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WWII Lives on Among African Veterans Who Returned Home as Freedom Fighters

November 05, 1989|ERIC ONSTAD | REUTERS

GAICHANGIRU, Kenya — Fifty years ago, when World War II erupted in Europe, Bildad Kaggia left this peaceful African village to fight for the white man. He returned with inspiration to launch another war for freedom--the Mau Mau struggle against Kenya's British rulers.

Kaggia and millions of other Africans served in a war they did not understand, but unleashed a force which transformed Africa and hastened the demise of colonialism.

Now 67 and sporting a bushy gray beard, the former nationalist leader said World War II gave African soldiers a fresh perspective of the outside world.

"We were led to believe Europeans were superior," Kaggia told Reuters from a small storefront in Gaichangiru, 50 miles northeast of Nairobi, where he runs a milling business.

"But we (who served in the war) had evidence that the European is just like us. He was killed in the war, we saw him working in every job we did," said Kaggia, who had never been outside Kenya before he went to Cairo in 1940.

By the last year of the war, 400,000 African soldiers were serving the British alone. Millions of others were marching in French and Italian armies and boosting war-time production by laboring on plantations and public works.

But after the war, having risked their lives to help free Europe from fascism, African soldiers came home to countries where they needed passes to travel and were denied the right to vote.

Kaggia said that while serving abroad he got the same pay as whites of the same rank. He was shocked to return to postwar Kenya, where blacks still got less.

He quit the army and joined a radical nationalist faction which believed that only guerrilla war would persuade the British to hand over power to Africans.

"It was the courage we got from the war which made us go into the struggle," Kaggia said. "The people who were here, they couldn't think they could defeat the Europeans."

Kaggia served on the clandestine central committee of Mau Mau until 1952, when the authorities declared an emergency and detained him and other nationalists, including Jomo Kenyatta, who later became Kenya's first president.

At the same time, nationalism spread throughout the continent and European rulers faced uprisings in Madagascar, Algeria, Ivory Coast and Cameroon.

Kaggia, who worked initially as a war-time registration clerk, said that most Kenyans who served in the King's African Rifles were pressured by local chiefs, if not conscripted outright.

One unwilling recruit later advanced through the ranks to lead all of Kenya's armed forces.

"I never wanted to be a soldier," Gen. Jackson Mulinge, former Kenyan armed forces chief of staff, told Nairobi's Nation newspaper. He said he had gone to town as an 18-year-old in 1940 to sell a chicken and buy a pair of shorts when a recruiting officer grabbed him.

"Nobody bothered to explain what was going on. All we knew was that Britain, our employer, was fighting her enemies," recalled Mulinge.

Africans, some who had never been out of mud-hut villages, encountered strange lands and modern technology.

"I had never been inside a plane or ship and the experience of being inside those things was unbelievably overwhelming," another World War II veteran, M'Kabui M'Anamba of Kenya, told the Nation.

Kaggia's comrades fought in the battle of Tripoli, but most African soldiers served in supporting units, driving trucks, cooking food, waving flags in semaphore units and singing in army bands.

Kenya served as a staging ground for the Allies to push Italy out of Ethiopia and Somalia, the only major war theater in sub-Saharan Africa.

After Kenya gained independence in 1963, Kaggia served in parliament but kept his fighting spirit.

He fell out with President Kenyatta when he joined the only opposition party in Kenya's history--the Kenya People's Union--which was banned in 1969. He has avoided politics ever since.

What if World War II had never touched his life?

"I would have lived like the other people here," he said softly, peering at a barefoot schoolboy outside.

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