At the crest of Mwashoti Hill inside the sprawling Taita Hills Wildlife Sanctuary in Mwatate sub-county stands a green-painted, six-foot brick-and-sand monument.
From that vantage point, the undulating brooding Bura ridges and sprawling windswept Tsavo grasslands spread out to the horizon. Far to the West, the blue hazy silhouette of Mt. Kilimanjaro is faintly visible, shimmering faintly as it towers high in the clear skies.
The countryside, green with life and exploding with flowers, carries a haunting beauty that conceals century-old atrocities committed over the idyllic landscape.
As the small group of tourists approaches the cenotaph, a subdued air descends and their lively chatter dies.
Willy Mwadilo, the General Manager of Taita Sarova Hills and Saltlicks Hotels and the guide for the tourists, stands before the stone monument and touches it, almost reverentially.
“This is the only memory we have of thousands of unknown Africans who died during the World War 1. We hope to honor them in death,” he explains.
He says the commemorative monument in honor of African carrier corps and soldiers who perished between 1914 and 1918 during the First World War is an attempt to ensure the vital role played by Africans in the British-German conflict is not forgotten.
The erection of the monument, an initiative by Sarova Group of Hotels, is being viewed as righting a historical wrong committed upon hundreds of thousands of unnamed African males used as porters, cooks and guards for the British soldiers during the bloody war and whose input remain unacknowledged and uncelebrated.
Western historians of World War One have largely expunged the key role played by Africans from the history of the First World War. Their focus has largely been on the exploits of the white soldiers from both sides of the warring nations while Africans are pushed to the fringes of the battle.
In August 2014, during the commemoration of World War One centenary, James Wilson, the renowned historian and author of Guerrillas of Tsavo, admitted that Africans had been confined to the periphery of history of First World War. He called them ‘the boots and hands’ that won the war.
“Without porters to ferry supplies and weapons for the soldiers at the battle front, that war would never have been won. They were central to the war and should have been recognized,” he said.
It is estimated that over half a million Africans were actively involved in the battle. Half of them died in the war. Mr. Wilson has already started a fundraiser to honor the forgotten dead and has so far raised 200dollars.
Mwashoti and Maktau areas, in Taita-Taveta, were at the epicenter of troops’ mobilization. Mwashoti Hill was home for a Mashoti Forte, a temporary but impregnable station, where British soldiers fighting at the battle front in Maktau could get supplies quickly.
The fort was also strategically located with a clear view to Mt. Kilimanjaro where Schutztruppe, German forces in then Tanganyika, were preparing an onslaught of the British army.
Deep trenches, now overgrown with grass, weed and climbing vine scan still be seen at the hill, a century after the war. The fort had heavy artillery to repulse the German soldiers.
But even in death, Africans’ role remains unacknowledged. The most visible indicator of this historical oversight is the presence of three officials Commonwealth War Graves in Taveta, Maktau and in Voi. There is not a single African buried in the commonwealth graves.
Taveta cemetery was exclusively for Indians and German soldiers while Maktau was for Indians. Voi Commonwealth War Graves set aside for British soldiers and their allies. Lieutenant William Dartnell, an Australian soldier who was awarded Victorian Cross, the highest military honor, is buried at the Voi Cemetery.
Africans who died either from attacks by wild animals, diseases, hunger or fatigue were abandoned in the thick bush to rot away. It is reported that the 47-km stretch between Voi town and Maktau might be the biggest undocumented graveyard in Africa with tens of thousands of porters who died while carrying supplies and were left in the bush. Mr. Wilson said it was impossible to carry both dead Africans and the supplies at the same time.
The injustice gains national proportion given that porters were ferried to the battle zone from as far as Nyanza and Western Kenya counties. Initially, the Britons conscripted Taita men in Voi and its environs to carry heavy loads, guns and other supplies but they were considered frail and tired quickly.
The use of oxen was unsuccessful due to tsetse fly infestations that killed hundreds of animals. Stronger porters with muscular physiques and who would walk for over 10-km daily with a load of 40-kg strapped on their backs were needed.
As a result, tens of thousands of Luo and Luhya men were ferried to the region using the railway and dropped at Voi town. They would later be divided into groups of 1,500 porters with each group manning a strategic point in the long route to Maktau.