Swahili Notes of South African Private



Handwritten note from the back of a war diary by a white South African private who served in the East African campaign in 1916-17. It lists two dozen words in Swahili and their English translation. Most of the terms are misspelled or incorrectly interpreted.


At the end of 1915, South Africa became actively involved in the Allied campaign against German East Africa. Even though it was a dominion of the British Empire, a large part of its population only reluctantly supported the war effort and preferred fighting in Africa instead of Europe. Altogether nearly 40,000 soldiers and 20,000 labourers from South Africa served in East Africa alone. The soldiers consisted of mainly English and Afrikaans speaking men (32,000) with a small corps of Cape Coloured men (8,000). Black South Africans were not allowed to carry arms and were instead recruited or forced into porter service.
The writer of these notes was a young English-speaking man from the rural Transvaal. We know very little of his background and his war experience. He left South Africa in 1916 and spent one year in East Africa where he kept a short diary that included detailed drawings of the African landscape and villages. South African troops generally did not serve with local East African soldiers, so it is likely that his translation notes were used to communicate with local civilians. The terms are mainly concerned with food (e.g. sweet potatoes, fat, eggs), as soldiers relied on civilians to provide them with rations, either through purchases or through forced requisitions. Throughout 1916, the supply lines for the advancing troops broke down regularly leaving many soldiers at the brink of starvation. While the civilian populations in various parts of the colony faced severe food shortages themselves, there are examples of willing interactions between locals and soldiers to provide or sell food, thus providing a limited, but nonetheless regular, context for encounters.