Portraits Of African WWII Heroes Unveiled At Imperial War Museum North

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 08 September 2006
photograph of an elderly African man wearing hat and sunglasses

Andrew Gengezha. Photograph © Andrew Chirenje

A small but powerful exhibition charting the often overlooked experiences and contributions of African soldiers during the Second World War is currently showing at the Imperial War Museum North.

Afrikan Heroes: Veterans of the Second World War runs at the museum until December 3 2006 and features newly-commissioned photographic portraits, images from Imperial War Museum's own archives, film footage and the words of the men themselves.

The African contribution played a major role in the eventual Allied victory in the Second World War with forces from the Empire and Commonwealth heavily involved in several campaigns across Southern & Western Europe, the Mediterranean, North and East Africa, South East Asia, the Pacific, the Middle East.

a photograph of an elderly African man wearing a sun hat

Richard Chandaengerwa, veteran of Burma. Photograph © Andrew Chirenje

Zimbabwean curator Raphael Chikukwa has been on a journey of discovery for IWM North across eastern and southern Africa uncovering the forgotten stories of the African veterans of these campaigns - known in Africa as 'heroes'. He interviewed veterans and visited war graves across Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zambia.

An exploration of family history (Raphael's father served in Burma in the Second World War and his grandfather served in the First World War), the exhibition also reveals other previously untold stories of Afrikan Heroes.

The stunning portraits and personal stories of the veterans of these campaigns create a unique and personal view of African participation in the war, offering a timely reminder of the hidden histories among the people around us.

a photograph of an elderly African man wearing a medal and sun hat

C. Maziwawani Makanza. Photograph © Andrew Chirenje

The stories that emerge from these old soldiers reveal a sense of pride but also a sense of bewilderment and frustration at their treatment and alarming lack of pensions or compensation in the 60 years since the war’s end.

The words of Andrew Gengezha tell how a grenade left him with only one eye. “I got hurt, I tried to throw a grenade but it exploded just before me and I lost my eye. They gave me a meagre send off. Imagine, just 10 pounds. These white men are tricksters. We fought so hard and many of us died for nothing.”

Similar stories emerge from these elderly veterans and it is to the credit of the IWM North that the exhibition has been staged to remind us of some the last war’s truly forgotten heroes.

a photograph of an elderly black man with short grey hair wearing a green polo shirt

Sylvester Lubala. Photograph © Andrew Chirenje

"This project means a lot to me and to the Afrikan people at large,” said Chikukwa. “During my O-Level Studies in Zimbabwe we studied European History. The contribution of Afrikans towards the First and Second World Wars was not mentioned at all and even today very little is known about them fighting for the Empire.”

“Today I am happy that they are telling their story and that as the son of a veteran that I am doing it for them.”

By turns sad, poetic, and sometimes uncomfortable Afrikan Heroes offers a necessary reminder of how war shapes lives and the often forgotten contributions of men and women from Britain’s former colonies.

A film by Marslyn Nyangoni accompanies the exhibition, which has been launched to coincide with Black History Month during October 2006. A series of talks, screenings and music performances has also been scheduled. See the museum website for more details.

For further information about the Commonwealth contribution in World War Two visit the IWM’s online exhibition Together

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