Witty Mosotho centenarian looks back at war and past pandemics

Irene Seme

Maseru – From reading history books and merely listening to tales about the 1939 – 1945 World War II, it is easy for most contemporary Basotho to dismiss it as a distant event in history, with little if any relevance to Lesotho.

Born on August 28, 1921 at Ha Lenono in Maseru, Khaile is the last born of nine children whose uncanny presence of mind defies physical exertion expected of someone his age. When I visited him at Masianokeng Maseru, I found him seated in a comfortable chair under the shade net and upon greeting him, I my expectations were unsettled by his quick response in a fresh voice not expected for one who is over 100 years of age.

“Grandfather, you look so young for your age,” I begin by teasing him. To my surprise he responds with a loud laughter and a fresh voice, “Have a seat young lady,” pointing to a wooden bench that was in front of him on which was a sewing thread roll with needle.

“So these are yours, what were you doing with them?”, I teased him again and he laughed, “I was sewing my coat. I know you are going to ask me if I can still see. Yes, I can see without my spectacles although I must admit my eyesight is now problematic sometimes but I put on that thread by myself without any assistance.” “You look very surprised and in disbelief that I am still able to do a lot of things. Let me tell you it’s because I never tortured my body with toxins such as alcohol.”

So I said to him, “With this energy in you, I guess you were a commander of some troops during the Second World War,” but he quickly dismissed that and immediately began narrating at length how he took part in World War II.

“Back in our days, we started school at the age of 15 and, being boys, we took turns to go to school because we were the families’ herd boys. Sometimes I’d only go to school twice a week because we took turns among the three of us in the family as herd boys,” said Khaile with a smile looking past me in the vacant horizon reminiscing on his now distant childhood. I ask what he wished to become after school back then, and he says back then they never had a plan to become anything. He went to school up to Standard 3 just to be able to read and write.

“We were just going to school so that we would able to write our names,” he says. Besides bunking school herding livestock, he says some boys who went to school late like him would often miss classes because they could not bear the embarrassment of attending school with much younger children, some of whom were not even in their teens yet.

In 1939 he was 18 and was therefore old enough to join military training so that he’d go to war. Khaile says in order to join the army in those days, Paramount Chief Simon Seeiso Griffith would order area chiefs to select men who’d go to war but before their departure, they had to undergone a two-week training session on how to use a gun.

“The German leader Hitler wanted to rule the world, so he recruited nearby countries to side with him in war to fight against England. But when those countries refused he fought them and in that way he created more enemies making it difficult for him to find allies,” he says.

Eventually Germany signed alliance treaties with Italy and Japan slowly making Hitler’s desire dominate the world a possible reality. Khaile remembers how Britain and France then joined hands to declare war against Germany and, as a result, “Britain called out for help from the southern African countries in its empire such as Lesotho, Botswana, South Africa and Swaziland (now Eswatini.”

“Lesotho was called in mainly because it was a British protectorate. That’s when we underwent two weeks training on how to use a gun,” he recalls. “The British brought cars and we travelled from here to South Africa to catch a train to Durban and from Durban we met with other nations and we boarded a big ship to England,” he says.

He becomes so animated while reminiscing about the war that even his voice becomes clearer and louder. “We spend the whole month at sea because we had to go take a longer route to avoid German and Italian submarines since they had already heard that the British were recruiting more soldiers from Southern Africa.”

“I saw Eden, the biblical Eden garden,” he says with a wide smile, “We passed by it as we were on our way to England. A German submarine tried to attack us but they failed because our captain had seen it and our crew returned fire.”

Suddenly, his tired face contorts and turns sad as he recalls how some of the passengers on board died in that submarine attack, “unfortunately we lost some of our members in that attack.”

He remembers how they stayed in Egypt for about two weeks before passing on to their camp prepared in Syria where they met with more people from other nations who were there to assist England in the war. While in Syria, Khaile says they constructed a road for the war trucks to transport guns and other weapons thereafter they went back to Egypt so that they would board war boats to Italy.

“In Italy we arrived in Ferragamo where the war broke; we fought until we won the war as our opponents kept moving towards Germany. I remember very clearly that we were camped in a city called Pompei where there’s a volcanic mountain.”

Although he’s old, Khaile is an enthusiastic narrator who clearly still feels he is a proud warrior. While in Italy, the former head of the Catholic Church, Pope Pius XII, called all the civilians and soldiers to the Vatican Square where they were joined by priests and nuns to pray together against the war and they heeded to the call.

When they left the Vatican Square, he says they went back to their camp in Pompei from where they were then deployed to the border between Germany and Italy where he said an Afrikaner commander ordered them not to fight but to surrender.

