November memories of sad and dubious histories

Remembrance Sunday

Abdikadir Nur Madhar and Fredrick Mwongela are assisted to lay a wreath at the Commonwealth War Cemetery on Ngong Road in Nairobi to mark Remembrance Sunday on November 12. 

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

In November we remember. Certainly as the year wears on and glides towards its end, we look back and ponder the significant events in it for ourselves, our communities and humanity as whole.

But looking back over ten or eleven months inevitably compels us to look even further into history, comparing events from the long march of human history with those of our own times.

In my looking back into history from the perspective of 2023, two historical events, both marked by celebrations, come to my mind. The first is Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday, which were observed over the last weekend, and the second is the American Thanksgiving holiday, to be observed next Thursday.

To start with Thanksgiving, I will say rather little about it. Most of us know that Americans in the US observe this festival on the last Thursday of November. They celebrate, we are told, the successful settlement of the first European immigrants, the “Pilgrim Fathers”, in America in the early 1600s.

Obviously, it is a virtue to be grateful for the good things that happen to us, and it is decent behaviour to say “thank you” to those who do us a good turn. But it is saddening to see how rare the habit of thanking one another is becoming in our society.

We blame this growing rudeness on what we call a sense of entitlement, the rude and loutish generation feeling that they have a “right” to any favour or service that they get. But let us return to the American Thanksgiving.

My attention was attracted to the increasingly rising voices questioning the appropriateness of lavishly and ostentatiously celebrating European immigration to the Americas. What impact, for example, did it have on the Native American populations and their cultures and civilisations?

We are told that some “Indian” (Native American) neighbours attended the settlers’ first Thanksgiving celebrations. But we know from history that those expectations of peaceful coexistence quickly collapsed under the weight of mass European immigration.

The Native Americans became a dispossessed and endangered people, all over the continent. Do their surviving descendants have cause to celebrate Thanksgiving?

Closer to us, we remember that the European immigration into and settlement in America led to the rise of the 300-plus-year African slave trade.

Those of our captured predecessors who survived the beastly transatlantic crossings and barbaric cruelties of their captors somehow stubbornly clung on to life, eventually creating our beloved African Diaspora. But what kind of Thanksgiving should they celebrate? We do not want to be dour and sour killjoys, throwing cold water on a national occasion.

But we should ask all intelligent and thinking Americans that they temper their celebrations with some realistic and constructive reflections on the lessons of their history.

Indeed, that reflective note appeared to characterize many of the activities around the Remembrance Sunday functions in many countries of the Commonwealth. Yet the double-edged dubiousness of the events could not be missed even there.

Remembrance Sunday is held on the Sunday nearest to 11th November each year. It marks 11th November, Remembrance Day, the date in 1918 when the Armistice ending the First World War was signed.

That savage four-year (1914-18) conflict was billed as “the war to end all wars”. But it did not do anything of the sort. Less than a quarter century down the road (1939-45), another even more deadly adventure, known as the Second World War (WWII), the one in which they used nuclear weapons, enveloped our planet.

Remembrance Sunday, which fell on November 12th this year, was set up in memory of the two wars and in honour of those who perished in them. I was born during the final years of that Second World War.

One of the documents I remember first noticing as I learnt to read was a message from King George the Sixth of Great Britain to my father, a policeman in Southern Uganda. The King thanked my father for helping him win the war.

Here in East Africa, reminders of the two terrible conflicts abounded across our cities, towns and villages, in such features as war cemeteries, Askari monuments, cenotaphs, and quarters named after units of the fighting forces, such as Kariokoo/Kariokor (Carrier Corps).

In Uganda, soldiers got the generic name “Baseveni” (the “sevens”), signifying their enlistment in the “Seventh Battalion of the King’s African Rifles (KAR) of the British colonial army. Some of the military designations transformed into personal names, like Meja (major), Keya (localisation of KAR) and Museveni (fighter of the 7th battalion).

Remembrance and war memorial ceremonies thus became a prominent feature of African pre-independence societies. Our people, as you may know, were involved in large numbers in the two world wars. Most of them were conscripted (forced) into the armies to fight for their colonial masters, for causes of which they had no idea.

A prominent example of such military campaigns is the “East African Front” of the First World War, where the British wanted to dislodge the Germans from Tanganyika. The Second World War saw our people sent to lands as distant as Burma (Myanmar) to ensure Western victory over the “enemies” of the Empire out there. Our people who fought and died in these and other conflicts certainly deserve honourable remembrance. But most importantly, such memorials should make us reflect on the horrors and the depravities of war.

Above all, humanity should be educated to understand and accept the absurdity and unnecessariness of armed conflict. I recently came across a definition of war as a mad situation where a pair of old men with their differences send out thousands of their young men, with no differences among them, to kill one another to the last man. Today, the same could be said of women too. Should “Homo Sapiens” (rational human) ultimately go down in history as “homo belligerens” (war waging human)?

- Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]