Epitaph for our departed freedom fighters needed The Kohima Epitaph composed by John Maxwell Edmonds (1875-1958)
The Kohima Epitaph composed by John Maxwell Edmonds (1875-1958)

The Kohima Epitaph composed by John Maxwell Edmonds (1875-1958)

David Mungoshi Shelling the Nuts—

As I begin to write this week’s story, I find that I am unable to resist this light-hearted detour from my topic of the day. The detour is about the ascension of a long-suffering football club.Ladies and gentlemen, the one and only, the iconic Caps United FC, a veritable power house in our football!

After some 11 years out in the cold or on desert terrain, if you like, the green machine is finally out of the woods and grinning all the way with the trophy.

And it’s time for Caps United fans to walk the talk and go green in their culinary habits. If they do, I predict a windfall for our vegetable markets and vendors everywhere in this land of the brave. Well done guys! It’s your time to shine, as Pastor Chris would say.

Banter aside, Caps have indeed done very well, winning the league unassisted.

There were no timely coincidences of result this time around. A straight win though the finish went to the wire.

The Manchester Road boys must now take their form to their African Safari and save us the ignominy of early dismissal.

They should always remember that it could all become just another damp squib if they do not apply themselves diligently on the field of play. Like the sage that I am in these matters, I now offer for free this piece of advice: Caps should invest in its supporters by allowing them to invest in the club through, perhaps, and ubiquitous shareholding scheme where every vegetable-eating fan can put in something and on occasion take out something. Think on it, Mr Farai Jere, Sir.

Although we might be in need of some comic relief in this article, I make my suggesting quite seriously.

Now to weightier matters. We need to spare a thought for all who perished in pursuit of our freedom and independence.

Despite the many misconceptions about the war, they, in fact, did something of great import. We need to remember, as others do in their countries, our liberation armies, so often demoralised and unappreciated, but going on nevertheless. Burgess Drake, a poet, in the poem “Soldier” wrote:

I’m going soldiering

Mad the rhythm runs

With drumming and with trumpeting

And glory of the guns.

I’ve come home again

I know that blood is red

And how sodden falls the rain

Where flesh lies dead.

Drake’s poem deals a blow to the popular hallucinations about war and glamour.

He depicts the sobering moments quite convincingly — the sombre return home too: tail between the legs like a whipped dog. Images like this sometimes inspire poetry or song: on the one hand, sentimental, jingoistic drivel, and on the other, sublime poems or lyrics that being so intense, and so immediate, become unforgettable.

Everyone yearns to have their moment of glory before the great transition from the “here and now” to the “everywhere and always”.

It’s a good feeling to think that someone somewhere can sometimes want to do something to make the memory of another human being a never-fading one.

Some call such devotion idolatry — the worship of idols! Others speak of superstition and argue that whatever you enact in memory of a departed person is a reflection of just how clogged your mind is, and just how superstitious you are.

And if you happen to be a third world country, you are not even supposed to have such depths of feeling.

That is the prerogative of those who die for huge causes in the great world beyond your borders, a world where people spend their time on worthwhile causes and expend their energy on production to boost their economies.

People from Darkest Africa are incapable of thinking and planning ahead, so they live lives a day at a time. Vision 2063 is not worth the paper it is written on because despite protestations to the contrary, it is a beggars’ manual. That is what they say and keep saying until some of us begin accepting this denigration as gospel truth.

You are told you have no history to look back on. Once your sense of history is dismissed, you are classified as someone who cannot possibly know what patriotism is — let alone enunciate it — they then go on to try and re-arrange the future and to puncture your national confidence.

Anything to do with them is described in superlative terms: the greatest country in the world; the largest economy in the world; the world’s greatest democracy and other such-like self-deluding epithets.

But, as they say, circumstances alter cases and they have certainly done so in many respects.

Despite whatever may or may not have happened, I generally have this nagging feeling that perhaps we have not really analysed our historical circumstances or fully addressed the historical injustices that are the tragic story of our life as Africans everywhere.

Donald Trump, I almost said Stump, says blacks are no good. They are lazy, consumed with sex and they are habitual thieves, or words to that effect.

Trump is a billionaire, so he must be right. Otherwise how would he have made all that money? If we hear that often enough, we might just end up believing it and even preaching it as if it were our own insight, conceived and forged in the smithy of our souls. Something we are ready to defend and die for. So dear reader, when we talk about great conflicts and even greater than the conflicts — the epitaphs — we find ourselves on other people’s holy ground.

Lest I be misunderstood, I have nothing against memorial constructions by any nation on earth.

It is the inalienable right of every nation to cater to its priorities and sensibilities, and that includes us.

Remembrance is a big deal around the world and there are red poppy flowers, war memorial cemeteries and famous epitaphs that read like poetic epigrams. The Kohima Epitaph is one such epitaph.

Sometime in March 1944, the Japanese 31st Division moved forward in Burma (now Myanmar) in a move designed to sweep across Burma and into India.

The Japanese invasion force swept through the Naga Hills and crossed over into India. When they got to Kohima, it must have seemed like they were going to simply swamp the small British force there.

A military disaster was in the making unless, of course, somehow the Japanese could be stopped somehow.

At the battle of Kohima, there was a force of 2 500 British Empire troops. They were soon under siege from a much superior Japanese force of 15 000 soldiers.

Bayonet attacks and hand to hand combat raged on for weeks. The engagement lasted 64 days, with both sides incurring high losses.

However, the Japanese were eventually beaten back and had no choice but to withdraw from Kohima.

The failure at Kohima showed that Japan was not an invincible army and willy-nilly Japan’s dominance in northern Burma had begun to wane. But the story of the battle at Kohima became the source and inspiration for poems and songs.

The Kohima cemetery has 1 378 grave markers and also houses the famous Kohima Memorial, whose historic epitaph reads:

When you go home

Tell them of us, and say,

For their tomorrow

We gave our today

It is generally agreed that the verse that is today known as the Kohima Epitaph was composed by John Maxwell Edmonds (1875-1958).

However, Edmonds’ verse is thought to have been based on the poetry of the epitaph written by Simonides in honour of Spartan soldiers who fell at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC.

Simonides of Ceos (556-468 BC), a Greek lyric poet, after the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, is said to have written a memorial to the Greek soldiers who fell there. He wrote:

Go tell the Spartans,

Thou that passeth by,

That faithful to their precepts,

Here we lie.

There are numerous war memorials everywhere around the world, but perhaps none so revered as Kohima.

This is something we can emulate to our advantage.

We need to work out ways of making our own war memorials a lasting tribute to our fallen heroes, something to be embraced by all Zimbabweans forever while Mother Earth lives.

Perhaps it’s time that literary artistes did something about this.

Musically, we have done well with such timeless pieces as “Nzira DzeMasoja”, a litany of how to conduct a people’s war according to the precepts of Chairman Mao. Flavian Nyathi’s “PaChimoio Mhai” is in the same league as Xavier Matthias’ “Tormented Soul”.

The words of Nyathi’s pensive elegy in song are said to have been written by one of the doyens of Zimbabwe’s armed struggle: Comrade Simon Muzenda, a gifted poet and performer in his own right.

Zimbabweans, let us learn from others. Poets, create and submit epitaph to commemorate all our heroic dead to: [email protected]

David Mungoshi, an applied linguist, poet and short story writer. He is also an award-winning novelist.

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