AiW Guest: Oliver Coates
Isaac Fadoyebo’s memoir A Stroke of Unbelievable Luck offers a unique record of one African soldier’s war service in India and Burma. Forced to hide behind enemy lines in the Burmese rainforest for nine months, Fadoyebo’s memoir tells the story of how he relied on the kindness of a Burmese Muslim family to survive. Significant for its record of fighting in Burma, the memoir is also of great importance as it presents the reflections of a rank and file African soldier on questions such as mortality, world history, and memory. It provides an unparalleled insight into one African soldier’s analysis of a rapidly changing wartime world. Yet despite Fadoyebo’s posthumous fame as the subject of an Al-Jazeera TV documentary, and a popular book, A Stroke of Unbelievable Luck has remained out of print for years since its publication in 1999.
Isaac Fadoyebo: a life in reverse
Fadoyebo’s text engages the present as much as the past, his analysis of the war is interspersed with his reflections on life in late-colonial and post-colonial Nigeria. In this sense, we can understand the memoir by tracing it backwards from publication. Fadoyebo’s memoir started its public life in 1989, when he sent a parcel containing the manuscript to Martin Plaut of the BBC World Service in London; Fadoyebo had heard of a BBC radio documentary exploring African contributions to the Second World War. Plaut sent the manuscript on to British historian David Killingray who later published the memoir in a series by the University of Wisconsin African Studies Centre.
Yet the memoir had begun its gestation long before these events; Fadoyebo had nursed some form of his manuscript throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Interrupted by ill health and other commitments, he returned in bursts to his writing. Even before this period of writing, Fadoyebo had been encouraged to commit his story to paper. During the late 1940s and 1950s, Fadoyebo crafted his tale orally, self-professedly revelling in each retelling. Whether on a troop ship crossing the Indian Ocean, in a convalescent hospital in India, or back home in Nigeria, he continued to win new audiences for his tale of fate and survival. A particularly consequential telling, for the future evolution of the manuscript, was during Fadoyebo’s post-war career as a civil servant.
Fadoyebo began the process of translating his fascinating oral tale into writing. Fadoyebo was a commanding and accomplished writer, but he also benefited from circulating his tale orally before successive audiences. He told his tale to British soldiers in India, African newspapermen on his return to Lagos, and friends and neighbours near his home in Emure-Ile; later he shared his tale with a colleague in the colonial government Labour Department, H S Smith, who introduced him to the historian Michael Crowder. This latter contact provided encouragement for Fadoyebo, and perhaps prompted him to think of his experience in explicitly historical terms. Fadoyebo’s memoir is notable in the way in which its prose frequently either addresses itself to those interested in the past, or produces personal experience in a self-consciously historical manner. This strategy, on the part of an ex-soldier from a non-elite background, is still deeply subversive in its implications; Fadoyebo’s memoir suggests that Africa’s history could not only be written by historians from Africa, but also by individuals largely excluded from institutionally or socially validated modes of producing knowledge about the past.
All of this is consequential not only to appreciating Fadoyebo’s life, but to understanding that his memoir is difficult to periodize, gestating across decades, and written to engage a public consisting at least partly of Western historians such as Crowder, and the metropolitan journalists of the BBC. But there were other, Nigeria-focused, renderings of Fadoyebo’s tale, particularly during 1945 when his Burmese sojourn was picked up by several Nigerian newspapers.
Born in Oba-Ile, near Akure, in modern-day Ondo state in 1925, Fadoyebo grew up 30 kilometers away at Emure-Ile in Owo Local Government Area, not far from future journalist and nationalist Anthony Enahoro. Fadoyebo attended St Andrew’s Anglican School in Owo, but his dream of attending Igbobi College in Lagos, and becoming a teacher fell through, partly as a result of family financial problems, and his father’s opposition to his son’s plans. Determined that he was ‘not going to sit down at Emure-Ile and rot away,’ Fadoyebo chose to enlist in the Army in January 1942. He was 16 and ‘simply saw military service as a good job.’
