Thursday, 3 September 2015

Still on Burma Boy

by Barnaby Phillips
Oneworld, 336pp. 9781780747118

Isaac Fadoyebo was sixteen in 1943 when he signed up with the British Army to fight in Burma. Not that he knew where he was going at the time, or that such a country even existed. He was just a village boy in colonial Nigeria enticed by the promise of money and adventure when his father refused to send him to secondary school. A shilling a day – and all found - was twice what he could earn as a ‘pupil teacher’, which was the highest his elementary education could aspire to in his rural backwater where subsistence farming was the only alternative. There was also the promise of preferential treatment for services rendered the King of England should he survive, which turned out to be true in his case, although the story of his survival was itself improbable.
There were many Fadoyebos in Britain’s African possessions, and the imperial power was in dire needed of their services. Although things were looking up on the other fronts - Germany bogged down in the Soviet Union, the invasion of Italy underway and Monty triumphant in North Africa – the Japanese were wreaking havoc in South-East Asia. They had overrun Singapore, the Malaysian Peninsula and now Burma, leaving an already fractious India – the jewel in the crown – vulnerable. Moreover, Burma was a vital supply route for the Chinese, Japan’s longstanding enemy, who were receiving American weapons from India. Expendable manpower was required for the work of the world and Africa proved fertile recruiting ground, Nigeria alone providing about 120,000 of them.
They sailed first to the jewel itself, where Fadoyebo and his fellows were holed up for three frustrating months before they crossed over in December. Among the reasons for choosing them was their supposed familiarity with the topography they now faced - ‘The jungle is so thick that, when you are in the middle of it, you need a torch to see, although the sun may be high in the sky,’ to quote Fadoyebo himself – but in fact they had experienced nothing like it. Worse was to come with the onset of the monsoon in May when, for the next five months, three times as much rain would fall as ‘the steamy coast of Nigeria receives in an entire year’. But Fadoyebo was perhaps fortunate in this respect. Most of his contingent weren’t even from the steamy south but from the open savannah of the north bordering the Sahel.
It was tough going. With only picks, shovels, machetes and explosives, they were ordered to build a jeep track 75 miles long ‘through the wild jungle hills and ravines... In some sections, the track had to be cut into a cliff with a sheer drop of hundreds of feet.’ They completed the task in three months and named it ‘West African Way’ but it cost many lives, including 44 Gambians who died from cholera after drinking water from an apparently clear stream. In all of this, they received fulsome praise from their officers, who considered them alone of all the nationalities who fought in this campaign ‘capable of operating for months on end in the worst country in the world, without vehicles and without mules, and was alone able to carry all his warlike stores with him’. Another admired ‘men who tolerated so much so patiently, and...with such good humour and so little grumbling’.
Fadoyebo’s own conventional war was to be relatively short-lived. Barely two months into the crossing his unit was surprised by a Japanese patrol.  All except Fadoyebo and a man called David Kargbo from Sierra Leone were killed. Both had been shot in the initial exchange but for some reason their assailants spared them:
They spoke so quickly he couldn’t understand. But they repeated a phrase again and again. ‘English people. English people,’ they seemed to be saying. Were they asking him whether there were any other officers? Did they want to know where the survivors were hiding? Now they were gesturing for him to stand up. One of them pointed a rifle at his head. They were saying something else, it must have been. ‘Get up, get up,’ but Isaac could not even sit. He wondered at the idiocy of it all. Did they think that, if he could get up, he would still be lying here?
    He knew what was coming. The Japanese, take prisoner? A white  man...perhaps, but a black man? No chance. That was not how they did things. He closed his eyes and waited to be shot.
The shot never came. Of the two, Fadoyebo had sustained the more serious injuries and was later to lose his right kneecap, leaving him with a limp for the rest of what would prove to be a long, fruitful life.
And so began his and Kargbo’s personal war. Wounded, surrounded by the enemy and in the midst of a native population whose language they couldn’t understand and whose allegiance they couldn’t fathom, they only survived by what Fadoyebo himself termed ‘a stroke of unbelievable luck’, the title of the 60-page memoir he was to write many years later. Their luck was that they were near a Moslem village whose inhabitants were sympathetic to the British cause, which alone protected them from oppression by the Buddhist majority. For erratic days over the next few weeks, villagers visited their hideout with rice and water. They were fearful of taking them into the village proper at the risk of being discovered by a Japanese patrol, which wouldn’t have hesitated to do what they had recently done to a chief in a neighbouring village:
They stripped him. They laid him down in the sun and then pinioned him to the ground with bayonets through his hands and feet, and then carefully, and with skill, they stripped the skin from his back and rubbed rock salt into the tortured flesh. His village was forced to watch his execution, and stay watching until he was dead, which, though he was over sixty, did not come to him until six hours later.
However, after a harrowing few weeks in the open, and later under a makeshift shelter at the onset of the monsoon, an apparition by the name of Shuyiman appeared before them; in Fadoyebo’s recounting:
After twelve days hunger lying down hidden in the jungle, we saw an Indian Mohammedan coming towards us. On his arrival in this jungle the man said to us, ‘Oh African brothers, have you had a chop?’
