Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
April 15, 2000
Soldier's Tale: How War in Burma Altered Africa
Inside the old man's courtyard, children were playing and women were preparing dinner. But seeing an unannounced visitor, the old man, Cpl. Bakary Dibba, a World War II veteran in his 80's, ushered him inside his house.
Around Farafenni, a border town in the interior of this tiny West African nation, Mr. Dibba is known as the last survivor among the 10 local men who fought in the British Army against Japan's Imperial Army in Burma. World War II changed Africa forever, in great part because the European colonial powers drafted hundreds of thousands of young men like Mr. Dibba from the remotest corners of their African colonies and sent them to places they never knew existed.
"Of course I had heard that a great war was being fought," Mr. Dibba said, sitting in an armchair in his starkly furnished living room, where a single weak light bulb hanging from the ceiling cast faint shadows against the blue walls. "But we never knew we were going to fight in that war. I did not know there was a place called Burma. It's only when we reached Burma that we realized we were to fight in the World War."
A clear moral imperative may have guided American and British soldiers as they fought in Europe and Asia. But for many African soldiers -- fighting as they did for their colonial masters, the same men who talked of battling the racist regimes of Nazi Germany and Japan -- there was deep ambivalence.
It all began in 1939, to hear Mr. Dibba tell it, when some British officials came here for one week searching for volunteers. Back then a highway that now goes through here had not been built, and it was only a village of several hundred farmers.
At one rally, Mr. Dibba recalled, African drums were played to stir up enthusiasm. "But after there was no volunteer," he said, "they started to use force so the youths would go. The chief went to each compound and demanded one volunteer. When they saw you, they would just grip you and take you."
Eventually, he and an older brother volunteered, the only 2 among the 10 young men who went to war. "We knew we were going to be forced," he said, "so we decided to join."
The young man was between 16 and 20 years old, already with a young bride named Binta. He did not know the year of his birth, though he remembered the exact weight -- 70 pounds -- he was able to carry in military gear and equipment.
The conscripts from Gambia were sent for training to Nigeria, Britain's largest colony in West Africa. The other colonies, Sierra Leone and Ghana, then known as the Gold Coast, also sent men. The four colonies provided a total of 167,000 soldiers organized into seven brigades, according to the British historian Basil Davidson. Hundreds of thousands more were recruited by the British in East and Southern Africa, and by the French in their possessions.
Time passed. Mr. Dibba and the others sailed for India. There was more training at barracks near Delhi and then Calcutta. The size of the cities astonished him. "I realized that some people are completely white in India and some are colored, and they have very long hair," he said, excavating his memories from 60 years ago.
"I realized there are Hindus as well as Muslims," added Mr. Dibba, who until then had heard only of Muslims, like himself, and Christians.
Away from Africa, young men from different ethnic groups worked together for the first time for a common cause, just as they did in the United States military. "All tribes were mixed together -- Wollof, Mandinka, Fula," said Mr. Dibba, who is Mandinka. "We did not have any problems because of our tribes. We were together."
Mr. Dibba took off his slippers and leaned back in his armchair. His family had gathered outside the living room window, peering inside. His youngest child, Yusupha, 4, clambered onto his lap. The child was born to Mr. Dibba's 20-year-old wife, the youngest of his three wives.
With their training over, Corporal Dibba and the others were driven to northern Burma. Then they hiked for two days through jungle and mountains. On the way, 10 men died drinking water from a lake that Japanese soldiers had poisoned, he said.
By then, Japan's army had conquered Southeast Asia and had overrun Burma.
"I never knew anything about the Japanese people," Mr. Dibba said. "In Burma, I realized these people were called the Japanese people."
"Then many of us realized for the first time that it was a real war. There was no way out. Nobody could escape back to Africa. We had to fight. There was no day or night. We were fighting all the time."
The fighting lasted three years for Corporal Dibba. In that time, a British officer passed on a message from Farafenni that Binta, his wife, had died of meningitis.
Finally, a couple of months after Japan's surrender in August 1945, Corporal Dibba was back in Farafenni. He has never left since. But the experiences he and the other veterans brought back to Africa helped transform the continent.
Africa's participation in liberating Europe from the Nazis and Asia from the Japanese Army strengthened the continent's push for independence. In the signing of the Atlantic Charter of 1941, Roosevelt persuaded a reluctant Churchill to accept as one of the postwar goals that the Allies would "respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live."
The message of Africa's independence leaders -- self-determination, pan-Africanism -- found a receptive audience among veterans.
Four decades after most of Africa gained its independence, Mr. Dibba seems to have retained his ambivalence toward World War II. He keeps his three medals at the bottom of a big trunk, and had trouble digging them out. They needed polishing, he said, almost apologetically.
Mr. Dibba's 30-year-old son, Kebba Dibba, looked surprised when he was asked whether he considered his father a hero. "I don't think war produces heroes," Kebba Dibba said. "We don't need to look for such heroes. He did it and that's O.K."
It was getting very late. The old man had already changed into his pajamas. He was tired.
"They're the same, the British, the Japanese; they were fighting all for the same thing -- sovereignty," Mr. Dibba said. "I don't regret fighting for the colonial masters. But at the end of the day, they are all the same. They are all doing business together now."
© 1999 - 2006 Segun Toyin Dawodu. All rights reserved. All unauthorized copying or adaptation of any content of this site will be liable to legal recourse.
Segun Toyin Dawodu, P. O. BOX 710080, HERNDON, VA 20171-0080, USA.
This page was last updated on 10/27/07.