The impact of Kenya African soldiers on the creation and evolution of the pioneer corps during the second world war.

Author:Owino, Meshack


As the Kenya colony began preparations for World War II, a crisis engulfed the newly formed Pioneer Corps at their various bases at Ahero, and Nairobi, Kenya. The main problem was the government's refusal to issue African members of the Pioneer Corps with rifles for military service, among other grievances. Indignant at what they perceived as an affront to their masculinity, the pioneers in Nairobi demanded to know why the government was refusing to arm them with rifles as promised during recruitment. On 18 September, 1939, they confronted their officers, and reminded them that: "you told us that we are just as much askaris (1) as the KAR [King's African Rifles] because the KAR cannot fight unless they have roads for lorries to take their supplies to them. Surely then, if we have to make the roads, we shall be in front of the troops and be slaughtered like women unless we are armed." (2) The situation deteriorated, and the pioneers, according to the government, went on "strike" over the lack of rifles. (3) Initially, the government responded to the striking pioneers intransigently, and dismissed "a few malcontents." (4) The pioneers were not cowed, however; the protests continued. Eventually, the government succumbed and the pioneers were assured by the government that their grievances would be looked into. (5) The pioneers scored a major victory in their struggle for a respectable and dignified status in the military when the government specifically promised to arm 25 percent of them with rifles during combat. The pioneers were also promised by the government that all of them would be trained and taught how to use firearms during military service.

There are critical lessons in African history that can be gleaned from the pioneers and their protests and campaigns in Nairobi and other places in colonial Kenya during World War II. For one, the pioneers and their campaigns and protests during military service provide us with important insights into the agency and initiative of ordinary Africans in the making of their history in colonial and postcolonial Africa. By fearlessly confronting the powerful colonial citadel over their right to bear arms, among other rights and actually earning some of those rights, the pioneers provide us with a powerful reminder that ordinary Africans have the power to bring change in their societies. Ordinary Africans need not be fearful, passive, and submissive in the face of of injustice, intolerance, or unfairness; like the pioneers during the colonial period, ordinary Africans too can take matters into their hands and confront acts of injustice, intolerance, and unfairness and bring about meaningful change in their societies.

This article therefore helps us to understand and appreciate the power, agency, and initiative of the ordinary people of African to change their lives and societies for the better. When we look at the system under which the pioneers were expected to serve during World War II, we see a system in which the colonial government was expected to give orders and lay down the law while the colonial subjects such as the pioneers automatically followed the orders and obeyed the laws without question. We see a system where the colonial government sought to treat the African pioneers as mere instruments towards its own ends. But, as we see in this article, when the colonial government started recruiting the Africans into the newly formed Pioneer Corps, it found itself increasingly coming under pressure from its recruits questioning its policies in the Pioneer Corps. Instead of being obeyed, it was being questioned. While the colonial government seemed intent on treating the pioneers as mere automatons in the service of the colony, the pioneers, on the other hand, appeared intent on ensuring that their service was dignified, meaningful, and above all else, humane. While colonial government wanted the pioneers to serve without questioning their service, the pioneers on the other hand were determined to challenge policies that undermined their dignity and humanity. Thus, the article shows that the pioneers were not passive spectators offering their military service uncritically; instead, they were constantly involved in asking questions, protesting, and organizing strikes to demand better terms of service during World War II. The pioneers were very actively involved in defining their roles and welfare in the Pioneer Corps during the war. Their protests and campaigns generated change that made their service tolerable, dignified, and meaningful, and, eventually influenced the evolution of the Pioneer Corps during the World War II.

An equally important theme in this article is the social experience of the pioneers in the World War II. Scholars have published a number of important studies on African soldiers in warfare during the colonial period. Many of these studies largely tend to focus on African wars of resistance to colonialism, (6) the formation of colonial armies and African experience in them, (7) and the role of African soldiers in World War I, (8) and World War II. (9) Other studies deal with military laborers in Africa. (10) However, only a few of these studies actually touch on the Pioneer Corps in World War II. Among such studies is Timothy H. Parsons' book on the role of African soldiers in the King's African Rifles [KAR]. (11) Following the footsteps of studies that deal with the social experiences of common soldiers, (12) Parsons' book examines the agency and experience of ordinary soldiers in the KAR. Since Parsons' work is on the King's African Rifles, he understandably touches on the pioneers briefly, and concentrates mainly on the African soldiers serving in the King's African Rifles. Michael Blundell, the Commander of a battalion of the 1st Pioneer Company during World War, also wrote a memoir that briefly touches on the Pioneer Corps in World War II. (13) However, while Blundell's memoir is very important for our understanding of some of the experiences of the pioneers in World War II, it largely focuses on his own personal experiences in colonial Kenya, and largely ignores the rank-and-file African view of the Pioneer Corps. This article therefore hopes to build on these studies that deal with the social experience of African soldiers during the colonial period by focusing on what Timothy Parsons calls "the rank-and-file African soldiers"--the African laborers who served in the Pioneer Corps during the World War II. Since the pioneers served in a labor unit during the war, it is important for them to be studied in their own right and their story told because they served just as much as soldiers in other units during the war, soldiers whose stories have already been told. Indeed, an examination of the pioneers is particularly urgent given that the few who survive are elderly and ailing, and are on the verge of disappearing with their knowledge of the Pioneer Corps, endangering our effort to tell their side of the story for the historical record. In 2001, Cpl. Thomas Alfred Oluoch Odawa expressed the hope that the memory, honor, and sacrifice of the pioneers during the war were not in vain and would not be forgotten by historians. (14)


As Europe moved inexorably towards war in 1939, government officials in Kenya started becoming anxious about the potential impact of the war on African labor in colonial Kenya. They were worried that the advent of war could disrupt labor supply in colonial Kenya because it could spark off flights of young men afraid of forced labor as happened during World War I when young men were summoned to barazas [meetings] with colonial officials and were virtually kidnapped when they came to those meetings. European settlers, who were veiy influential in colonial Kenya, were also worried about military officials taking over the management of African labor and channeling it into the army at the expense of settler farms. (15) Government officials and European settlers believed that if young men started running away from their homes out of fear of forced recruitment, and the military took over control of the remaining African labor, shortage of labor would ensue and conflicts between civilian and military authorities would follow, endangering the interests of the colonial government and the powerful settler class in colonial Kenya, and jeopardizing the ability of the government to prosecute the war. Hoping to forestall such problems, colonial government officials decided to move in very fast with a plan that could enable them to maintain control over the flow and direction of African labor during the war. They decided to form a labor unit that they could use to manage the movement African labor--be it to settler farms, government projects, or the military during the war. Thus, in March 1939, the Chairman of the Manpower Committee of Kenya (16) circulated a communique to various heads of Kenya's provinces soliciting suggestions on the formation of what he called a "Labor Corps" that would channel African labor into the Kenya military in the event that there was a war that involved Kenya. The chairman's communique identified Nyanza province as one of the regions that would be required to provide most of the labor for the proposed military labor corps because it was at that time deemed within the colonial administration as an inexhaustible reservoir of labor, and therefore capable of sustaining the labor demands of the military corps. The communique thus suggested that Nyanza province would initially contribute 3,000 men and provide more during the war. (17) Sydney H. Fazan, who became the Provincial Commissioner of Nyanza in February 1936, and who was intimately involved in the establishment of the labor corps, recalled that the "personal request [was for] me to write a memorandum on the above subject ... in my capacity as a Provincial Commissioner of a Province with a million...

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