War on the continent

Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, and Edward Paice’s excellent book Tip and Run is argument enough for making history an obligatory school subject. It’s a hefty tome, and if you have no interest in the Great War in East Africa, then it makes a good doorstop.

But I’d like to think that most people on this continent have at least a passing interest in the forces and events that have contributed, for better or for worse, to bestowing upon it many of its borders, languages, religions and peoples.

Tip and Run is the film The African Queen, but Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn pale in comparison with the book’s real-life characters Captain Max Loof and Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey Basil Spicer-Simson; it’s Mimi and Toutou Go Forth before Hollywood has time to make a film based on another of Giles Foden’s novels following the success of The Last King of Scotland; and it’s the The Dangerous Book for Boys all rolled into one.

I loved it. I haven’t found a history book as useful since taking a vacation to plough through Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which served as my travel guide to the Balkans. Paice, like West, is a stickler for detail, and that’s my only complaint; there is perhaps a little more detail than necessary on virtually every battle that took place in German East Africa (Tanzania) during the Great War. War history fanatics will probably say that much more could have been added.

Most interesting, Tip and Run provides insight into the mind of today’s South Africa, including, to some extent, background to the main character in the song about Boer War General Koos de la Rey that is making waves at the moment. The book chronicles how, in his lifetime at least, De la Rey managed to avoid one last controversial situation, resisting Jan Smuts’ decision to join the English on the battle front in East Africa. De la Rey was conveniently shot dead at a road block in Johannesburg before Louis Botha sent Smuts to Nairobi.

The Great War was yet another chapter in the scramble for Africa. Germany wanted to extend its empire across Central Africa. It thought doing so would be a simple matter of taking most of what is modern-day Congo and Angola from the Belgians and the Portuguese. For while the Germans certainly expected resistance from the English, they were surprised by the fight they got from the boys commanded by Brussels and Lisbon.

The Belgians, not wanting to lose what they had, while trying to make up for the extremely bad reputation they acquired during the period when King Leopold called the Congo his own, fought valiantly and gained territory, adding Rwanda and Burundi to their colonial empire.

The Portuguese, however, have nothing to be proud of in the Great War. Tip and Run provides extensive detail of a long string of Portuguese mistakes, miscalculations and sheer ineptitude in their handling of incursions into Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) by German troops. Chances are, the British could have ended the war considerably earlier had the Portuguese formed a serious line of defence at the Rovuma River.

Europe’s War in Africa was also Africa’s war. It prompted early rumblings of moves towards independence, with Malawian John Chilembwe, who was an active opponent of Nyasaland’s involvement in the war, earning the title of Malawi’s first martyr in the cause of African freedom.

Paice devotes much space to the relationship between South Africans and their allies. He also highlights the role South Africans played in determining to what extent Africans were or, more importantly, were not allowed to contribute to the war effort. Unlike the Nigerians and East Africans, who were responsible for many of the victories attributed to the British side, Jan Smuts made it clear that no black South Africans would be allowed to bear arms; they could contribute as carriers, but mustn’t get ideas in their heads that victory was due to their contribution.

Pretoria feared, among other things, that a British victory could see British East Africa (now Kenya) turned over to India, as compensation for the effort and losses experienced by Indian troops in the Africa campaign. Such a move would obviously indicate to Africans that everybody deserved similar compensation for similar effort.

Learn who you are by reading about where you’ve been. You’ll be pleased you did.

Fiction review

The Heavens May Fall

by Unity Dow

(Double Storey)

Percy Zvomuya

The arid landscape of Botswana High Court Judge Unity Dow’s fourth novel is peopled as much by wronged and oppressed women as it is with reckless men who cannot keep their flies closed.

That may seem a rather harsh reading because not all men in the book are evil. The female narrator’s father, for one, raised her after the early death of his wife. But literally a few good men aside, the novel is an indictment of a patriarchal justice system that keeps women in conditions that a 19th-century Eastern European serf would find fleetingly and oddly familiar.

The Heavens May Fall starts slowly, only picking up halfway through. It is about Naledi Chaba, an ambitious lawyer working for Bana Banhle Agency, a children and women’s advocacy non-governmental organisation.

The first half explores the murky politics of the NGO world with its peculiar intrigue and rivalries. Equally central is Botswana’s patriarchy, which refuses to countenance lesbianism: “What can women do on their own?” one parliamentarian sniggers.

The sluggish start to the plot is jolted when Naledi takes on the case of a 15-year-old girl who has been raped by a sub-tenant at her grandparents’ home. The ambitious Naledi takes the judicial system on, and it is then that the secret past of one of the high court judges suddenly becomes central to the plot.

Before this I sometimes felt that the novel read like whole chunks of court records excised and dropped into its pages, which made it somewhat stodgy but at the same time lent a certain authenticity.

Furthermore, as I read, it felt at times more like a piece of advocacy than a work of art — but, then again, the book is narrated by a lawyer for an advocacy agency.

In the end, all this does not make the book any less gripping. It manages to break down into accessible language the legal complexities that continue to make the law as alien as it is oppressive. The book also shows how in Africa and elsewhere the law has been used as a tool to perpetuate the hegemony of the strong over the weak, men over women and, in Botswana, the majority Tswana over the San.

The Heavens May Fall is a readable book that manages to be informative without being pedantic, anti-chauvinist without setting a lynch mob against men, and populist without being banal.

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