Sierra Leone, World War II, and Why Don't I Know This?

Monday was a national holiday in Sierra Leone.  The Bishop Wenner School of Theology was closed to observe the holiday.  Since I had the day off, I spent it at the beach.  I didn’t stop to ask what the holiday was aside from hearing something about “Armed Forces Day”.  If I gave it any thought I figured it must be something to do with the twelve year civil war Salone fought in the 90’s.  But mostly it was a day that I enjoyed at the beach.

Then yesterday I stopped into the UMU Registrar’s office, housed upstairs at the Bishop Wenner School, to say hello.  Mr. Davidson Fonnah was called back to Sierra Leone a few years ago by Bishop Yambasu in order to help start the UMU after serving the administration of Africa University in Zimbabwe, which he assisted to build from it’s inception as well.  I asked him how his holiday was and he said, “You know, Armed Forces Day is a very important day for me because my father fought in the Battle of Kohima in 1944.”

Wait.  My Sierra Leonean colleague’s father fought in what is known as "Britain’s greatest battle”?

I responded, “I’m sorry, what?  Your Sierra Leonean father fought in World War II?”  He said, in his characteristically cheery way, “Yes. My father fought in WWII and my grandfather fought in WWI.”  

He went on to tell me that in the early 1900’s, as citizens of a colony of Britain, many Sierra Leoneans fought in the British army.  In fact, most of Sub-Saharan Africa was involved in the World Wars in one way or another, especially countries like former German Cameroon (roughly present day Republic of Cameroon) and Ruanda-Urundi (present day Rwanda and Burundi) which were once German colonies but were split between Britain, France, and Belgium after they were forfeited in the Treaty of Versailles.  Ummmmm…I don’t remember learning about this in school.  

Just to drive the point home, I was just reading an overview of the Treaty of Versailles.  The article wrote in great detail about which former German lands in Europe went to which countries as a result of the treaty.  Six complex, compound sentences on European lands that were taken from Germany.  And then about Africa, there is one line:  "Outside Europe, Germany lost all its colonies.”  Didn’t even specify on what continent those colonies were found.

As you can see, I’ve done a little more reading on it since yesterday and I have learned a few things.  Some joined the World Wars fight willingly for ideological reasons.  This BBC article quotes a Sierra Leonean named John Henry Smythe who enlisted after reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf. "We read what this man was going to do to the blacks if he gets into power. And he attacked the British and Americans for encouraging the blacks to become doctors and lawyers.  It was a book which would put any black man's back up and it put mine up.”  Others joined the fight out of loyalty to the colony, only to find that they were often not supported after the war ended and were written out of the history of the battles they fought.

In 2010, SL President Koroma declared February 18 Armed Forces Day, a day of remembrance, thanksgiving, and prayer.  It is a national holiday "which marks the remembrance of our fallen heroes during the participation of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces in the two World Wars, the Liberian Civil War, and the Civil Conflict in Sierra Leone from 1991-2002.”

Sometimes I feel ashamed because of how little I know about the people of these wonderful countries on the African continent and for the ways that I have dismissed and devalued their contributions to the world.  There is so much to learn and what I am learning is rich.

Katie Meek