Monday, November 26, 2007

Memoirs of a soldier

One thing that General Arthur McDouglas left us is the adage that goes old soldiers never die: they just fade away. The other Sunday, I was walking downtown the Limbe Central Business District in Blantyre, when I met an old soldier who was fading away. He fought in World War II, and now he is a guard at a filling station. He had just knocked off, and was walking to his home, some three kilometers away. When I got home, I recovered one of my 2001 notebooks, and recovered an interview I had with this old soldier then.

The scene is a room in revered musician Wyndham Chechamba’s music school behind Blantyre Post Office. Chechamba himself, blew the reveille a number of time for soldiers like Jossam Maloya! On November 11, 2007, President Bingu wa Mutharika opened a tower in Lilongwe erected for soldiers who died during the two World Wars....

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Even after the greetings are over, the smile does not vanish from Jossam Maloya’s face. His eyes are bloodshot, almost filled with tears, yet warm and piercing. As he recounts the events of World War II, you feel the heat and dust and sweat and tears and blood on the battleground. He has the memory of an elephant, which makes the recital wonderful.

Maloya was only 15 when he was enlisted into the King’s African Rifles (KAR) on December 16, 1940. Having dropped out of school, his dream was to become a driver in the military. But Colonel MackCormick thwarted that dream, saying he as too young to drive military vehicles.

“He said I would make it better in the infantry. I was younger than most of the recruits, and Regiment Company Major Chemtima was all too willing to give me breaks to rest at Namadidi,” said Maloya.

He dropped out of school to join the forces partly because his father, who had six wives, could not sponsor his education.

A four-month training in the bush, some medical and physical examination, led to Maloya becoming a Sergeant, his number was DN10691 and they were sent to Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) through Mpatamilonde.

“There, I was selected to go and train in the handling of the cumbersome 303 Vicas Machine Gun at Ndola. Later, we were posted to guard the bridge at Victoria Falls on the borders between the two Rhodesias,” said Maloya.
From Victoria Falls, they moved through Kenya, where they joined the 3rd Battalion in Nairobi, to Tanzania. Adventures of real fighting was just around the bend.

He recalls: “We were told that we were there to fight and fight. We would do so even to our deaths.”

They passed Ishoro and Somaliland up to Jiga-Jiga. It was here that a commander told them to be careful, it was enemy territory in the hands of the Italians.

“The commander shouted to us: ‘Action by section!’ and we stirred to action. We were not afraid. The fear we initially felt vanished when we heard the enemy bullets. We had to fight for survival. Five of us died in the crossfire, the first being a close friend of mine, Corporal Basikolo of Chekawinga. I could feel death on our front,’ recalled Maloya.

But they were undettered. They fought on. Until the Italians fled. On a hill, as they advanced, they came face to face with another Italian battalion. The soldiers of King George fought hard, until the Italian forces fled.
Some KAR soldiers, who included Zambians, Tanzanians, Malawians and Zimbabweans advanced even into Libya. Some were not too successful, like a whole second battalion which was killed by a landmine at Gondally.

Maloya and his fellows of the First KAR retired to Addis Ababa and later trekked to Barabara where they got aboard a navy ship that took them to Mombasa.

Then, they were to go on leave. Not any type of leave, though. It’s name, Chenjerani Leave, suggested that it was time to be ready for more, wild battles.

For Maloya, who spent the 52-day leave at home, Nepal in the Far East was the next destination.

“Before we left for the Far East, we were trained how to swim at a dam on Mount Kilimanjaro. And as we left the Mombasa Coast aboard the Queen Elizabeth, we received word that Mamare, a British ship that was ahead of us had been sunk by Japanese submarine, killing 8,000 soldiers and other support staff. We delayed our decoasting for two weeks,” Maloya, his dark face washed with sweat, recalls.

Two weeks later, they moved on to Colombo, Sri Lanka, since the direct Mombasa—Bombay route had been closed.

“At Colombo, we found many ships in ashes. They had been shot by the Japanese. The Governor told us Japanese jets had even bombed children who were coming from school. He ordered us not to stop there,’ Maloya says.

