it was amazing to see that they felt about it the same way that I did. This is something they’ve known about for sixty years, it must have been miraculous to them that this stranger from England turned up, talking about it’.
For Barnaby, this encounter was powerful for two historical reasons:
We think of Africa as a disaster, a continent that has failed in places. And in this particular instance, the people that saved Isaac’s life are in the same village, doing exactly what their parents did, and he has gone on to a (relatively) much more prosperous and comfortable life. He has flown around the world, he has children who are doctors and lawyers, he owned a car, and so for that reason I find it very interesting. The Burmese conflict also complicates the ethical compass of the Second World War. It was not only the free versus the fascists, the good against evil. In Burma it was more clearly a case of two empires fighting for the spoils of war, in somebody else’s country. So in a sense both the Burmese local people and the African soldiers were victims of that imperial struggle between Britain and Japan’.
Barnaby’s film complicates the narrative of the war; it isn’t just a European tragedy, and Britain was not only fighting for freedom, but for gains elsewhere. And this was to be the empires own undoing, for “Burma Boy” shows that colonized countries were radically changed by the journeys the war necessitated. The contagious, subversive ideas of autonomy could not be contained once African soldiers had fought for somebody else’s right to freedom. While Britain desperately tried to prop-up its empire against the Japanese, the Nigerian’s came back with a virus
… Once the genie was out, once they had a better understanding of their place in the world, once they had seen the fallibility of Britain, they could relate to white people as human beings.
Indirect rule in Northern Nigerian kept the white district commissioners far away from local people, then ‘suddenly they would be on a boat with some swearing cockney sailor or navvy from Liverpool, and the scales would drop from their eyes about what Britain was, so it was an empowering experience.’
Does Isaac perhaps personify the shifts in attitudes between peoples?
‘Yes… many of the East African soldiers ended up fighting for the Mau Mau against – in some cases- the same officers who they had been with in Burma. One of these describes how Burma was a seminal moment for him, as it taught him to fight in the jungle, it taught him new ideas, he met African-American troops who questioned why he was fighting for the British, so for all sorts of people it transformed their perspective’.
Barnaby’s documentary is a clear, historical approach to a part of Britain’s legacy that has been fogged, clouded by the will to remember those closer to home. Similar to Idrissa Mora Kpai’s film “Indochina, Traces of A Mother” (2010), that follows the story of the 60,000 African soldiers enlisted by the French to fight the Viet Minh, Barnaby’s documentary departs from the normal, perhaps neater narrative. It is all the more poignant, that at this years Remembrance Day ceremony in Lagos, Isaac was guest of honour, finally recognized for courage and support in Britain’s battles.
You can watch Barnaby Phillips’ documentary in full-length here (on Al Jazeera’s site) or on Youtube: