Do you know who this soldier is?
A few summers ago I bought a painting at a yard sale in Vernon, B.C. It’s acrylic on velvet; almost like one of those velvet Elvis pictures you see hanging in someone’s creepy wood-panelled basement. Except it’s not Elvis staring back at me, it’s a soldier. This soldier is nameless and nationless but his story may have been revealed by a click of a mouse.
The painting appealed to me: the colours, the texture of the “canvas,” the subject, and I brought the piece of art home for four dollars. The unknown soldier has travelled with me around Western Canada and now lives in Calgary. Even though we’ve been living together for about seven years, I don’t know anything about him.
One friend who met the soldier thought he was a Gurkha, a fearsome soldier from Nepal. Their famous motto is, “Better to die than be a coward.” Gurkhas still carry their traditional weapon called a kukri, an 18-inch long curved knife. An interesting speculation but I don’t think this guy one of these warriors.
The other day I was wasting time online when I clicked on a BBC News link: Why the Indian soldiers of WW1 were forgotten. The article’s main photo was in black and white but I immediately recognized the uniforms: my soldier’s kit. Was he an Indian solider in the First World War?
I don’t know. But through the article by I learned that the feats and the losses and the stories of these soldiers are missing from most of our history books. Some people, including me, have no idea of the contribution of the Indian units. It also makes me think about the time when I lived in The Gambia, West Africa. My roommate and I walked past the Fajara War Cemetery a couple of times and I wondered why we don’t hear about Gambian veterans. Where are their stories?
There’s no signature on my soldier’s likeness. No markings to tell me where he is from or where he belongs. Nothing to identify him. However, his silence spoke to me and opened a new portal into the past and introduced me to some forgotten sacrifices.
A baobob tree in The Gambia.
Working in my home office in Calgary there are distracting noises constantly around me. I hear the beep, beep, beep from construction equipment, I hear police and fire sirens in the distance, I hear magpies chattering, I hear a man talking with an Irish accent to his buddies while they walk under my window, I hear the squirrels scaling the trees near the balcony and I hear the steady hum of traffic on the busy street.
These are all normal urban sounds but my ears have been craving a different tone lately. Especially when times are rough such as now when my business is struggling and I’m searching for alternatives. It’s a pitch I sometimes evoke in my memory and play for myself. It’s in the babble of the city that I’m listening for an orchestra from Gambia.
When I was 25 I was part of the Canadian Youth International Internship Program that sent me to The Gambia, West Africa. It was a great experience but not because everything was fine and dandy. There were some definite bad times while I was there acting as the publications officer for a human rights organization – The African Centre for Human Rights and Democracy Studies.
Two of us were sent to the centre. My roommate and colleague, Chris, was from New Brunswick and she took the position as the finance officer. Together we weathered the hot weather, took on termites and learned a bit of the local language. We also supported African human rights through our work in Gambia, a country which is facing major violations right now.
There’s no average day in Gambia. No day where anything goes smoothly. No day where there wasn’t a high and there wasn’t a low. Nothing was ever in-between. Everything was in constant motion, constant flux, constant change. Except for the birds and the crickets.
No matter what was happening we could always expect the birds and the crickets to carry on the same song. To drown out anything that was going on in our brains. To be the one thing for certain.
I’ve played that melody in my head so many times since. The other day I went online and searched “African bird songs”. And I found what I was looking for. It’s the sound of the laughing dove calling through the din of crickets and other singers. I was immediately transported from my noisy office to a place of peace – an acoustic bit of serenity in my otherwise loud reality. Click here to listen.