Last Tuesday, the United Kingdom, UK, observed a two-minute silence at the 11th hour, on the 11th day in the 11th month to commemorate the exact day and time when hostilities of the First World War, WW1, (1914–1918) formally ended. The two-minute silence was observed across the country in schools, train stations, banks and places of business as a sign of respect.
This year also marked the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war. In London and other parts of the country, services were held to remember the dead. People bought what had become the symbol of the WW1, the Poppy: a red flower that symbolises powerfully the meaning of life in the face of death.
A million more people bought the Poppy this year than last year. You can get the Poppy for free, but you need to make a donation to the British Legion. There were different types of Poppies, as people have adapted to make the Poppy individualised and personal. The Poppy here has great meaning and depth and hugely symbolic. Very often, white folk would have a story to tell about the WW1. A colleague lost his grandfather and great uncle to the Great War. I never met them, but the pain still filters through. My mother’s father fought in the Second World War. I remember his uniform and some of the pictures he took hanging in his home in Oke Aremo, Ibadan.
One of the biggest events to mark the 100th year anniversary was at the Tower of London – where a sea of ceramic poppies that make up the number of people who died during the First World War – was laid. About five million people from across the UK and the world went to view the 888,246 handmade poppies that were planted. It was a sight to behold and never in British history has there been such a powerful commemoration.
The Poppy means different things to different people. As an African, I bought the Poppy to make a statement, as it has become a very British thing to wear the Poppy. It gave me things to talk about with people who wore it. It made me feel like part of the society I live in. The black British artiste Jamelia got herself into a lot of trouble with her fans for refusing to wear the Poppy on a television programme. In many ways, wearing the Poppy has become a civic duty and you earn the respect of your peers when you do that. Perhaps not.
School children up and down the country are also taught the meaning of the Poppy in their history and citizenship lessons, and you find them wearing it too. It is the best thing to teach children here about their past. The only exception to this is that children from Black heritage may feel alienated, as this is not their history. I stand to be corrected. Our history is not taught in schools. It is not discussed as widely as the Poppy. Even in Nigeria, unfortunately, some of the best schools pattern their curriculum after the English syllabus, missing vital opportunity to teach African children about their history. We need to say this as multi-culturalism and identity is a significant part of a person’s make-up.
The month of October is Black History Month and it is the time when many minority ethnic groups salute the works of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi and so on. That’s great, but what about African history? Is there any such thing as African history?
All the money collected on the Poppy goes to the Royal British Legion whose work includes encouraging everyone to support the Poppy Appeal for “the memory of the fallen and the future of the living.” The British Legion helps families cope with bereavement, living with disability or finding suitable work. The British Legion website states that money collected goes directly “to welfare work providing life care to anyone who is currently serving in the British Armed Forces, and those who have previously served and their families.”
Whilst the UK remembers its dead and formally thanks them every year, Nigeria does a similar thing for its fallen soldiers. Every January 15th is Nigeria’s Armed Forces Day, where we hold parades and fill up stadiums to remember our dead although one wonders what happens to the families of soldiers who died in the Civil War and soldiers killed every day in the ongoing insurgency in the North. It is exciting to remember these fallen heroes while taking good care of those still alive as they put their lives on the line to prevent the country from disintegrating.
In Britain, November 11 has come and gone, but the welfare of our men and women in uniform must be a priority for Nigerian leaders. It is in looking after their families that we truly remember them.
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