Often referred to as “the forgotten army” of the second world war, the British Fourteenth Army, comprising units from Commonwealth countries, served in the Burma campaign. Ninety thousand west African soldiers fought as part of the 81st and 82nd divisions. Nigerians made up more than half the force.
Inspired by her grandmother’s tales about the young men from her village who went to war and didn’t come back, Rosanna Amaka’s second novel explores the little-known plight of these fighters and their subsequent treatment by the British authorities. I can recall only Biyi Bandele’s Burma Boy (2008) previously tackling the subject in fiction.
An Igbo, Obi grows up in eastern Nigeria in rural poverty. Unlike his friends, he accepts the status quo, never really questioning the colonial powers. In 1938, he joins the army because he is trying to impress Rose, the childhood playmate he adores. But she has no desire to marry and moves to Lagos to take up nursing. When she falls pregnant, Obi’s heroic intervention allows her to continue on her career path.
Their love story stretches credibility and I’d have liked more about the Aba women’s riots of 1929 and the postwar protests – Amaka has clearly done her research. Repetition occasionally slows the narrative and she has a tendency to inform us of her characters’ feelings rather than allow their actions to speak for them. But when she turns to the racism and wasted lives of the war and its aftermath, her narrative soars.
Thousands lost their lives in Burma. On their return, survivors had no psychological or financial support. The generous pensions they’d been promised never materialised and they had to grapple with PTSD on their own. Such shocking treatment helped boost Nigeria’s independence movement.
Although Rose and the Burma Sky lacks the emotional power of her impressive debut, The Book of Echoes, Amaka’s perspective is refreshing. She vividly conveys how the historical injustice of colonialism continues to reverberate down the decades.