JOHNSON CITY – East Tennessee State University history professor Dr. Melvin E. Page recently finished a 30-year project with the publication of his book: The Chiwaya War: Malawians and the First World War.
The book investigates the societal changes that the south central African country of Malawi, formerly known as Nyasaland, faced as the British took over the country in the late 19th century and then used as a transit point during World War I.
Because Malawi shares a small part of its northern border with Tanzania, which was at that time, German East Africa, Malawi offered the British a way to funnel troops there, Page said.
Often described as one of the 'great back waters of the British Empire,' Malawi became a transit point, a labor reserve or a military reserve for recruiting laborers and soldiers. So it played a fairly large role in the war, according to Page.
Even though the numbers of men drawn from European countries during the war was much greater than the men drawn from Malawi, the country was unaccustomed to dealing with war and the number of people involved.
“The 200,000-250,000 men were many more than the population had ever had to deal with,” Page said.
The book began as a graduate school seminar paper, expanded to a Michigan State University doctoral thesis, and then continued until it became Page's fourth book that he has authored or edited.
Page wrote The Chiwaya War: Malawians and the First World War so that it would be recognizable to both African scholars as well as understandable and accessible to Malawians themselves. He has ensured that copies of the book are available in libraries and repositories in Malawi so that the people who have assisted him are able to read it.
Page based the book on archival research in Malawi and a vast number of interviews and questionnaire responses from Malawians as to what people remember about this period.
“Malawians have constructed their own memories and their own history of the period,” Page said. “What I've tried to do is collect a lot of these (memories) and piece them together in a way that they can be made available to a wider audience, and made available to Malawians who might not be able to talk to each other about this part of their history.”
At ETSU, Page teaches world history and historical methods. He received his Ph.D. in African history from Michigan State University, his MA in African studies from Howard University, and his BA in international relations from American University. Page has also researched and taught as a Fulbright professor in Malawi and South Africa, and is a former chairman of ETSU's history department.