At 82 years, you would think that his enthusiasm is dead, and that he would rather rest.Far from it; John Nedoi remains proud of the part he played in World War II. And for him it is a story he has told repeatedly to anyone who has the time to listen.
The young Nedoi, then aged just 18, left his home in Sironko (then part of Bugisu district) in January 1942 for Kampala. He was one of the young people selected by the colonial administrators to serve in the army.
The 38 youths recruited along with Nedoi from Mbale assembled in Kololo a month later.
“It was a dark morning and it threatened to rain,” he recalls.
Nedoi seems to have had a clear conviction as to why he was in Kololo.
“We joined to support our country and we felt that it was an honourable duty,” he says. They were screened by a British army officer whose name he doesn’t remember, before they were certified fit to continue.
Following the screening, Nedoi was sent to Embakasi camp near Nairobi, Kenya, for training. He was Recruit N-122948.
Nedoi was so enthusiastic during training, that in addition to his military training his supervisors allowed him to learn how to drive military vehicles.
He later became a mechanic, skills that would serve him better when he left military service.
“The training was tough but we had a good time and were taught everything we needed to be full and proper soldiers. And even today I can serve,” he says with a smile.
After a year in training, he was forwarded to the 7th regiment of the King’s African Rifles. Ugandans would later call this regiment the Abaseveni (from where Yoweri Museveni’s name was reportedly derived).
Nedoi and his colleagues (he doesn’t remember how many) were shipped to Mombasa and on to the North West Frontier of India in late 1944, where they waited for further instructions for about three months. The following year they were transferred to Burma, where they were supposed to stop the Japanese massacre of their Pakistani allies. Unfortunately, they arrived too late.
The Japanese had finished the job, but had to withdraw after the Americans hit Nagasaki and Hiroshima with atomic bombs. As for Nedoi, he succumbed to malaria before proper fighting had started and had to be brought back to Kenya.
He was later discharged in 1948 and allowed to return home, where he set up a small business working as a vehicle mechanic in Mbale until 2003, when he finally retired to his home to tend his farm. It’s here that he grows maize and beans, principally to keep food on the table.
“Our farm is very small, we don’t sell anything, we just rely on our children and the food we grow,” he says.
Nedoi married his first wife in 1952, and they had eight children who are all still alive and living in Mbale and Busia. He is presently with his second wife after the first one died in 1992 of malaria.
“We treated her for malaria but she kept getting worse until she died,” he says, with a touch of nostalgia.
When asked if he would serve the army again, Nedoi’s enthusiasm is undiminished.
“I don’t regret serving in the army, it is the way we are treated after [serving] that hurts us,” he says. He looks around nervously before muttering something about not wanting to cause any trouble.
What Nedoi is referring to is a silent battle between Uganda’s various groups of ex-serviceman and the present government. In Nedoi’s case, Britain says it forwarded nearly Shs 20 billion to the Uganda Government in 1997 to compensate the World War II ex-servicemen for their services to the British Crown.
But the Ex-servicemen’s Association, to which he is a member, says it has never seen a coin.
“The money was forwarded to the Ministry of Defence but they have failed to pay the ex-servicemen or even account for the money,” says Peter Walubiri, the association’s lawyer.
Walubiri is concerned that the government has been considering compensating other ex-servicemen, who served under Idi Amin and Milton Obote’s governments, yet their case has all but been ignored.
“Some of us were deployed in Kenya, Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and Burma and came back with health complications,” said Francis Nam from Ojwina in Lira, who met Nedoi in Burma, having joined the armed services a year later. Nam had been deployed to work as a cook for the soldiers.
The Ex-servicemen’s Association has pressed for compensation from government for several years now, even threatening to go to court. After meeting President Museveni in 2002, they were promised farmland in Ssingo, near the military training wing. They however rejected the land, saying they want land in a more agriculturally suitable place.
In the meantime, the British Government has identified a fund under the Commonwealth Secretariat from which monies are sent to the ex-servicemen annually on a charitable basis.
It is from these funds that the ex-servicemen are invited to attend the annual Remembrance Day service in memory of those who died in the two world wars at their special memorial, erected just below the High Court. They also receive a transport refund.
As Nedoi and his fellow ex-servicemen attended this year’s Remembrance Day service, their thoughts were definitely with those who had failed to make it back home. The ones who died in far off territories as well as those who succumbed in Uganda years after their service had ended, as they waited in vain for compensation from the government.
Just as well there was no government representative at the ceremony to attend to their concerns.
Despite all that, Nedoi managed a smile as we took his photograph and then laughed. “We were real soldiers serving our country proudly.”