Unearthing the artifacts of WWII: A journey through Matuu and beyond

BATUK servicemen inspect a collection of First World War artefacts at the Sarova, Taveta Taveta, in September 2017. [Maarufu Mohamed, Standard]

A conversation with a relative near Matuu in Machakos led us to a thrilling discovery that would leave any researcher smiling with satisfaction and joy.

She mentioned that her brother fought in WWII and brought home some souvenirs. I set out to see them this week. I got more than I bargained for.

Matuu is about 60 kilometres from Thika town. My step-grandmother is buried there, adding yet another twist to my checkered heritage. Still trying to pigeonhole me?

Beyond Matuu on the way to Mwingi, just about five kilometres away, is Sofia. No idea where the name came from. There is another Sofia in Happy Valley, 200 kilometres away in the white highlands. Past Sofia, turn left towards Ekalakala, past Ikatilini. In about 10 minutes, you get into a small town, Kwa Wanzilu, originally Kwa Wanjiru. Who was she? I noted around Matuu everyone seems bilingual, easily switching between Kamba and Gikuyu. Matuu is a bigger town than it appears from the road.

At Kwa Wanzilu, we met Anastasia Njeri Mureithi. She was the custodian of her dad’s WWII artifacts. The dad was Wanderi Wandii, also called Maina. We sat under a tree; the place is hot and humid, more so after the rains.

Once we had admired her shamba with beans, ndengu, sarget, and oxen, she quickly brought the metal box her dad brought home from Burma, but she says it was India. He probably passed through India on his way home. There was also a pair of pliers, rusted but usable. “The rest of the artifacts are with my grandson at Kabati on Thika-Kenol Road,” she told me. Curious, we took tea and left. She could not recall much of her dad’s return from war. She was not yet born. But her auntie could recall getting a dress from him.

Njeri told us her dad was born in 1905 and died in 1992. Did he go to war at 34 years? Was there a shortage of recruits? He left from Embu for Burma but was born in Murang’a.

Off to Kabati on Thika Road, we found Wandii’s grandson at CCF estate with unique plot sizes, 30 by 70. There were other artifacts; two bowls made of aluminum, possibly for servicing food in the mess (military dining hall), another pair of pliers, a corroded padlock, a corroded cigarette lighter, and a kettle lid.

Maina, the grandson, dug up some fascinating documents. Wandii’s union card, a recommendation letter from Professional Hunters Safaris (1976) where he worked as a skinner, a license as a conductor dated 1963, a bond to give evidence in court dated 1957, an undated letter to the Kenya Armed Forces requesting assistance showing he served in the war from 1943-1946. There is also an undated photo as a young man with someone else.

There were two other photos, one of King George VI, the father of the late Queen Elizabeth, and another with two ships at the port of Liverpool, as confirmed by Tom Lawrence, a history enthusiast. Tom’s father also fought in WWII.

Tom speculated Wandii could have visited England for the WWII victory parade in London in July 1946. His family could not confirm. Tom shared a photo of African soldiers at Regent Park in London during the parade. Would Wandii’s daughter recognise him? We can try. The best way out is to get a list of Africans who attended the victory parade. Does the new museum on Langata Road, at Uhuru Gardens, contain such information?

As I headed home in the rain after seeing the artifacts, I went into deep thought. How fascinating would it have been to talk to Mzee Wandii and other veterans when they were alive? How many such veterans have died with their stories? Fixated on textbooks, we have missed the most important source of knowledge, people themselves. We know movie heroes but not real heroes like WWII veterans.

Thousands of Africans fought for the Empire and played their unappreciated role in turning the tide against fascism. Back home, they used their military experience to wage war against their former masters. Without WWII, colonialism could have lasted longer.

I was told Mzee Wandii brought a pistol from Burma which he gave to Mau Mau. On suspicion, he was arrested and tortured, with tobacco put into his eyes. He had hidden the pistol in a piece of meat on his way from Burma, said his grandson. Tom says it was normal to bring guns from war; his father brought a Bren.

Inexorably, the heroism of our fathers and grandfathers is being buried as we watch. We can do something. I am investigating more artifacts from another veteran at Matunda near Kitale. Prof Kimura informed me his father fought in Ethiopia during WWII.

If you are from Kambaland, ever heard a song Mundu Ndakusaa by Peter Nguma about WWII? Check it here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9213WjNQoQ. It seems to describe the sinking of a battleship, Ismael Khedive in WWII. We wrote about it recently.

Did your father or grandfather fight in Burma or elsewhere in WWII? Did they bring any artifacts home? Any documents? We would love to hear from you!

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