I am sharing The Extraordinary Project‘s photos and articles on Facebook every day for 40 days. This week, I was particularly struck by Day 6: Aaron Katongo.
Aaron is a World War II veteran. The photos were taken of him in his home, presumably in Chinsali where he grew up. Not only is he a beautiful old man, weathered by age and circumstance, but the photos showed the inside of a typical Zambian house. He was sitting on a stool, resting his head in his hands, caught in the sunlight from the open door. Behind him was sheeting, hiding his bedding area, and he was surrounded by the paraphernalia of cooking and heating food. The walls were rough with deteriorating plasterwork and the floor was dusty red concrete, although the broom beside him indicated that it had just been swept. African dust seems to get everywhere, even just after a good clean!
I cannot do justice to the photo: nor to the man. Reading his story I was once again shamed and horrified by my ancestors – ancestors in the most general sense of ‘The British Before I Was Born’. The Colonial Power came to his school (in peaceful Northern Rhodesia) and selected him to join their army to fight in WWII. He was abroad and fighting before any of his family knew about it. What sort of way is that to treat a human being?
I have a 14-year old son. He has shot up in height, and is tall and lanky, in the peak of health – just how I imagine Aaron was in 1939. How would I feel if someone walked into his school and chose my child to fight in their war? Worse: to take him without telling me, until it was too late? Today, in the UK, there would be a national outcry for the injustice.
Many years ago I was fortunate to spend a month in Ghana. While there, I visited one of the castles on the coast. This was no grand French Chateau. This was a means by which the colonial powers could capture slaves and ship them to the New World. Standing in the room where they kept hundreds of men and women before herding them onto a boat was an experience I’ll never forget. Their souls still spoke from the dirt and dark. There was one small opening on the far side of the stone-cold room: this provided all their light and air, until they were pushed through it into the ship below. Meanwhile, there was no space to sit, nowhere to urinate or defecate except where they stood. Many died there, let alone on the trans-Atlantic voyage.
I could cope with this particular castle, because it was of Dutch origin. I could blame them. But I knew that the coastline was studded with castles just like it, and most of them were British. Hundreds of years ago we saw this as the right and proper way to behave. How shameful on our people and our nation.
And, in a different way, that attitude was repeated by the stealing of Aaron Katongo and his friends from a school in 1939. It was not his war. That action vicariously dragged Zambia into a war that wasn’t of their making. Six years later Aaron was unceremoniously dumped back in Lusaka, miles from home. The people who did that were not so far removed from me: people of my grandparents’ generation.
Has the world moved on? Barely. The news recently has shown thousands of migrants killed as their over-filled boats capsize in the Mediterranean, and similar stories from the seas around Burma and Vietnam. Young girls are still being sold by their families in Eastern Europe on the promise of a better future in the UK, only for them to be made into prostitutes, walking our city streets. Children are still being forced to fight wars, captured by guerrilla forces and, through a combination of extreme violence and powerful social manoeuvres, not being able to escape.
I cannot undo what my ancestors condoned: I can’t do more than apologise on their behalf. But I can learn from the errors of history. It is only by pointing out how these things are repeating the dark parts of history – of our history, of mistakes we have made – that we can hope to change hearts and minds and make the world a better place.
None of us is perfect, but we learn from our mistakes. Are we innately good, or evil, or selfish? Whatever the root cause, we must strive to prevent such human frailties from damaging other people’s lives in the same ways ever again.
Some years ago I met an historian from west Africa. He had spent his adult life researching the slave trade. He told me something that I had, perhaps naively, never been aware of. Many of the slaves sent from west Africa were actually sold into slavery by other Africans. They were captured by rival tribes, they were payments for debts or punishments. Some of them were trouble makers they wished to be rid of. There were other reasons as well. People were rarely “rounded up” or “captured” by white slave traders although they were all too happy to take them.
Powerful tribal interests were complicit in the trade and some made a great profit from it.
That doesn’t make the colonial actions any less abhorrent of course – it might even make them more abhorrent. Whatever, it was a vile, vile trade.