Thrust into a global war, Fadoyebo found himself one of around 100,000 Nigerians who fought for the British during the war, and among the 73,290 West Africans who went to fight in Asia. Fadoyebo was assigned the job of medical orderly, a position that the British needed to fill so desperately that it was not necessary to have prior medical training, and was trained at the 44th General Hospital in Abeokuta; he later served with the 29th Casualty Clearing Station, part of the 81st Division of the Royal West African Frontier Force. Fadoyebo treated men with STIs and illnesses such as malaria, working in Sierra Leone, before travelling to India, and then on to Burma. The journey gave Fadoyebo an impromptu introduction to the wartime Indian Ocean world; he saw Durban and Bombay, and witnessed a Japanese bombing raid in Calcutta.
Once in Burma, Fadoyebo found himself thrust by chance into active combat. In March 1944, his party anchored to spend the night near Nyron village on the Kaladan River. The dawn brought destruction, with Japanese soldiers firing on the members of 29th Casualty Clearing Station; Fadoyebo watched as his friends were killed, and soon had to come to terms with the fact that he was seriously injured, and far from any hope of help. Worse still, whenever Fadoyebo attempted to move and assess the extent of his own injuries, he provoked a hail of enemy fire. ‘The bullets would seem to be bouncing off my body[,] particularly my head,’ he later wrote.
Fadoyebo was finally able to escape, along with his colleague David Kagbo. After a precarious time exposed in the rainforest, they were discovered by a Muslim Burmese family. After falsely persuading the local Bengali-speaking Muslims that both the West African soldiers were both Muslims, Fadoyebo and Kagbo were concealed by a farmer and his family, and hidden from Japanese patrols. With the changing tide of the war, and the Japanese retreat, the men were ultimately discovered by a party of Sikh soldiers and shipped back to India. After the war Fadoyebo suffered from impaired mobility, due to the wounds he received in Burma, but after several operations recovered sufficiently to work in the civil service. In finding this occupation, he was fortunate; many servicemen who returned from Asia struggled to find work and received little support from the colonial government. In the decades to come, Fadoyebo would commit his account of this astonishing journey to writing.
The perils of visibility
In a media and scholarly environment increasingly attuned to the history of Africans and Asians in both World Wars, Fadoyebo has largely gone unnoticed. This invisibility is paradoxical and is partly a case of hiding in plain sight. Fadoyebo’s death in 2013 was marked by an obituary in The Guardian, he has been the subject of an Al Jazeera documentary, and subsequent book. Yet all of this has done little to increase the prominence of his memoir, either in scholarly writing or in the public imagination. With the exception of David Killingray’s work and a recent chapter and article, Fadoyebo has remained neglected by historians as much as by literary critics; he is no more visible in Nigerian literary culture, than in Anglo-American academia.
The Burma front and the Africans who fought there might well be viewed in contemporary Nigeria as mere cogs in a foreign war; foot soldiers of the colonial occupier. But such an analysis misses the horizontal connections that characterised these histories; relationships between Burmese and Nigerians, or Indians and Sierra Leoneans. These connections flourished in the unique wartime environment where Africans from even relatively modest backgrounds enjoyed a limited form of trans-continental mobility as a result of their military service; but the archival traces of such encounters are harder to discern, and often fall outside of conventional disciplinary boundaries, and the established geographical foci of area studies.
Fadoyebo’s memoir is one exception to this. Decades later during the 1980s, Fadoyebo could still remember Bengali words, picked up during his sojourn in Burma, and he conjures the domestic intimacy of his hosts’ household into clear and expressive prose. He recalled his hosts asking ‘Cane Kaigha?’ or ‘bath Kaigha,’ Bengali phrases meaning ‘Have you had rice?’ or ‘Have you had a meal?’. Faced with such questioning, Fadoyebo remarked that ‘we quite often answered in the negative ‘cana ni’ or ‘bath ni’ to indicate they had not eaten a meal. The memoir has equally rich passages about Calcutta and the Red Sea, and about the international world of convalescent hospitals in India.
A Stroke Of Unbelievable Luck immerses its readers in the mind of a man who was at home with the world of his time; who was equally adept at commenting on the affairs of his hometown as on the fall of dictatorships, and rise of space travel. As a narrator, Fadoyebo does not allow us to pigeonhole him as a colonial subject, or as a writer easily limited by geography.
First and foremost a witness to the largely forgotten African contribution to World War Two in Burma, Fadoyebo is also a commentator on the global events of his lifetime. He crafts his narrative to draw moral and spiritual conclusions from his experiences. Above all, he claims the right of an African with only basic education to teach the world about his experience and to insert this into world history.