    We said, ‘Oh, our father, for twelve days we have had no chop.’
    Tears ran down his eyes, and he said to us, ‘I will sacrifice my life to be feeding you from today till the troops come, no matter what will be the cost to Japanese wickedness.’
For the next seven months, he hid them in the only bedroom of his bamboo house which he shared with his wife and daughter (and, before long, a son). As it turned out, there was only one scare when a Japanese patrol undertook a house-to-house search and Shuyiman helped them into the bush behind. For the rest, Fadoyebo never detected any anxiety on the part of his saviour or his wife.
Phillips first came cross this remarkable story of the ‘unlikely’ and ‘beautiful’ bond between ‘two Africans and a Burmese in the Arakan jungle’ in 2009 when he stumbled upon Fadoyebo’s manuscript in London’s Imperial War Museum while researching a documentary for Al Jazeera. He tracked down the academic who had worked on the manuscript some years earlier and obtained an address. Wondering whether Fadoyebo was still alive, he asked a friend in Lagos, where he had once worked as a BBC reporter to see if he could track him down. Some weeks passed without any response and then he had his own stroke of unbelievable luck when the friend confirmed that Fadoyebo was indeed alive and well and anxious to speak with him. So began another unlikely – and beautiful - friendship.
Meeting with Fadoyebo and listening to his story, Phillips is perturbed by his own country’s refusal to acknowledge the services of men like Fadoyebo during the Empire’s darkest hour. He is especially incensed that they were excluded from Burma Victory, the official documentary commissioned by Lord Mountbatten, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in South East Asia, even though British army cameramen had gone out of their way to capture them on film. All Fadoyebo himself received was a certificate thanking him for his ‘Loyal Service’ and, under the column for medals, ‘Not Yet Decided’. It was still undecided when he died, despite Phillips’s own attempt to elicit a reason from the relevant authorities.
Perhaps Phillips’s book will go some way to rectify this anomaly and it would be fitting if it did so, albeit posthumously, but at least he has publicised their case. But what have we here in Nigeria done? Where are our own accounts of how our gallant men saved the empire from itself? Come to that, why did Phillips have to discover Fadoyebo’s manuscript in London and not Lagos, the author having tried and failed to get it published locally but for our broken-down system? At one point, Phillips himself wonders at what he calls ‘Nigeria’s sometimes baffling indifference to its own history’ but that hardly goes far enough. History as a subject, as an ongoing interrogation of who we are and where we are headed, has never been encouraged by the cabal which took over from the British in 1960, so much so that it was recently expunged from the school curriculum on the grounds that students shun it, and that History graduates have difficulty securing jobs. And if Burma – another man’s war, after all - seems too remote, especially in such a demographically young country, what are we to say about the civil war in the late 1960s when the breakaway state of Biafra attempted to secede and was crushed by the federal might on the grounds that, ‘To keep Nigeria one/Is a task that must be done’? There is still no official history of the central defining event of our post-colonial experiment in ruling ourselves, which in any case only merited a single page in the secondary school textbook I once came across in the days when History did feature in the syllabus.
In fact, there is no mystery about this ‘baffling indifference’, which is summed up in the meaningless slogan that justified slaughtering over one million people who merely wanted out of this polyglot colonial creation they never agreed to in the first place. Tellingly, even the document which finally amalgamated all the disparate parts in 1914 remains hidden, as if it might finally reveal the country to be a fiction after all, what one early nationalist called ‘a mere geographical expression’, which might also explain why it has been left to the writers to chart its trajectory. Burma itself was the subject of Biyi Bandele’s well received 2007 novel, Burma Boy, based on the tales his father, also a veteran, had told him, as well as Rotimi Babatunde’s short story, ‘Bombay’s Republic’, which won the 2012 Caine Prize for African Writing. Unsurprisingly, many more novels have tackled the civil war, the latest of which, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), was recently made into a film (directed, appropriately enough, by the same Biyi Bandele.)
Fadoyebo himself didn’t seem to have been particularly bitter about his hitherto invisibility but then he had made a success of his life, partly because his military service got him a good government position, partly because he belonged to a generation which enjoyed ‘the fruits of independence’, and partly because he finally got the ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels his father had denied him. But those were the long-ago days when the salary of a civil servant could buy a car, a house and raise six children, all of them now graduates with their own cars, houses and children. But he was bitter about what his country had become. As he recounts to Phillips, what had once been the serene, middle-class neighbourhood he had moved into with his young family had become a treeless, congested slum of high walls, colonised public spaces and the endless roar of generators fouling up the air because a country drowning in oil and flaring gas cannot provide constant electricity. On one of Phillips’s many visits to a man who he warmed to for his ‘modesty, integrity and gentle humour’, and who reminded him of his grandparents’ generation – ‘their emotional restraint, and how they would talk about the war when I was a small boy. Or, in fact, not talk about it very much, unless prompted’ – he waxed eloquent on the need for a revolution. Phillips, having himself endured life in the country, found it difficult to disagree with him, but is nevertheless seduced by the people’s fabled energy and optimism.
