by Melvin E. Page
Every one of my research trips has a memorable story concerning connections I’ve made with Africans. Perhaps this tale—of my trek with a Malawi Army History team in 1991—was more significant than most, as it helped reshape my appreciation for the resourcefulness and resilience of a resurgent Africa. The soldiers who accompanied me were under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Njoloma, a combat veteran of the Malawi Army’s early1990s anti-terrorism campaign in northern Mozambique. After military training at Sandhurst and with the U.S. Army, he’d earned a graduate degree in History from the University of Malawi and subsequent designation as the Malawi Army’s official historian. His booklet, The Malawi Army: A Hundred Years Today was published just a few weeks before he invited me to join his team to interview a few of the last generation who lived the country’s World War One experiences. We had been interviewing some of them at “The Wounded,” as the Memorial Home for ex-soldiers at Cobbe Barracks in Zomba was popularly known. He then suggested we continue our interviewing on a journey to the northern border, an expedition both in recognition and remembrance of the Army’s centenary.
We arranged to meet at the government hostel in Zomba—where I was temporarily staying—at 10:00 AM on the first Monday in July. After one apologetic phone call and still further delays, he arrived just after noon driving a very old army Landrover, already loaded to near capacity. One corporal—who was to be the photographer—was joined by another corporal—the sound recording technician—with his wife and two children, all piled in the back. I then added my bag next to Njoloma’s, taking up additional space. And we still had to pick up a very stout sergeant major, a necessary addition to the party as he would be purchasing film for the camera and cassettes for the recorder. Only then could we begin our journey, though we headed south toward Blantyre.
“We have business in town,” Njoloma volunteered. Of course, buying the film and tapes! As it turned out, we’d also stop to sort out his car registration. Finally, about 5:00 PM, we were on our way north, minus the sergeant-major who was left to find his own way back since we’d be traveling on the M1, not passing by Zomba. About fifteen miles out of Blantyre, Njoloma suddenly pulled off the road, announcing we were stopping to see an old soldier—Regimental Sergeant Major Aibu Chikwenga—a storied Army retiree. Invited into his home, we talked with the RSM for more than an hour by the light of a kerosene-lamp. Excusing himself, Njoloma then left in the Landrover, explaining “I’m going to get some supplies for RSM Aibu.” After another hour, we were back on the road to Lilongwe, expecting to spend the night at Kamuzu Barracks, home of the Army’s second battalion. Any expectations for a speedy journey were dashed, however, when within a half hour one of the corporals called out loudly from the back, “Smoke! I see smoke! Stop!”
At that, Njoloma pulled to the side of the road. The corporals scrambled to check under the hood, seeing nothing in the dim moonlight. I got out to assist, offering my small pocket flashlight, with which they soon spotted the problem: the plastic windshield-washer fluid tank had slipped against the engine block just a little and was melting. As one of the corporals reached to grab it, the now misshapen container fell down completely against the engine—immediately bursting into flames. With vivid thoughts of a burning Landrover, I quickly jumping aside as the corporals tried to blow out the flames! The one whose family was still in the back finally just reached in and pulled the burning plastic out by hand, throwing it to the side—and accidentally right at me! I jumped! It missed and landed on the ground, burning until stamped out minutes later. Finding no further damage, we clamored back in the Landrover and were soon away again.
About 8:30 PM Njoloma decided we should stop for food, sending the Landrover off the road, down an embankment, through a narrow ditch, and up next to a nearby restaurant. “This should be cheap,” he proudly told me of his choice, confident an out-of-the-way establishment couldn’t be expensive. Actually, it was pretty nice as such places go in Africa, but when he and I went in, looked at a menu to check the prices, he pronounced it too expensive. Back to the Landrover, up the embankment, and yet again resuming our journey. This impromptu detour took us off the M1, Malawi’s main arterial highway—though it seemed more like a good two-lane U. S. state road—though now we continued driving almost an hour to Ntcheu town where the Lieutenant Colonel assured me we could find a “street” with a restaurant. It didn’t look much like a street to me, and I’ve seen a lot of suspect streets in Malawi. It appeared to me more like a streambed, which it may also have been during the rainy season. So I was not expecting much of a restaurant, but was pleasantly surprised. All of us—the Lieutenant Colonel, me, the two corporals, the wife, and the small two boys—went in to eat. Njoloma pointed to a table and sat down next to me. Of course, since he was an officer, the others sat at a table removed from us. Taking a menu, I chose beef stew, rice, and a beer. “Good!” Njoloma approved of my selections, then told me “I’ll be back after I get my brother. He lives here in Ntcheu.”About the time I finished my meal, he was back with his brother; they ordered their own dinners and ate while I watched. Njoloma graciously paid the entire bill.
