Effect of WWI in Zambia


As a follow-up from last week’s post, I wanted to write a bit more about the effect of WWI on the people of Zambia. It’s a pretty devastating history. The contributions of the people of Africa to a European war are, I think, largely forgotten especially when you focus on things like Archduke Ferdinand and the Triple Alliance.

In Zambia and Southern Africa, Africans contributed to the war effort in two major roles: as Askari and as Tenga-Tenga. Askari is an Arabic word meaning “soldier,” and referred to Africans serving as soldiers for colonial powers in Africa. The colonial powers were all initially reluctant to allow (or draft) Africans as soldiers, believing them inferior or unreliable. But as the war progressed and resources strained, the majority of each army was composed as African soldiers. By the end of the war there were opposing armies of mostly African soldiers fighting each other for a European war. In Zambia, men were initially enthusiastic about signing up for the army due to the prestige and relatively good pay, but this enthusiasm waned as word of harsh treatment spread. For the askaris, 75% of deaths were from disease alone.

Racism was pervasive in the treatment of the askaris. They were denied boots and marched and fought barefoot, because the belief was that boots were unsuitable for African feet. White soldiers were resistant to going on patrols or serving alongside African soldiers, leading to tension. In Zambia, the headquarters of the Army were in Livingstone, but most of the fighting was in the north along the border with Tanzania (then German East Africa). The closest rail link to the border ended in modern-day Ndola, leaving soldiers to march on foot 1000km to reach the war front.

The lack of transportation required the use of the Tenga-Tenga, or war carriers. Due to the tsetse fly, draft animals could not be used throughout much of Southern Africa and so there were no roads through most of the areas where soldiers were fighting. All of the materiel required to fight the war therefore had to be carried on top of the heads of the tenga-tenga. Up to 6 tenga-tenga were required for each soldier in the field. They carried a load of 27-37kg, on top of which they had to carry their own blankets, cooking pots, food, and other supplies. This often totalled more than 60km. They walked an average of 24km per day. The tenga-tenga were poorly paid for their labor if at all. They could be whipped for unsatisfactory performance and when they collapsed were often left to die.

Where there are records of askaris that served in battles or were notable for acts of bravery, the service of the tenga-tenga are largely unrecorded. Their numbers were huge. At least 80,000 tenga-tenga were drafted during the war, out of a taxable male population in then Northern Rhodesia of approximately 100,000. This number doesn’t include the many women also drafted as tenga-tenga, and other portions of the population that served as cooks or in other roles. In these large concentrations of people, disease was rife with dysentery, typhoid, and pneumonia spreading through the ranks, and with little or no medical care to keep it in check. Askari and tenga-tenga returning home would bring these diseases to their villages.

Besides the direct impact on the populations, the war had follow-on effects in the villages. With so many of the men drafted for the war, villages were left without labor to clear the fields or plant the crops. This lead to mass starvation as there was no food grown. What little food there was could be confiscated by the army, and villages were often raided or burned by enemy armies. The depletion of labor in some areas was at nearly 100%; in Kasama, where there were about 5000 taxable males, 5000 tenga-tenga were drafted. Men started hiding in the bush when government recruiters would come. To force men to join, the recruiters started arresting their wives if then men had disappeared. These women suffered imprisonment, rape, torture, and assault until their husbands joined the war effort.

When I learned about the horrors of WWI, most of the horrors focused on trench warfare and the hardships that soldiers faced on the Western Front. If I was aware that WWI was also fought in Africa, it was because I learned it watching The African Queen. I didn’t know about any of this history until I was living here in Mbala, and for months I didn’t even know the Cenotaph commemorating the war existed despite biking by in every time I was in town. You have to search pretty hard to find information on the cruel hardships the people here faced on the behest of their colonial masters, at the end of a whip or gun. The Zambians though are proud of their history. People display the awards won by their grandfathers and like I said last week the country pulled out all the stops to commemorate the Centenary. For hundreds of years the entire history of this region has been dominated by cruel hardships imposed by outsiders, from slave traders to European wars. Since its independence, Zambia has prided itself on being a peaceful nation. They’re proud of their history; maybe they learned from it.

The source for this article was “The First World War in Northern Rhodesia: Experiences of ‘Askari’ Foot Soldiers and the ‘Tenga-Tenga’ War Carriers,” published by Zambia’s National Museums Board.

As follow-on reading, here are some news articles on the effect of WWI in Zambia: