Africa’s WWII fighters sing the blues

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Last week as Britain commemorated the victory over Japan in Burma brought back to the fore what has been described as the “systematic discrimination of colonial-era troops”.

A total of 90,000 Africans fought the Japanese on behalf of Britain in Burma in the war and there is a huge disgruntlement among the few remaining survivors about being sent by a colonial power to fight a war that was not theirs.

One such veteran is 95-year-old Timothy Marava, who was conscripted into the Rhodesian Army to serve in WWII.

Now a resident at an old people’s home in Masvingo, Zimbabwe’s oldest city, Marava recalls his time fighting on the side of the Allied Forces in the Himalayas from 1943 to 1945.

Last Saturday, he followed the lavish 75th anniversary of the Allied Forces victory on television from the care facility’s hall.

“I was conscripted in the army as a teenager in 1941 and after training, I undertook a cookery course which allowed me to serve as a cook for the British troops until the end of the war,” he said.

“We fought in the Himalaya Mountains in Asia alongside the British troops and now I have to watch them being paraded on TV while I am confined to this institution awaiting death. As everyone here, we are outcasts of the community, poverty-stricken and homeless. The only benefit I got from participating in the war was a bicycle which,” he said.

Marava’s story is a familiar tale across a continent whose sons and daughters perished in a war for a Crown that oppressed them at home.

They are now a little-mentioned footnote of world history.

Upon their return from the war, the black members of the Rhodesian African Rifles got bicycles as a “reward” before being summarily sent back to squalid villages.

White soldiers, on the other hand, got huge tracts of fertile farmland, mostly in the prime Eastern Highlands, as well as generous financial assistance to start businesses in what was then Rhodesia.

This is why a section of Eastern Zimbabwe is called Burma Valley.

Chief Nyandoro, at an occasion to mark the return of the Africa soldiers from Burma, remarked: “We are glad our sons have come back. We are glad you told us they fought well, but we are sad because when our sons were fighting for you remained destocking our cattle and reducing our lands.

“Today, our sons are being given bicycles while their white counterparts who are demobilised get farms and government loans to help them settle down. We are sad.”

Zimbabwe’s first black Chief Justice Enoch Dumbutshena, in his 1975 autobiography “Zimbabwean Tragedy”, recounts the day this was said.

“I was present at the ceremony. I was thrilled. The officials were mute-mad with anger but the African soldiers’ radiant faces got the message. Chief Nyandoro was telling the truth.”

Needless to say, the colonial government stripped Chief Nyandoro of his title.

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