Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Story of African soldier fighting another man’s war

Article by: Punch Newspaper

Barnaby Phillips
British journalist Barnaby Phillips speaks with CHUX OHAI on his new book, Another Man’s War

With his new book titled ‘Another Man’s War’, awarding winning British journalist, Barnaby Phillips, has managed to draw attention to Africa’s contribution to Britain’s successful campaign in the Second World War.

Phillips says the book is a biography that tells the collective history of over 100,000 Africans who went to Burma to fight against the Japanese during the war.

“The Nigerians were the single biggest contingent, numbering maybe 30,000. But at the heart of it is the individual story of Isaac Fadoyebo. I used his story to bring in some drama and it enabled me to tell a wider British journalist Barnaby Phillips speaks with CHUX OHAI on his new book, Another Man’s War

Phillips lived in Nigeria between 1998 and 2001. During this period, he grew curious about the story of the ‘Burma Boy’ – the familiar hero in many urban tales of the African warrior’s involvement in the Second World War.

After he had looked up lots of books in libraries in Britain and found many accounts by British Army officers, he finally stumbled upon Fadeyebo’s memoirs – a beautifully written 50 page account of his experience during the war. It was only then that he realised he had found an authentic African voice giving an account of the war that was different from that of the British officers.

Although Phillips did not initially believe that Fadeyebo was still alive, he hung on to a grain of hope and went on to put out some contacts in Lagos through his friends. Fortunately and to his great delight, he discovered in 2010 that the ‘Burma boy’ was alive.

The following year, he returned to Nigeria to meet Fadeyebo and to shoot a documentary based on the ex serviceman’s experiences in Burma. In the same year, he managed to get Al-Jazeera to buy the film.

“With the benefit of hindsight, it is fantastic that we made the film because he passed away, sadly, at the end of 2012,” he says.

Aware that Nigerian playwright and lately filmmaker, Biyi Bandele, took the first step to dramatise the role of African soldiers who fought for the British in Burma – now referred to as the most brutal theatre of the Second World War – Phillips acknowledges that the former’s novel, which is aptly titled ‘Burma Boy’, essentially differs in context from ‘Another Man’s War’.

“Biyi’s book is a novel and mine is a historical account. As I have said before, my book is non-fiction. Sometimes if you are writing non-fiction you are a bit more constrained. You have to stick to the information and the sources that you have in front of you. I couldn’t imagine characters and I had to really go on with historical documents. That is the difference, I suppose,” he says, admitting that the process of documenting ‘Another Man’s War’ was fraught with constraints.

But the author claims that he stumbled upon some discoveries in the process of researching Fadeyebo’s account of the war. The main discovery was going back to Burma and finding the family who had saved the soldier during the war.

Describing this as an experience he will not forget in a hurry, he continues, “The individual who saved Isaac had passed away by the time I managed to reached his family. But the man’s children and grandchildren are still living in the same village. Initially I was worried that it would not be possible to track him down. They were part of a Muslim minority and many of them lived in refugee camps. My fear was that they might no longer be living in the place where Isaac had left them. And, in fact, Isaac’s own geographical directions were rather vague. So there were some challenges, but finding them was my main discovery.”

However, Phillips’ motive for taking Fadeyebo’s story straight out of the archives of a library somewhere in England and documenting it for public consumption is purely to provide good and exciting stuff for people to read.

The writer considers it a great privilege to have been able to tell the man’s story in film and prose and also hopes that the book will be well received in Britain and of course, in Africa.

“I think it is an incredible story of one man’s survival against the odds. Logically Isaac should have died. But he didn’t. I find him attractive as an individual. I think he was a very modest and dignified man,” he says.

The author hopes the book will do justice to the memory of the Second World War and open up a fresh conversation globally on Britain’s role in the horrendous war.

Confident that many readers will be very surprised to learn that the British took about 100,000 Africans to fight in the Second World War, which is not a widely known fact in many countries in Africa, he says, “I have put my cards on the table and say in broad terms that Britain was on the right side in the war. But that does not mean that everything that Britain did was right. In different geographical spheres of the war, the British were fighting for different motives.

“In Burma, the war was not about freedom and democracy. It was a war about empire, which was fundamentally a racist construct. In the army, for example, the African soldiers were at the bottom of the ladder. It was impossible for them to become commissioned officers and when they did become non-commissioned officers, they were not paid as much as the white soldiers. Fundamentally I would say that was wrong.”