We accosted at Calcutta, India.

Maloya laughs when he recalls the camaraderie they had with the Indian soldiers. They were welcomed with heavily spiced rice. Some of the Europeans, he says, couldn’t stand the hot food and ate nothing.

Then, there was a change in the diet. The normal ration was six tins of beef and six packets of biscuits for each soldier.
From Calcutta, they traveled by a four coal-powered steam engine trains to Chals. From there, they had to cross a river by tying ropes on the other bank for a bridge had been bombed.

“Each one of us had been given a three-metre rope which had a hook at both ends. We joined our ropes together and one of us swam across the river to tie it to a tree. The other end was tied to a tree as well, and we swam, one by one to the other side. The last one untied the rope, and we pulled him across the river. Our swimming lesson in Kenya was paying off.”

Then came the lectures. No one knew where it was. It was in the deep of the jungle. They were divided into groups led by a commander, followed by a white sergeant and two scouts. Words were no longer used for communication. The hand of the commander passed on the message to the sergeant, then the scouts and down to the soldiers: Move! Take Cover! Open Fire! Eyes became their ears.

At Kohima, they came face-to-face with the Japanese.

“We heard powerful gunshots from a sniper who was high up a tree. Two of us fell dead. We took cover and our scout crawled to the tree and shot the sniper and we moved on.”

The Japanese were greatly trained, with ten years of training in that jungle. They had made ditches that were now covered with natural bushes and grass.

“Furthermore, one Japanese soldiers were armed with several guns: arms, mortars and sophisticated machine guns. You would think there was a whole battalion in front when in fact there was only one man.”
When caught, the Japanese wanted to die and the KAR soldiers would kill him anyway, with guns or behead them with pangas. There was no mercy at all.

When we got into the army, we were told that we had neither mother nor father no brother nor sister on earth. Our brother was the gun. We were not human, we were beasts. There was no washing. Water was given to us in water bottles. We were wild.”

As they advanced, they planned an attack on Rangoon. It was June 1945. An officer, Mr Hunter,came with a message that the US was about to bomb Japan. They stood by. The attack came at dawn when the Americans dropped two atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A Malawian, at least one who is alive today, had first hand information before the historic unleashing of the atomic bomb!

“That weakened the Japanese lines. Emperor Hirohito’s propaganda machinery had been saying Japanese soldiers who died elsewhere were resurrecting in Tokyo. This made the Japanese soldiers to fight to their deaths. With that bombing, the real heat and dust of the war began.”

After it was all over, they camped at a ranch for six months. It was time to go home and King George of England commanded they all go back by ship.

Then, another choice was given: who wants to go and parade before the King, in England?

“I was too exhausted with the war and I wanted to get back home. I traveled with others who chose like me. We arrived in Lilongwe from Zambia, where we passed through from Zaire. I went straight to my home village in Chief Chjikowi’s area in Zomba for a life as a civilian.”

When he was called for his final pay from the Books Pay Call, he got 42 British pounds sterling.

“The sum wasn’t enough to sustain my new family, so I went to Zimbabwe where I worked at the compound police for the Southern Rhodesia Imperial Tobacco. I resigned in 1953 when I joined the British South African Police as First Class Sergeant, equal in the army to the post of Staff Sergeant. I worked there for 22 years and resigned in 1976 to come back to Malawi,” Maloya said.

This man put his life to risk, in a war not his own, for 42 pounds. He came face to face with death for such a sum that could not even cover his son’s education fees. Did the Europeans who fought in that war get 42 pounds like Maloya?

There is no greater love than to die for your friends, so we are told every Armstice Day, as Last Post is played. In service, we sing god Our Help in Ages Past, as we go towards that eleventh day of the eleventh month when we remember those who died in the two World Wars, my heart goes out more to those who live among us to this death, and we scarcely recognize the shape they gave history.

In a letter to the Nyasaland Times during the First World War, the revolutionary John Chilembwe wrote: “When the war is over, shall the Blackman find freedom and peace?”