World war cemeteries: Well kept ‘pieces’ of England in foreign lands

The cemetery in Jinja which has the most well kept grounds On the second Sunday of every November, the British High Commissioner to Uganda and other High Commissioners from Commonwealth States go to the cemeteries to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the wars. Photo by Nelson Wesonga.

What you need to know:

There are four World War cemeteries in Uganda— places that house the remains of those who fought in the wars. While some of them are well maintained, others are not as well taken care of.

A headstone with the inscription, “There’s some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England,” juts out of a cemetery in Jinja. Beneath lie the remains of an Englishman, Sergeant V.L. Holloway, who died in 1944 while serving in Great Britain’s Royal Army Service Corps.

“This is not just a memorial, bones were buried here,” says William Kiswiriri, 67, who has been the caretaker of the Jinja African War Cemetery for the last 10 years.

Unlike the municipal cemetery in Bugembe, where cattle often graze and daub the grounds with dung, Kiswiriri is always around to tend the Jinja African war cemetery.

Purple, red, yellow and green ankle or knee-length flowers intersperse 182 other headstones lining the cemetery’s lawn.Without the headstones and the flowers, the green, mowed lawn would pass for an international soccer field.

In the visitors’ book are comments from people from various countries, such as Tanzania and South Africa. Corneli de Wet from South Africa says “very beautiful and well kept”. Townend from England describes it as “very peaceful and well kept”.

Kiswiriri says some people think it is a memorial ground because apart from headstones, they do not see mounds of earth or tombstones that are common in graveyards. Even then, since many are superstitious, they do not venture into the grounds.

The place was meant for Black Africans, who had served with the King’s African Rifles (KAR) and died in the course of defending the interests of Great Britain during the two World Wars. It, however, currently holds, along with the KAR members, the remains of Europeans. The majority of the remains here are of those who died in the Second World War.

According to the Commonwealth Graves Commission, Jinja was the Uganda centre for the KAR, which was formed between 1902 and 1960. The first body to be buried here was interred in 1939. Since, at the time of the wars, Uganda was a British Protectorate, some Englishmen like Sgt Holloway ended up being buried in Uganda.

There are four World War cemeteries in Uganda: in Jinja, Entebbe, Kampala and Tororo, and they are properties of the commission.

This partly explains why municipal cemeteries, not only in Jinja but also in Kampala, are being “bought” by “investors”, while nothing of the sort is happening to the World War cemeteries in Uganda.

When the then Kampala City Council “sold” a cemetery in which seven English servicemen had been buried, the commission went and exhumed their remains and brought them to Jinja for reburial.

Just like the Jinja and Kampala war cemeteries, the one in Tororo is in a well-maintained compound, beautified with flowers, trees and towering crosses. The town was a recruiting and training centre for the East African Military Labour Service.

The cemetery is located along the Tororo-Bugiri highway, and 160 identified casualties of the wars are buried there.

Surrounded by block walls, the area is 150 square metres. In the central section, is a cross on a pedestal, which bears a plaque with the inscription: “Let us pray for the dead souls [lost] from 1939-1945.” The inscriptions are still readable though they are fading. Every month, the caretaker, paints the tombstones, giving them a fresh sheen.

About eight years ago, the local municipal authorities in the respective districts were managing the graveyards. But there were complaints that the municipal authorities were not attending to them. So the commission decided to contract private entities to manage them.

A Tororo municipal official says because of financial constraints, the municipalities could not afford to employ people to take care of the cemetery.

In Tororo’s case, the municipal council had to tender it out to someone who could take care of it.

“The contractor is paid by the British to maintain it,” says Dr. Godfrey Buyinza, the Tororo Municipal Medical Officer in-charge of the war cemetery.

Moses Papai, the caretaker, says this particular cemetery was “rescued” in 2006 after it became bushy since the Tororo Municipal Council failed to look after it. He started working at the cemetery in 2000, and was not being paid for his services. “But since the British took over, I am being paid,” he says.

Kiswiriri, too, is happier. “I am always paid in advance. If I want six months’ pay in advance, the commission wires it from the United Kingdom to my account in Uganda. So there is every reason to maintain the place,” he says.

But the Entebbe war cemetery is in a nondescript area. For starters, it does not have railings or even hedges to “set it” apart. Not even flowers between the graves. And it has the fewest of the graves of the victims of the wars, just four.

The road from Kitooro to Entebbe airport and the homes around serve as a boundary of sorts.

The grass is not as short as that in the Jinja, Tororo or Kampala graveyards; and this gives the impression that this place is not mowed as often as others.

Also, unlike the others, in the Entebbe cemetery, one will see concrete mounds so people can easily “recognise” the place as a graveyard. And, unlike the Jinja cemetery that has a store for tools such as secateurs used to prune the flowers, the Entebbe has no store.

However, though the commission sends money for the maintenance of the cemeteries, the contractors are toying with several ideas.

Papai says with the running of the cemeteries now in the hands of private entities, the new managers intend to turn them into memorials, as well as tourist attractions, to fetch income for their own maintenance. Presently, it is free to enter the grounds.

Kiswiriri says they often get “visitors” though it is mainly whites.

“Europeans come and look around. But many Ugandans fear graveyards because of the belief in superstition and ghosts and the harm they could cause,” he says.

On the second Sunday of every November, the British High Commissioner to Uganda and other High Commissioners from Commonwealth member States go on the cemeteries to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the wars.

However, Kiswiriri and Papai say there challenges.

“The store for the tools I use to maintain the place is very small. It would be better if I got one which is bigger,” says Kiswiriri.

Unfortunately, the space here is meant for the remains of the fallen servicemen.

Like other cemeteries, too, there is not guard on duty at night.

“Sometimes, thieves steal the railings,” adds Kiswiriri, who worked at the Tororo War Cemetery before relocating to Jinja, his home district.

Kiswiriri also says the money though the money is sent well in advance, is “small”.

He is optimistic that the commission shall increase it soon.