The ghosts of Burma live on in Nairobi 80 years later

 Burma Market in 1990. [File, Standard]

The name Burma conjures up images of sizzling nyama choma, with generous portions of steaming ugali, peppered with hot chilli.

This name, however, has history that goes beyond Jogoo Road in Nairobi. It goes back to a place that is today known as Myanmar, a killing field where over 2,000, Rohingya civilians have been killed and about a million people displaced.

To a few remaining Kenyans of the fast disappearing generation that fought the Second World War in 1940s, Burma was a valley of death where some 90,000 Africans dodged Japanese bullets only to die from mosquito bites as they defended India from Japan on behalf of Britain.

Those who succumbed to starvation, bullets or mosquito bites or a myriad of other diseases were buried in soggy, shallow graves. A grim future, however, awaited survivors who returned home.

Historians have documented how the returning African soldiers had to contend with a meager compensation of three shillings for every month one had survived the bullet. But the government’s oppressive licensing regulations made it impossible for the veterans to invest their money in any trade.

They returned to a country experiencing political upheavals owing to recession, unemployment, landlessness, racial segregation and over taxation. Nairobi of the 1940s was teeming with thousands of unemployed men.

Meanwhile the soldiers could only utilise their remittances at the place they had been recruited along Jogoo Road where they established stalls and started trading in second-hand clothes. Most reported to their stalls wearing their military fatigues. They named the place Burma in memory of the place most had earned the money they were now investing.

The demobolised soldiers spent the day in Burma but retreated to Shauri Moyo and Majengo to sleep. They joined trade unions which agitated for better pay for Africans. At one point the government provoked a strike so that it could arrest one of the veterans, Fred Kubai.

Burma where some traders had been relocated to when Kariokor market was being refurbished  was burnt down after the riots. The government perceived Burma as a hotbed of political agitation where Mau Mau freedom fighters recruited followers.

The market gained notoriety on November 27, 1952 when an African Advisory Council member said to have betrayed the freedom cause was murdered at Burma triggering the arrest of all traders and its burning down by loyalists.

Most of the soldiers are long dead but Burma lives on in Nairobi, unmovable and defiant, just like the founders.