Forgottenheroes: Remembering legacy of Ismael Khedive tragedy

SS Khedive Ismail. [Courtesy/British Army nurses]

Eighty years ago, the Ismael Khedive, a ship carrying troops from Mombasa to Colombo, Sri Lanka, was struck by Japanese torpedoes and sank near the Maldives, not far from India.

According to online sources, of the 1,511 people aboard the Khedive Ismail, only 208 men and 6 women survived the sinking and subsequent battle. Most of the troops onboard were from East Africa. One survivor is listed as Burugu, alternatively known as Mburugu. Was he your father or grandparent?

A Kenyan named Zachary Mburu Mwikonyi was aboard a nearby ship and witnessed the sinking of the Ismael Khedive. He was en route to Burma (now Myanmar). Upon returning home, he participated in the Mau Mau rebellion but was laid to rest without military honors. It is doubtful whether his epitaph commemorates his military service.

Many other World War I and II veterans have been forgotten, unless interred in one of the numerous Commonwealth cemeteries. Could the poor condition of other cemeteries be contributing to the rise in cremation?

Online sources provide a list of those who perished aboard the Ismael Khedive. A memorial for them stands at the Ngong Road Commonwealth Cemetery. Sample names include Alois Masinde, Chacha Marwa, Chakusia Gitagama, Gatira Kamau, Kamau Njuguna, Kilonzi Makau, and Maingi Nthei. Did your relative meet their end in that tragic event?

It seems that we do not accord sufficient honour and attention to the departed. While we eagerly adopt aspects of the US political system, such as governors and senators, why not replicate their burial sites like Arlington National Cemetery? Where is our Heroes' Acre? Obsessed with the living, we seem to have little time for the dead, which is peculiar considering that eventually, we will all join them.

Why was there no commemoration for the Kenyans who perished aboard the Ismael Khedive? Some might argue that it's too distant a memory, with many other pressing issues facing us today. However, there are compelling reasons to remember the men and women who lost their lives in that tragedy.

They were Kenyan or East African, which is reason enough to honor their memory. Additionally, they were pioneers, venturing far from their homelands at a time when such journeys were rare and perilous.

Though they may have perished, their brethren fought in a war that changed the course of history. By aligning with the British in World War II, our forebears challenged the myth of white superiority and laid the groundwork for the freedoms we enjoy today. By commemorating these individuals, we inspire future generations to patriotism and heroism.

One of the weaknesses of our socio-political system is the neglect of history as a means of inspiring the next generation. Can we learn from the Britons, who draw strength from events like the Battle of Hastings in 1066? What are our historical inspirations in Kenya? The closest we have is the Mau Mau rebellion, yet even that is not given its due credit. Perhaps deliberately, to avoid acknowledging the role of certain communities in the struggle for liberation. 

The debate on which side of the liberation war you were on has been muted for 60 years. I will not restart it. We hope natural justice will take its course. And did you know Idi Amin Dada, the Ugandan dictator, fought against the Mau Mau in Kenya and left some offspring in Muranga? Is it in the forests of Aberdares and Mt. Kenya where Amin learned to terrorize citizens? How did he end up in Kenya?

Commemorating events like the sinking of the Ismael Khedive is crucial for preserving family history, which often goes unheeded in Kenya. Your grandparents may have lived through remarkable transitions, from colonialism to independence, and their stories can inspire future generations.

Our curriculum neglects such local narratives in favor of textbook knowledge. Shouldn't veterans like those aboard the Ismael Khedive be esteemed guests in our universities, sharing their firsthand experiences with students? Will the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) address this oversight?

Two of my uncles fought in World War II in Burma, both returning home unharmed but never having the opportunity to record their stories. Was your relative aboard the Ismael Khedive? We invite you to share their story with us.