The world is celebrating the centenary of World War I, and once again Africa is not invited to the party.
The story of Africans’ involvement in the Great War is unheard of outside of academia, and thus remains to be told: the tens of thousands of African lives lost at home and abroad, defending the interests of foreign powers and the lives of complete strangers; the forced recruitment of African soldiers to fight Europe’s war, and of African workers to replace the labour force gone to the front; the battles between colonies pitting Africans against each other on their own soil; the reshaping of Africa’s borders and inner workings after the war under new rulers.
It was supposed to be the “war to end war” and yet, by the proxy of colonial empires, it created war where no one cared for it, dragging an estimated two million Africans into the conflict, originating from Algeria to South Africa. Such bitter irony is lost on today’s France, Britain, Germany, Belgium and Portugal, all colonial powers who sat at the Berlin conference in 1885 to finalise the scramble for Africa.
Not only are the commemorations of the First World War becoming resolutely local, but the colour of memory remains essentially white. Even the small steps taken to remember the role of former colonies, like this year’s invitation to African troops to take part in the Bastille Day celebrations, amount to mere pats on the back for spilling their blood obediently.
The reality of World War I in Africa is messier. As early as September 1914, Britain faced a rebellion from some 12,000 of its own South African troops, Afrikaners for whom the Second Boer War remained an open wound, who went on to proclaim a free South African republic, some of them even joining forces with the Germans. And though France praised itself for being able to count on its “Black Force“, it faced significant resistance throughout the recruitment campaigns, which culminated in the Volta-Bani revolt where things escalated into an all-out anti-colonial war in 1915-16.
Yet when looking into Africa’s involvement in World War I, the draft of African soldiers constitute the smaller end of the telescope. Throughout the East Africa campaign, the longest and deadliest part of the war on the continent by far, both Britain and Germany relied heavily on porters, to the tune of four per one soldier. This translated into one million Africans under British command carrying, cooking, cleaning, and dying of exhaustion, malnutrition and disease, in a guerrilla war of short raids and long treks from present-day Kenya to Zambia over the course of four years.
Europe’s 20th century started in 1914, and the yoke of colonialism steered Africa along for the ride. Migration trends were set, economies transformed, borders redefined. The task we’ve given ourselves is to dig this heritage out: not to commemorate its passing, but to restore its meaning. We claim no expertise as we aim to educate ourselves as much as we hope to teach others. In light of current zeitgeists — a morbid obsession with the past in Europe and an unfeigned disdain for anything but the future in Africa — we believe the Centenary to be a fertile common ground for investigating the present. The next four years represent a window of opportunity to connect the dots and discuss the knots, to challenge the boilerplate narrative and change the usual narrators. Let’s unpack what the world thinks it knows, and put what it should not ignore right under its nose.
* Photo Credit: Sar Amadou, Wolof class of 1900, Seventh regiment of Senegalese Tirailleurs, June 1917 (by Paul Castelnou)