An afternoon with the dear departed

Friday March 25 2016

Headstones of soldiers Nyeri WW2 Commonwealth

Headstones of soldiers Nyeri WW2 Commonwealth War Cemetery. PHOTO| RUPI MANGAT  

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The perfectly manicured lush green lawns beckon you inside to take in their sheer beauty.

As you walk in, serenity greets you and welcomes you for a reflective walk; a walk down memory lane to the Second World War that claimed the lives of gallant soldiers who were killed in the Second World War and laid to rest in Kiganjo, Nyeri.

Their dazzling white headstones stand tall in neat rows. They are inscribed with the name, age, rank and regiment of the soldiers who fought in the East African Campaign during WW II, considered the deadliest conflict in the history of mankind, lasting from

1939 to 1945 and claiming millions of lives.

It is estimated that between 50 million to 85 million people died during this war. To put it into perspective, the lower estimate is higher than the current population of Kenya.


The war started in Europe when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. Britain and France then declared war on Germany. Just before then in 1936, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had claimed his Italian East African Empire that comprised of

Ethiopia, the colonies of Italian Eritrea and Italian Somaliland. On 10th June, 1940, he led Italy into WW II against the British and the French to expand his East African empire to include Sudan and British East Africa – Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

This led to the East African Campaign, which was fought between June 1940 and November 1941 in the Horn of Africa. Fighting began in the remote town of Wajir in north-eastern Kenya with the Italians bombing the Allied forces (made of Britain, France,

Soviet Union and the US). The Italians were driven out but fighting continued until the Armistice of Cassibile was signed, ending hostilities between Italy and the Allies.

Those who died in this war were laid to rest in Kiganjo. The Commonwealth War Grave site at Kiganjo is like all other Commonwealth War Graves worldwide.

“They are immaculately cared for, in honour, lest we forget their (soldiers’) noble sacrifice. The Kiganjo site hosts soldiers (lots of South Africans) who died of wounds and sickness at the start of the East African Campaign to drive Italians out of Italian

Somaliland and Abyssinia (the current Ethiopia) in 1940. The Police Training College at Kiganjo was originally a military hospital and later became a Prisoner of War camp for mainly Italians,” says James Wilson, the World War historian and author of

Guerillas of Tsavo,  of the cemetery.

Brown-veined whites forming an endless stream of butterflies flutter around like confetti, as James Maina the caretaker joins us.

“There are 372 graves here: eight South Africans, six Britons, one Indian, one Frenchman, four unidentified people , while the rest are African volunteers from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia,” he narrates.


I ask him what it is like working in a cemetery for he’s been here a decade. “It’s good,” he replies. “I’m never disturbed by anyone.”

It’s a light moment and l think to myself, that’s because they are all dead. 

‘The Cross of Sacrifice’ a common feature in all the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemeteries worldwide takes centre stage.

The headstones are inscribed in English for the Christian soldiers and in Arabic with English translations for the Muslim soldiers – with the one exception of a 24-year-old Manohar Singh of the Indian Army whose headstone is in the Hindi script.

This one is most unusual because Sikhs and Hindus cremate their dead.

“His remains could well have been found much later and rather than burning the little that was left of him the authorities may have opted for burial. It is similar to the cemetery at Maktau (Tsavo East) during World War One,” reasons Willson.

“Italian remains were collected by the Italian authorities after the war and buried at the Consolata Mission Church by Nyeri Hill, together with the Italian General in command of all Italian forces in Ethiopia, the Duke of Aosta,” continues Willson.

“This is the samechurch that holds the remains of The Venerable Sister Irene Stefani who was blessed by Pope Francis in 2015 for her work amongst the Kikuyu and the porters during WW I.”

We continue reading the headstones of the African soldiers from the King’s African Rifles, the East African Army Corps, African Pioneer Corps, Northern Rhodesian Regiment – so many young men losing their youth to the horror of war.

WW II was the impetus for African countries to fight for independence. A quote by Kango Muchai, a KAR veteran sums it up: “We were told over and over again that we were fighting for our country and democracy and that when war was over we would

be rewarded for the sacrifice we were making…The life I returned to was exactly the same as the one I left four years earlier: no land, no job, no representation, no dignity.”


Do not be afraid of graveyards. Visit any of the 32 Commonwealth War Graves and be intrigued and inspired to promote peace as what you learnt in history class about the World Wars comes to life.

The lush beauty of the well-kept graves will wow you and signal you to take a quiet reflective walk through the graveyard. Most of the sites are open to the public between 6am and 6pm. Apart from Nyeri, there are Commonwealth War Graves in Nairobi,

Mombasa, Eldoret, Kisumu, Nakuru, Thika, Kiambu, Kitale, Voi, Kajiado, Nanyuki and Gilgil.