Medals aside, Fadoyebo’s greatest regret was that he never got to properly thank Shuyiman and his wife for saving his life. The occasion of their rescue was a matter of great fanfare in the village and then he and Kargbo were whisked away, although many years later, in London in 1969, he had a strange encounter which filled in a gap. He was attending a training course for Commonwealth civil servants, itself evidence of his ‘arrival,’ and was sitting alone in a restaurant near Victoria Station when he noticed an older white man openly staring at him. The man eventually came over, greeted him in Hausa and remarked that he had noticed him limping when he entered. As Fadoyebo started to explain, the man’s face ‘lit up in recognition’. It turned out that he was a retired Major who knew all about his and Kargbo’s ‘improbable survival’; and added: ‘By the way, that chap who hid you and looked after you. We gave him piles of rupees, and some cows as well. He became a rich man.’
It was only after the Major had left that it occurred to him that he might have asked for more information; and now, equally improbably, another Englishman had mysteriously turned up with the promise of closure. Both knew at once that Fadoyebo was too ill to undertake what would prove to be a gruelling journey, and Shuyiman, who was already in his forties when he rescued his African brothers in the bush, would have long since died, but Phillips was determined to go to Burma and deliver a letter to his surviving relatives:
 On my last morning in Lagos, I went to Isaac’s house in Surulere to say goodbye. He had not heard me enter the compound. I found him in the yard, hunched over a table, half-dressed in shorts and an old vest, but writing intently. For the first time, I saw Isaac’s misshapen right leg. He had no right knee as such, just a long dark scar underneath where his kneecap had once been. He was absorbed in composing the letter that he wanted me to deliver to Shuyiman’s family.
Phillips arrived in Burma during the monsoon. He had to pretend to be a tourist because journalists weren’t welcome. He did indeed manage to trace the village – an improbable event all by itself - and delivered the letter, as you can see from the documentary on YouTube. But what the documentary doesn’t convey is the wretched state they and their people were living in as unwanted minorities under a paranoid military regime: ‘Rangoon was a city of strange, stilted conversations. People seemed to talk to me in riddles, hinting at fears and frustrations rather than explicitly spelling it out, only to abruptly shut up whenever a stranger approached. The regime’s spies, I was warned, were everywhere, and wearing plain clothes.'
Nigeria also laboured under military rule but they never embedded themselves in this way. Phillips wonders whether this was because they just didn’t have the stomach for it or were simply not organised enough, but then Nigeria, unlike Burma, doesn’t have a dominant ethnic group under one religion with an idea of a past greatness. Moreover, Phillips himself is struck by the different responses to British subjugation when he contrasts the respective fates of the old colonial clubs. Those in Rangoon are all but closed down; those in Lagos are bubbling: 
The difference with Nigeria is striking. The clubs of colonial Lagos were just as important to the British, but most of them are still thriving today. Once the likes of Aduke Alakija [currently ‘the richest black woman in the world’] had forced their way into the Ikoyi Club they never looked back... In Nigeria, British snobbishness met its match in the local elite’s own sense of entitlement. Nigerians cheerfully adapted colonial traditions they admired and discarded the rest.
Perhaps it wasn’t so much that the Burmese didn’t feel entitled as that Nigerians have no lingering resentment about the colonial period, or even any quarrel over the name they were given and the language they were bequeathed. On the contrary, as the country’s first Prime Minister put on the eve of independence (and which Phillips quotes), Nigerians knew the British ‘first as masters, and then as leaders, and finally as partners, but always as friends’. It was a gracious thing to say, no doubt, but it was also true. However, it was also true that Nigeria didn’t have to endure foreign troops rampaging through it. The chapter on Burma makes for dismal reading. Even the sainted Aung San Suu Kyi comes off badly with her refusal to speak out on the plight of Shuyiman’s people.
And then there was David Kargbo, the man who had shared his fate in that faraway bush, and who Fadoyebo credits with electing to remain with him when he could have taken his chances in that same bush. They parted at Freetown on the ship that delivered Fadoyebo back home and never met or even corresponded again. Phillips, who is nothing if not as intrepid as his empire-building forebears, managed to track down his widow. She was in her late eighties, ‘a striking woman, with a fierce and proud stare’. She told him that her husband had died many years before in his early forties ‘because of the mysterious things that had happened to him in the war’. She had nothing to remember him by: the civil war in her own country had destroyed his photos and war records when their house was burnt down by marauding ‘rebels’ who specialised in disembowelling pregnant women and hacking off limbs.
It’s tempting to see Another Man’s War as the kind of gift every writer craves, a ready-made story of the hapless individual pitted against world historical forces and living to tell the tale - or having it told for him - by a stroke of ‘unbelievable luck’, but then it would never have been told but for the passion of the author. Phillips is a proud Englishman, hence his outrage over the matter of Fadoyebo’s medal; would that we were proud Nigerians, outraged by our neglect of those who have done us proud.
Adewale Maja-Pearce's latest book is The House My Father Built (Kachifo, 2014)