Sunday, June 12, 2016

An African Hero: Mkwawa and the War Against Germany

An African Hero: Mkwawa and the War Against Germany
There are moments in history that compels us to stop and reflect. We can learn something important about us as a people, a nation, a continent, by examining those moments closely. The destruction of the famed German Kaiserlich Schutztruppe in what is today southwest Tanzania in 1891 is one of those moments. Heroes come few and far in between. The Hehe Chief Mkwavinyika Mungigumba Mwamuyinga or better known as Mkwawa, is one of those leaders who will go down in history as one of the greatest African leaders. This is one of those moments in time that we must remember and cherish!
For every story, there is a story teller. A thin, tall, polite, and unassuming man used to visit our home at Chuo Kikuu in the early 1980s. He was none other than Chief Adam Sapi Mkwawa, the grandson of the legendary leader Mkwawa. Chief Adam Sapi Mkwawa was a larger than life figure for me, a towering giant with a powerful voice and an contagious laughter. Do not be misled by his pleasant demeanor; Chief Adam Sapi was a fierce fighter for independence. He was the speaker of the Parliament in the 1980s. The visits by this distinguished leader to our home nudged my curiosity for history, and Mkwawa, in particular. But before I get ahead of myself, this is not a story about me; it is with the story of Mkwawa that I seek to reclaim here. Who is Mkwawa and how did he uphold the dignity of Africa?
Mkwawa was born in 1855 in Luhota, Iringa in what is now southwest Tanzania. He was the second son of Chief Munyigumba. His full name was Chief Mkwavinyika Munyigumba Mwamuyinga. The name Mkwawa came from Mukwava, which was shortened from Mukwavinyika. Chief Munyigumba succeeded in bringing together over one hundred clans to form a powerful state with a centralized government around 1860. A power struggle ensued after the death of Munyigumba between Mkwawa and Mwamubambe. Mkwawa was the victor when all the dust settled by 1880. He then set out to consolidate his empire. This was a bloody and costly endeavor. No one said empire building was a bloodless endeavor.
Mkwawa was at the pinnacle of power in the last quarter of the 19th century. This was a period of great turmoil in Africa. The demise of the institution of slavery in the western world led to the quest for new ways of exploiting Africa and its people. The conclusion of the Berlin Conference in 1885 came just twenty years after slavery was abolished in the USA. The last vestiges of slavery were not abolished in Brazil until 1888. The invasion of Africa, therefore, came shortly after the institution of slavery was abolished in the West by some of the most powerful nations. New ways of exploiting Africa and its people was put into place.
After exploiting the continent for its labor force, working countless souls to death in the New World, Europeans and their counterparts in the Americas, utilized the capital they accumulated to industrialize and build their nations. It was the beginning of a new era of capitalism. Once again, Africa became the focal point of European interest in the quest for wealth. East Africa would become the new theater of capitalist onslaught.
Europeans viewed East Africa as a place with great potential for generating wealth. Africa had untapped mineral resources, abundant labor, and markets for manufactured products. Prevailing pseudo-scientific publications purported black African intellectual inferiority; such studies were partly used to justify European invasion of the continent. Social Darwinists were busy painting Africans as savages who needed to be guided like children into civility. Civilization, so they claimed, had not touched this part of the world. The Hehe under their abled leader Mkwawa would challenge these myths on the ground at the Battle of Lugalo. 
The German commander in East Africa, Emil von Zelewski, decided to personally head German forces against the Hehe in 1891. The Germans called their African army Kaiserliche Schutztruppe at the time. The African soldiers would eventually become known as Askaris. Zelewski commanded over three hundred Askaris, thirteen European officers, and hundreds of African porters in August of 1891 when he ventured towards the Hehe capital in Iringa in what is today southwest Tanzania. It is safe to say that this was a fight between two groups of African soldiers; one group fighting for their land (Hehe) and another (Askaris) fighting for Germany. 
