The First World War in the Colonies Africa Has a Past Too

Ascari faithfulness in German East Africa. (German Schutztruppen with native teams in the defense against an attack). Picture postcard after watercolour, 1918, by Fritz Grotemeyer
Ascari faithfulness in German East Africa. (German Schutztruppen with native teams in the defense against an attack). Picture postcard after watercolour, 1918, by Fritz Grotemeyer | Photo (detail): akg-images © picture alliance

For Europe, 1914 was the start of an era described by Eric Hobsbawm as the “short 20th century”, the “Age of Extremes”. Yet few people are aware that the First World War also caused untold damage in many different African countries. Over the past few years, Tanzanian artist Kathleen Bomani has highlighted the East African perspective on that war in her “World War I in Africa Project”. She talks to “Latitude” about why so little is known about the acts of war on the continent – in Germany as well as in Tanzania. And how denial perpetuates mechanisms of repression.

By Elisabeth Wellershaus

Up to now, the history of the First World War is still mainly told from a European perspective. Little is known about the far-reaching effects of this war, for instance in African countries. As an artist, how do you address the collective memory loss?

I myself only knew a little about the actual extent of the war until a few years ago. That was when the French geographer Jacques Enaudeau approached me and asked whether I wanted to do a project about WWI in Africa with him. It coincided with that time of year when France is preparing to mourn collectively for the fallen soldiers, and Jacques asked me: ‘Do you realise what effects the war had in Africa?’ I little to no idea.
So we began to trawl through the archives in Germany, the UK, France and the USA. We gathered together everything that seemed relevant, from propaganda posters to tape recordings. We put together a timeline of our findings and posted it on Twitter to reach as many young people as possible. Even the photos of African soldiers in a historical context were a break from the usual narratives. Reports usually cover civil wars or coups on the continent, but they are rarely about African military history.

And yet we wanted to convey the brutality and effects of precisely this war. A war that wasn’t even supposed to take place in the colonies. It was only through the actions of Paul von Lettow, who became commander of the “protection force” for German East Africa in 1914, that the bloodiest battles over colonial territory in the First World War happened a short time after he took up office. Ultimately they only represent one aspect of German tyranny. The first revolt against the colonial power had already taken place at the end of the 19th century. Since then, there has always been resistance in the various colonies, until finally in 1905 various ethnic groups in today’s Tanzania united against the Germans in the Maji Maji War. When the battles of the First World War shifted onto East African soil years later, it was nothing other than a continuation of previously experienced violence. It is clear from testimonies after the war that many people in the region simply viewed it as another European catastrophe on their own doorstep.

In your exhibition “WHAT HAPPENED HERE” you underlay video images of Lake Victoria and rock formations in Tanzanian Mwanza with 100 year-old labourers’ songs from the Sukuma people. How do they provide insight into the war?

I came upon these songs via an unusual route. Originally I had wanted to do a project about my grandfather, who belongs to the Sukuma people in Northern Tanzania. So I contacted a musicologist who was familiar with their culture. I was particularly interested in the Sukuma labour songs. My grandfather had initiated a union of the farmers in that region during the 40s and 50s – against the exploitative British colonial government. But then I found out a lot more during the course of my research – specifically that the Sukuma were already singing about the First World War 100 years ago in their songs. When I listened to them I was in Tanzania to look at old trenches from the wartime. And when I heard how one of the songs referred to my home city, Mwanza, I immediately went home. In this song, the Sukuma sing about the immovable rocks in the Northern Tanzanian landscape, huge boulders that they compare with the British and the Germans. In these lines you can hear unmistakeably how clear they are about their inferior position. But equally you can hear their resistance as well. In another song they sing that they would rather die under gunfire than be forced to labour in support of a colonial system that kills their fellow countrymen.
Africans are frequently described as passive in both historical and contemporary contexts. In Sukuma songs, by contrast, an absolutely self-empowering attitude comes across. “All because of cows,” goes one song, which ostensibly tells a story of cattle as the ultimate symbol of wealth. But in fact it suggests the motives behind this war: ownership and expansion. Among other things, the First World War was an opportunity to continue what had started with the “Scramble for Africa”. And the European exploitation would continue for a long time to come.

You once said that Europe’s interest in the past was downright excessive, while Africa was exclusively associated with the future. What does that mean with regard to the current migration from Africa to Europe, which you claim is directly linked with earlier migration movements?

It is indeed interesting that Europe is in denial about the large number of people back in the First World War who were brought over from Africa and colonies on other continents to fight a foreign war. Yet by contrast countless people are drowning on the shores of Europe today because they are now seeking protection in a place where the “migration trend” once began. The connection between colonial trauma, the imbalance of power between global north and south, and the current instability of structures in many African countries still seems far-fetched to a lot of people in this country. But I don’t think the West can get away with ignoring the history of these countries any longer. When we started our “World War I in Africa Project” in 2014, everyone in Europe was still talking about “emerging Africa", about the rosy future of the continent. They referred to a growing middle class and rising GDP, saying that Africa could now contemplate the future at last. But as soon as we started looking at the past again, they became uncomfortable. People who just a moment ago had called Africa an investment paradise were quick to distance themselves again when suddenly themes like restitution were brought up. If colonial entanglements are not dealt with though, our view of the future will always remain a clouded one.