At this point Khaile scratches his head in an attempt to remember the commander’s name but his memory fails to. Most of the English soldiers he was with could not fathom the dishonour of capitulating so he says they decided to shoot themselves dead than go home in shame as cowards.

Eventually, disgruntled by the excesses of the German army, the Italians switched sides and fought side by side England. His narration of his experiences animates him so much that you would think it happened only yesterday. Khaile smiles when he recalls the mood among his comrades after Germany was defeated.

“When we were at the camp regrouping, we’d have fun eating and playing with our guns. We had healthy, non-perishable food which I believe was prepared purposely to give us strength for days because in a war you don’t really have meal times like when we were regrouping in our camps,” says Khaile with a smile.

“The Americans and us (black Africans) got along well because the Americans had some African Americans with them but Afrikaners from South Africa didn’t like us still though we were in the same group. “I remember the other day during the regrouping session while we were at dinner, us and the Americans would dine together on one table but the Afrikaners always isolated themselves.

“So an African American went to their table, had a small chat with them and all of the sudden he went under their table and turned it over for fun but it ended in a fist fight,” says Khaile. “When they asked why we fought them, we told them it was because they called us Kaffir and they wanted to take our land Lesotho. Then they apologised and promised to never call us like that again,” he recalls.

Asked if he would like to go to war again, his face changes and he shakes his head. “No! There’s nothing good about war because when one solder died, we would just dig alongside the road and bury them there. Many people still don’t know where the remains of their relatives who were in World War II are.”

He remembers how some years ago a young Mosotho man visited him to enquire about the remains of his grandfather who he was with on the war front but, unfortunately, he couldn’t help because there were no specific burial sites. The incident left an indelible mark of pain in him to this day, he says, his voice shaking in anguish.

Coming back home after war in 1945 at the age of 24, Khaile says he already knew that he was going to get married to the love of his life although they had never met in person but had only been in touch by writing letters to each other while he was abroad.

“There were people from home who would sew jerseys, hats and scarfs, so they would send these gifts to us abroad and we would just choose who we want to keep communicating with,” he smiles and adds that on his arrival in Durban he bought a suit and other clothes for the wedding and for the wife to be.

“Were there no girls abroad, why didn’t you marry a British woman?” I ask and he laughs hard and says, “no, one wouldn’t bring a woman from abroad; we had our girlfriends here at home.” On arrival he wrote a letter to his girlfriend, Julia Sele, later called ‘Malempe Khaile after they married a few months later. With his wife, ‘Malempe, now late, the couple was blessed with eight children.

Khaile had the ninth child from a second wife who, unfortunately, did not stay in marriage for long. “After the death of my wife I remarried but it didn’t work out and my second wife left but I took full responsibility of my child and all my nine children got along very well,” he says. During the interview, one of his daughters Semakaleng passes by and his father points at her with pride and says, “this is my fourth daughter.” Out of his nine children, five are still alive and he has 15 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.

After World War II, he says they were offered civilian jobs in government since they couldn’t be soldiers as there was no army in Lesotho in those days. He worked as a correctional offer in charge of training new staff before becoming an officer in the ministry of agriculture. Asked what he misses the most about life in the olden days, Khaile says back then young people respected the elders and would never talk back.

“One of the signs of disrespect these days is that if you see a boy and a girl standing together and when you are passing by them they don’t move. Instead, they remain in their position and would rather hold each other close,” he says shaking his head in disgust. “In our days we’d separate and if we were to be asked why we were together, we’d even both deny knowing each other,” he adds with a little chuckle.

“These days the source of bad behaviour for our children is the rights (human rights) because elders are not supposed to lash their children. In our days, one wouldn’t just keep watching if they see anything amiss happening; we had to help or report otherwise any elderly person in the community would beat you up for being irresponsible.” In comparison to modern day life, Khaile says the only thing he appreciates is technology because with it is easy and fast to pass messages. Speaking about the pandemics he survived, Khaile recalls how he survived leprosy and smallpox.

“There was a leprosy pandemic which was bad as it affected the skin and the body parts such as the nose, ears and mouth which would just disappear. There was a camp of people who were infected by this disease at a place now called Lepereng. My father-in-law once secured a job for me there after I got married to my wife but I’m telling you I only reported for duty on that first day and never went back again because what I saw there was bad,” he says with a chuckle. He continues, “I also survived smallpox and now Covid-19. Now it’s easy to have information about these diseases because there are radios and television. But back then we didn’t know much because radio was for a few educated people.”

Khaile quickly stands up and rushes to the house and in disbelief that he still walks almost with a straight gait unlike many old people, I ask, “So you can still walk straight up?” He laughs softly and says, “If you don’t use alcohol and cigarettes you’ll be like me.” He then comes back with a pile of old photos and we begin to go through the memories in the snaps together.

 

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