The 1891 Battle of Lugalo goes down as one of the best battles in military history. The Hehe had a superior intelligence gathering organization. It was made up of Wahandisi who were placed about four days walk from their main forces. Another group called Wadagandaga were stationed several hours in front of the Hehe army. Information was collected and forwarded to Hehe commanders. Mkwawa was well informed about the Schetztruppe as they advanced towards Iringa in August 1891. Hehe commanders evaluated the situation and decided to avoid an open battle in the valley with the enemy forces. The Schetzruppe had artillery, machine guns, and rifles. The Hehe had a few muskets, shields and stabbing spears. Mkwawa and his commanders decided on a brilliant plan. The Hehe army would attack the Schetztruppe at a rocky gorge near Lugalo. It was a narrow path that enemy forces had to pass through on their way to Iringa.
Hehe soldiers waiting patiently on August 17, 1891 as enemy forces approached. Zelewski led his forces in the front on a donkey. The Hehe attacked with lighting speed. The Schetztruppe were caught by surprise. What followed was mostly hand to hand combat. At the end of the battle, only about sixty four Askaris and two or three German officers lived to tell the story. Zelewski’s body laid lifeless on the ground. A sixteen year old Hehe warrior stabbed and killed him on the spot. 
This was the worst defeat in the history of Schutzetruppe!
Zelewski was arrogant. He never thought Africans were capable of such brilliant planning and execution. Many historians focus on Zelewski’s mistakes. Such approach misses an important lesson: the Hehe victory was a result of a brilliant battle plan. The victory at the Battle of Lugalo places Mkwawa next to some of the best military minds of the time.
The Germans were forced to go back to the drawing board and rethink their strategy against the Hehe. The self-delusional ideas about African inability to use their intellect, if they had it at all, had to be reconsidered. The Germans spent the next three years organizing and preparing to defeat the Hehe and kill Mkwawa. A German captain Tom Prince, one of the survivors of the Battle of Lugalo, vowed to avenge “German honor” as he would later write in his book Gegen Araber und Wahehe (Against Arabs and Wahehe). It would take considerable efforts and resources to defeat the Hehe. One of the lessons for the Germans was that they had to forge alliance with African rulers. Through scorched Earth policy, capturing and imprisoning Hehe women, alliances with Hehe enemies, the Germans eventually succeeded in isolating Mkwawa after 1894. The end would not come until July 1898 when Mkwawa decided to shoot himself when he was surrounded by the German forces. It was the beginning of the end to one of the most important moments in Africa’s history.
The Germans cut off Mkwawa’s head and sent it to Germany. It was difficult for them to believe that an African was capable of doing what Mkwawa and the Hehe did to them. The Hehe never seized in their quest to have Mkwawa’s skull returned. The Hehe sent delegations to British colonial authorities demanding the return of the skull starting in 1918 at the conclusion of World War I. A section was inserted in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles requesting Germany to return the skull. The Hehe wanted the skull of their leader back; they believed that Mkwawa’s spirit would not join the great ancestors until the skull was returned.
Chief Adam Sapi Mkwawa met with the British Governor, Sir Edward Twining, in 1951 in Iringa. He asked the Governor to request Germany to return the skull to Tanzania (then Tanganyika). It would take the British colonial government two years to find the skull and another year to return it to Tanzania. Mkwawa’s skull was housed at a museum in Bremen, Germany. The Germans had denied its presence all along. 
Mkwawa's skull was kept together with 2,000 other human skulls from Africa. The team searching for the skull identified 84 skulls from German East Africa; they were able to identify Mkwawa’s skull by comparing his measurements to those of family members. Furthermore, the skull had a bullet hole through the temple.
The skull was returned to Tanzania and handed over to Chief Adam Sapi Mkwawa in Iringa July 9,1954. It was a triumphant moment for the Hehe and the young nation in the making. The spirit of this great African was free to join the ancestors. Just a month after the return of the skull, a national independence organization, the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), was formed. Mkwawa had his last revenge on the colonialists. Tanganyika won independence in 1961. The dignity of Africa was upheld once and for all!
Longer version of this article will be coming to you soon. Stay tuned!
*Perhaps the time has come to conduct DNA testing to confirm the authenticity of the skull and not rely on circumstantial evidence.

By Azaria C. Mbughuni

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