During the 19th century East Africa saw a great expansion of the caravan trade as traders, mainly Arabs, moved further inland from the coast. Such caravans required armed escorts, and the young men who hired themselves out for this role became known as ruga-ruga. They came from many places, including bored men looking for money and adventure, and orphans of the many regional wars, so much the same as many mercenaries in Africa today. They were also employed as the retinues of chieftains, and in time established their own little empires as well as greatly influencing politics throughout the region. When the Germans came to East Africa they found the ruga-ruga a useful source of mercenary native soldiers, although the European’s opinion of their effectiveness varied wildly, not least because they sometimes left their employment once they considered they had enough booty (especially cattle) or prisoners. Nevertheless they were numerous and influential, including during the colonial period, when they fought both for and against the German colonisers. Many were taken by von Lettow on his journey through eastern Africa during World War One, and were particularly good at scouting.
The appearance of the ruga-ruga varied greatly. The default of course was for them to wear their own clothes, which were the same as those around them or their original tribe. The traditional kanzu robe was common, as were simple kilts or even loin clothes if the conditions called for it, and as the contacts with Europeans increased, elements of European dress also began to feature more and more. Their employer might require some sort of identification such as a feather or a piece of cloth worn on the arm, but it was only the Germans that appear to have provided anything approaching a uniform. Where ruga-ruga were formed into a unit with German officers they were sometimes given a uniform similar to that of the Schutztruppe, but very often they were left to dress themselves how they pleased, with perhaps an armband as indication of their current allegiance. The figures here wear a wide variety of costume, and while none have the kanzu this is not the ideal garment in which to fight anyway. Although illustrations and photographs of these men are few everything here looks reasonable and we really appreciated the attempt to model every man with some unique feature.
A gourd or similar would have been a necessity for the long hot trips protecting a caravan or serving in some force, and perhaps somewhere to stow a little food, but these men traveled light, so the small amount of equipment on these figures is good. The ruga-ruga were particularly keen to obtain and use gunpowder weapons, and while plenty had no more than a spear, muskets and rifles became more common later in the century. With the coming of the Germans to the region rifles became more common, and many serving the Europeans would have had rifles of one sort or another, perhaps issued by the Germans themselves. Whether some still used traditional weapons like the spear even as late as World War One is unclear, although every man here has a firearm. One man appears to have a cartridge belt, and another looks to have some sort of scabbard for a large knife, which would seem very reasonable. Another warrior also holds an axe, so all the weaponry here is fine.
In addition to the six ruga-ruga poses this set includes three porters. In the African terrain wheeled vehicles were often of little use and not easy to obtain or keep running, so expeditions, military or otherwise, used animals or people to carry supplies. The three poses here are all nicely done, and quite minimally dressed as you might expect. Two have separate loads, either of which can fit on either man. Any army on the march, of any nationality, would need many of these men, and these figures portray them very nicely.
The porter poses pretty much deliver everything you could want, and most of the warrior poses are OK too. We weren’t thrilled with the axe-man pointing his rifle straight down, which looks fairly unnatural, and equally holding the axe sideways like that makes it easy to mould but not an obvious position in the hand. The firing and advancing poses are perfectly good however.
The sculpting of these figures is fair, and on the whole so are the proportions. The man with the axe has a straight back leg that makes you wonder exactly how his knee could possibly be positioned, and the faces are not particularly pleasant to look at, but the simple clothes are reasonable and if finer detail is a bit vague it is relatively unimportant on such figures. Flash is quite minimal and there is no excess plastic, while the baggage items fit quite well on the porters' heads.
At the end of the Great War the British estimated that 12,000 ruga-ruga auxiliaries had served on the German side, and while this was not all at once, their numbers were still significant, as was the contribution they made to von Lettow’s success. They certainly deserve their place in a colonial German army, and the porters are an equally indispensable feature that will be useful in many African campaigns.