All of us climbed back into the Landrover just after 10:00 PM, with the brother now squeezed into the front seat between Njoloma and me. We drove on for more than an hour without incident, then suddenly pulled over, parking half on, half off the road. “I’m sleepy and need to rest a few minutes,” Njoloma explained. Slumping down in the seat behind the steering wheel, he put his head back on the rear cushion and pulled his cap over his eyes, almost immediately falling asleep. Everyone else just sat! No one said a word! We probably sat there in transfixed silence about a half an hour. I think the Lieutenant Colonel was the only one who slept, with the possible exception of the younger boy in the back. Then a huge articulated lorry came thundering past, so close and so fast the Landrover shook wildly. “Shit!” Uttering that expletive, Njoloma woke and rubbed his eyes. “Well that’s better!” he proclaimed while starting the engine and driving on.
We hadn’t traveled far before the engine seemed to sputter, sounding like it wasn’t getting enough fuel. Sure enough. We shortly stopped, and Njoloma quickly diagnosed the problem. “We’re short on petrol. But not to worry; this is a Landrover so we have another tank!” As it turned out, though, the switch to activate the second tank was broken. Instead, Njoloma ordered the corporals simply to transfer the additional petrol from one tank to another. Would they like the help of my handy flashlight? “Inde, Bwana!” They sounded grateful. So, I jumped down from my seat, flashlight at the ready, only to be told, “Wait until they find a container.” My image of handy jerry cans strapped to Landrovers in the African bush didn’t apply to this vehicle. I’d allowed my preconceived notions to overtake my observations and distort my expectations.
The corporals disappeared into a village on the other side of the road and emerged about ten minutes later with a makeshift bucket. I went to the back with the flashlight and watched as they first removed a plug from the bottom of the second tank and then drained petrol into the bucket. But there was no spout for pouring the petrol into the usual fueling tube. So the corporals took the driver’s seat apart and—amazingly—there was the main tank under the seat, with an opening on top into which they might pour petrol. Of course, the bucket was a small one, so it was back and forth—drain, pour, drain, pour, over and over—eight or nine times in all. Holding the flashlight for this entire procedure, I noticed a familiar symbol on the bucket. Sure enough, it was made from some sort of USAID container—probably a cooking-oil tin—likely provided for the many Mozambican refugees then in Malawi. Unfortunately, the bucket wasn’t made very well and leaked profusely; I especially noticed as its contents were poured into the tank under the driver’s seat.
Every one of my research trips has a memorable story concerning connections I’ve made with Africans. Perhaps this tale—of my trek with a Malawi Army History team in 1991—was more significant than most, as it helped reshape my appreciation for the resourcefulness and resilience of a resurgent Africa.
Finally the tank was full, the seat rebuilt, and the engine started. We were again on our way, but with the odor of petrol now filling the front cabin, all I kept think about—over and over as we continued to Lilongwe—was the fire of several hours before. We finally arrived about 1:00 AM, this first leg of our journey having taken about twelve hours longer than I’d anticipated, and we’d only managed one interview. I briefly mentioned this to Lieutenant Colonel Njoloma, suggesting we’d had a particularly trying day. He merely scoffed: “It was nothing compared to what we faced protecting the Nacala Railway from RENAMO guerrillas in northern Mozambique,” and offering nothing further. Nonetheless, when I was at last able to relax, my mind drifted to the familiar trope I’d heard so often: such bungling wouldn’t have happened under colonial rule. That idea remained stuck in my head as I finally was able to sleep.
The next day I told this story to my former student, Yusuf Juwayeyi, then working with the Malawi Department of Antiquities. Amazed at my account, he laughed for a good long while. “But they got you safely to Lilongwe, didn’t they!” he finally exclaimed. Of course he was right, and I felt humbled for not first thinking that myself. The Landrover was repaired in the Army shops at Kamuzu Barracks while we interviewed several more old soldiers nearby at “The Wounded” annex in Lilongwe. Then the same vehicle, and the same capable team of soldiers with their unflappable commander, carried me without incident on to the Rovuma River and the Tanzanian frontier, where we interviewed two boyhood chums who remembered the 1914 German invasion across that river and whose stories subsequently introduced my book, The Chiwaya War. Far from a meme of African incompetence, my adventures during that memorable trek offered me a lasting image of a resilient and resourceful military team of which any nation might be proud!
A Ph.D. graduate of Michigan State University, Melvin E. (Mel) Page is Professor of History (Emeritus), East Tennessee State University. He was Fulbright Lecturer in History, University of Malawi (1971-1974) and Fulbright Professor of History, University of Natal, Durban (1998). He authored The Chiwaya War: Malawians and the First World War (Westview, 2000), co-authored A Short Guide to Writing About History, 4th to 9th editions (Pearson, 2002-2015), and edited Africa and the First World War (Macmillan, 1987). Founding editor of H-Africa, he currently is Africa section co-editor for 1914-1918 Online: International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
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