WWI Centenary Commemoration

The cenotaph decked out in flags.

This past weekend I got to witness a once in a lifetime event, the WWI Centenary Commemoration here in Mbala. Ever since I figured out that I would be living in Mbala district on the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, I’ve been looking forward to this event. For those not in the know, WWI actually ended here in Zambia. Although the armistice was signed in Europe and went into effect on November 11th, 1918, it took some time for the news to reach Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia). Fighting ended on November 14th when General Von Lettow-Vorbeck was handed a telegram informing him of the armistice. A monument marks the spot where this occurred on the banks of the Chambeshi river, about 100km south of Kasama. British forces then ordered him to march his troops to Mbala (then Abercorn) for the formal surrender. That took just shy of two weeks, so the formal surrender ending WWI in this region was signed on November 25th, 1918.

I tried to encourage as many PCVs to come as possible to come to this event. Since centenaries only come every 100 years or so, it was a unique opportunity to witness it. As well as it being important to commemorate the sacrifices Zambia and other African countries have made, I figured it would be a lot of fun and I am always eager to show off Mbala. In the end we had 18 PCVs make it up here, including some from as far away as Southern and Northwestern Provinces. A good chunk of us showed up the night before the Centenary, because according to the schedule I got from my host dad, there was supposed to be a cocktail party and fireworks. Both of those events were a bit of a bust but we had fun anyways. In anticipation of the cocktail party, everyone dressed up as well as they could, all of us being Peace Corps Volunteers that live in mud huts. But we looked good and what we lacked in tailoring we made up for in enthusiasm. First we swung by the Golf Club which I had never been to before. The Mbala Golf Club has a good vibe and I recommend it. While we were there we spotted some armored vehicles over at the Yacht Club, so we went over there to check them out, but by the time we arrived they had left. We had a few drinks anyways. Back to the Golf Club where we watched some live music and had a good time. We asked if we could play, despite none of us knowing how to play any instruments, and they seemed enthusiastic but it never quite happened. At the appointed time we went over to the Cocktail Party at Lake Chila Lodge only to find out that it wasn’t happening. We had our own party anyways. Fireworks also happened, but two hours late, and by that time we were all in bed.

A whole lotta Chiefs.

The next day dawned very bright and very hot and after breakfast we assembled at the cenotaph to watch the ceremony. This event was the most crowded and most colorful I have ever seen Mbala. They really pulled out all the stops. For a few months we had been watching them spruce up the roundabout that contains the cenotaph. The day of however, the whole area was filled with flags from around the world. Several tents had been set up to shelter the hundreds of Chiefs and other dignitaries that had assembled for the event. The crowd was huge and it was hard to jostle for a spot. I eventually settled into a spot next to the dignitary tent, which had a relatively good perspective on the cenotaph and the stand where President Lungu was going to deliver his speech. It was hard to see over the crowd, but I am so glad so many people were so excited to come and witness the event.

It took a little while for all of the dignitaries to make their arrival. There were various ministers and the service chiefs of Zambia’s armed forces. Representatives from a lot of organizations came, including from various Commonwealth soldier organizations, the German military, and General Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s grandson even came. The ceremony kicked off with prayers and an invocation, and then the centerpiece of the ceremony, which were a series of wreath-layings. President Lungu laid a wreath, and then many many more wreaths were laid by the many representatives in attendance. Then it was time for speeches.

Wreath laying at the cenotaph.

The first speech was by General Lord Richard, who is a former Chief of British forces and was representing the African Rifles Association. He outlined a lot of the events of the war, and detailed the roles of Africans in the conflict and the hardships they suffered. He also commented on the wider world not forgetting the conflict here in Africa. After that was the Provincial Minister for Northern Province, talking about the legacy of the war in the area. Finally, the keynote address was given by President Lungu. Unfortunately, his microphone was broken and we couldn’t hear him, but according to news articles he spoke about the sacrifices people made, and how he intends to increase awareness of the contribution of Zambia to the conflict by making sure it is covered better in school textbooks.

President Lungu addressing the crowd.

At about this point we ducked out because it was hot, we couldn’t hear President Lungu, and to beat the crowds. After getting some lunch, most of the rest of the evening was spent relaxing again over at the Mbala Golf Course. We found a great spot fairly near the bar but overlooking Lake Chila (confusingly labeled in the banners around town as “The Lake Chila Mystery”). Good times, great friends, and an historic moment. I am really glad I got to see the Centenary and I hope that the wider world gets a better perspective on Africa’s contribution to WWI. I didn’t know anything about it before coming here, and still a lot of my PCV friends are confused as to why Germany was even in Zambia (despite me droning on about it like every chance I get). It is well worth remembering the hardships that Africans had to suffer as colonial forces fought a European war, and I am glad Zambia pulled out all the stops to commemorate the event. Can’t wait for the next one in 2118.

Chillin’ at the Golf Club.