During my first weeks in the United States (US), far from Africa; tension gripped a dimmed hall, as did a compelling voice narrating the chilling events of World War 1 more than a century ago. The war raged for more than four years, killing 17 million people and leaving millions more injured and bereaved.
Today, young and old, can sit on a bench and look down at a trench which has a group of soldiers walking in a line through the mud. A warplane soars over the exhausted soldiers. This is an astonishing reenactment of the Great War. It is one of the breathtaking sections of the 48-acre National World War 1 Museum and Memorial in Kansas City in Missouri State.
Since 1920, the National World War 1 Museum and Memorial, previously called the Liberty Memorial Museum, collected artefacts and documents from around the world. With about 75,000 items – ranging from a British soldier’s belt to a huge aircraft – the museum, in partnership with the Edward Jones Research Center, is home to one of the world’s largest Great War collection. This is how obsessed the Americans are about the war; despite the fact the country sent troops to the bloody trenches only in June 1917, nearly three years after the first shot was fired.
One would think the US alone won the war against Germany. They didn’t, the allies did – including hundreds of thousands of troops from a score of African nations.
Regardless, the grandstanding illusion stands. At the very least, the experience made some sense to the convoluted verses of outstanding poets, TS Eliot and Seamus Heaney, that I struggled to decipher two decades ago.
A short drive away there is life and style in the shape of the American Jazz Museum, that also houses the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. This is a world away from the gore of war.
Jazz legend Charlie Parker, known as ‘Bird’, grew up in this neighborhood. His huge portrait hangs over the entrance and his Grafton saxophone is here. There are many relics to rave about here, but we shall keep it tight: Ella Fitzgerald’s passé sequined gown and matching glasses; Louis Armstrong’s booth with the cover of TIME magazine, priced 20c, dated February 21, 1949. It is a cool portrait of the young Armstrong with eyes cast skywards; a golden crown made of six trumpets rests on his head. Armstrong was the first jazz musician to make the cover of TIME; quite right too.
Then there’s Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue around the corner on Brooklyn Avenue. They say it’s the first grilled meat shop in the US. It dates back to 1908 and its first owner was Henry Perry. The Bryant brothers, Charlie and Arthur, worked for Perry. When the founder died, in 1940, it was up to the brothers to run it and they named it after Arthur. The name stuck, despite ownership changes.
I couldn’t fathom why Arthur Bryant’s is still in business. For over five minutes, tables were heaped with fries, left-overs and leaked barbecue sauces that could drive your appetite out of the window. So, I cast my eye to the wall-of-fame.
Years before Barack Obama, the one who thinks Africans should be grateful for US toxic chicken, was elected as president of the United States, he dined here and took photographs with the staff. So did director Steven Spielberg, actors Danny Glover and Harrison Ford, and Republicans Sarah Palin and John McCain. Anyway, I still prefer my Stellenbosch braai back home to the dry ribs I had. Their famous sauces saved the day.
Phew! A day’s excursion to Kansas was a welcome break from a year’s study, squeezed into two weeks, for this journalist. Back in Columbia, my host city, after a two-hour drive, a New York band called The Wood Brothers was playing at the Blue Note bar. Forty dollars got my Turkish fellow, Gokce Aytulu, and I in and the drinks weren’t too bad for $6 a jug. For the first time in my life, I stuck out like a sore thumb in the crowd of 100 or so whites who found my accent akin to gibberish.
As they say, music is a universal language – who cared about being understood when The Wood Brothers were slaying it?