Kathleen Bomani (@KateBomz) is a cultural activist and consultant from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, who along with French geographer Jacques Enaudeau (@jacksometer), has embarked on a mission to shine a bright light on an overlooked theater of World War I: Africa. In an interview with Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng, Kathleen Bomani discusses their World War I in Africa Project (@WWIAfrica). 

How did you decide to start the World War I in Africa Project? 

I co-founded the World War I in Africa project with French geographer, Jacques Enaudeau.  Jacques was moved to open this forgotten chapter in an untold history; the witnessing of the erasure of Africa’s involvement in Europe’s commemoration language. Naturally as a person who is passionate about creating spaces for complex and balanced African stories, I jumped right into it.

How did you first learn about African involvement in WWI?

Initially, I had no idea about the subject. All I knew was when Germany lost the war, Tanzania, (my home country) then German East Africa, a German colony, was placed under the trusteeship of the British. We basically became a British colony. I eventually learned through research that most of the World War I fighting in Africa took place in Tanzania over a period of four years. This is a subject I was not taught in school in Tanzania, where I actually specialized in History (primary, secondary, and post-secondary). It’s been quite an exciting learning curve for both of us, none of us are World War I experts, nor historians, hence the reason this is considered a citizens project.

How do you find and curate the images and stories that appear on the project’s website?

We’ve spent and continually spend a sizable amount of our time going through European archives, digging for images, postcards, maps, and anything World War I related. This also includes tons of hours reading books and research papers. Through all this research, we write articles on different subjects  pertaining to the war and use archival photographs for illustrative purposes. 

Why do you think the world remains largely unaware of Africa’s contributions to WWI?

The world is only concerned with a singular Eurocentric view of world events. To open Africa’s contribution exposes the ills of colonialism: forceful recruitment of soldiers and laborers to work in Europe and fight in Africa. Over two million Africans were directly involved with World War I, the war was fought in four different theatres: East Africa Campaign, South West African Campaign, Cameroonian, and Togoland campaigns.

I’d like to quote Prof. Dusan Bjelic who eloquently explains why this part of history is not interrogated:

“A man was looking for something he had lost under the street lights; another man, the joke goes, approached and asked him what he was looking for. “I am looking for my lost keys.” “Did you lose them here?” “No,” the first man responded, “I lost them on the dark side of the street.” “But, why are you looking here?” “Because this is where the light is.” This joke illustrates well the paradox of the national paradigm in European historiography of the Great War. The assumption that the European sovereign nation is the sole agent of modern history naturally motivates European historiography to frame the Great War within a national paradigm and foreclose its colonial dimension. A related trope to the above joke pertains to race and its relation to the national histories of Europe; the black face of a slave, according to Frantz Fanon, can be seen during the night only under the porch light of the master, but when the slave goes into the dark his face becomes invisible. The deployment of colonial soldiers in the Great War as “warrior races” or, “martial races” to fight on behalf of their masters, and the absence of the Black history of slavery from the history of the Great War is in fact the history written from the master’s porch. While the invisibility of the black face foreclosed Black history from the national paradigm of the Great War, it was nonetheless useful as a racial weapon in the war.”

How were African soldiers treated during the war?

Horrible on both African and European fronts. Firstly, imagine the recruitment of soldiers from the Sub-Saharan climate to the cold winters in France. Many died from cold related disease as opposed to in combat. In Europe, the French had the Senegalese tiralleurs as human shields in the front lines, the British who seldom had Africans engage in combat had Africans as labor corps. An overlooked history is that of British complicity with South Africa in segregating black South African laborers from all others. They housed them in heavily policed prison-style camps with extremely degrading conditions, described by one laborer as worse than captured German prisoners of war.  

In the case of the East African campaign, which ravaged for four full years, every soldier had four porters, this included women and children, who hauled food supplies, arms and even artillery, cooked, scrubbed, and tended to their needs. The terrain, an area of 750,000 square miles, was harsh and most movement was on foot. Many died of exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease. 

In terms of compensation, many workers and soldiers were not commensurately compensated. For instance, black South African labor workers upon their return to South Africa were rewarded with a bicycle whilst their white counterparts received an acre of land. 

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An ongoing trend is focus on soldiers and their role, we at #WWIAfrica are working on breaking this trend by exploring narratives of the over one million workers that served in Europe and in Africa, as history tends to overlook their involvement with focus on soldiers only.

Another worthy subject is the devastation caused by the war on geography, reverberations of which can still be felt today, 100 years later.

How did WWI affect Africans’ view of themselves and how do you think that influenced the struggle for independence down the road? 

Africans rebelled against colonial rule, the same way they rebelled against conscription to fight in World War I – two narratives we hear little about. World War I is a significant time in Africa’s sociopolitical history. There is an awakening that stems from there into the second world war and the struggle for independence. In the case of Tanzania, one of the founders of the political party that led us to independence was a soldier for the Germans during World War I. 

How can we most appropriately honor the Africans who lost their lives during WWI?

I am not too sure how we should honor our fallen brothers and sisters, but one thing I feel is important and a reason we started the World War I in Africa project is to acknowledge their existence, ensure their stories are told, and make certain that this part of history is not tucked away in a dark corner but revisited, unpacked, and detangled. I hope it informs us.