Kenya’s Unfinished Business with Colonization

This week’s newsletter is continuing the tradition of inviting members of our community to write From The Curator’s Desk, and for this edition, I’m happy to hand it over to Rose Lukalo, who is our Editor on the Fumbua Project at Baraza Media Lab.

Please send your guest writing pitches for this section to if you’re interested in writing this section and you have something of interest to share to our community — a trend you’ve noticed or something you’d like us to think about. (Baraza Curator Christine Mungai is away on extended leave).

~ The Baraza Team

By: Rose Lukalo

Kenyans on Twitter, #KOT, have been aggressive and unapologetic in their refusal to mourn Queen Elizabeth II. Bilious criticism of the Queen, and the United Kingdom she reigned over, greeted news of her death revisiting the horrors of Kenya’s concentration camps under colonial rule, and the torture and executions that were carried out by the British. 

Others were noticeably quiet. As Queen Elizabeth is laid to rest on 18th September this group sits uncomfortably in the knowledge that there is unfinished business with our colonial history and the responses to the death of the Queen, whose reign has shadowed Kenya’s 60-year post-colonial history, makes it obvious.

This cultivated silence is a familiar game Kenyans play; if we don’t speak it then perhaps the intergenerational conundrum of Kenyan-on-Kenyan betrayal and lies that has been our heritage for over 160 years since the earliest incursions by the British will remain under wraps and the situation will fix itself.

Many Kenyans benefited politically and economically from their ties to the British empire. A good number of these beneficiaries and their families have been part of successive governments that succeeded the colonialists and it does not serve their interests to pick bones with the British over what they did or did not do to us.  

On our behalf they accepted and moved on, brushing aside the wounds, the complaints and lost wealth of Kenyans under the proverbial carpet. Occasionally the subject of those who never got their land back when the colonialists left crops up – then fades to silence. Every so often the role of Kenyan homeguards who worked and even fought and killed their kin for the colonial government surfaces only to be buried again in the silence. 

In the early independence years, even education was framed in the space that the silence allowed, avoiding subjects that would provoke questions. We learned in detail of the tyrannical rule of King Henry VIII and his succession of wives, the African routes followed by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, and his British counterpart John Speke who named Lake Victoria for his Queen, the great, great grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II. 

Kenya’s history on the other hand was sanitized and abridged. Part one said that Kenya was a British protectorate for 25 years before becoming a colony in1920 and part two provided a minimalist disjointed line about the Mau Mau war, and the murder of freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi. Nothing of the dispossession, the forced resettlement of huge populations and the killing of anywhere from 11,000 to 90,000 Kenyans, or the early resistance to British rule by the Maasai, Nandi resistance that led to the 1905 assassination of Koitalel arap Samoei or of that famed woman warrior Mekatilili Wa Menza and the 1912 uprising of the Giriama. These full but empty history books buried the grievances of a country and fuelled the silence.

Meanwhile, Kenya continued to strengthen economic and trade ties with the United Kingdom. In the early post-colonial days Britannia ruled. We were surrounded by the best of British made products. Clothes, light bulbs, wires and plugs – name it. We read Charles Dickens at school and Agatha Christie novels were prized at home. Winnie the Pooh and This is Tom Jones featured on KBC television and for almost 20 years after independence many of our teachers, whether in public or private schools were still mostly British. The British pound ruled and the Kenya pound, sometimes known as 20 shillings was strong. (The dollar was not a thing yet). 

We continued to work closely with the country we accuse of killing Kenyans, even providing them with permanent training facilities for their army. When Queen Elizabeth visited Kenya she was welcomed – first by President Jomo Kenyatta and then by Daniel arap Moi when he took over at the helm – her routes lined with schoolchildren waving paper Union Jacks as her entourage passed. 

We adopted British classism, taking social prejudice based on wealth further than they ever did and building a deeply unequal society; despite having the sixth largest economy Kenya ranks 28th out of 54 African countries based on wealth inequality according to the World Population Review website. 

We are the paradox of an independent colony.  Of course, there were some acts of decolonization. We took down the statues of those Kings and Queens we had no allegiance to. Princess Elizabeth Way became Uhuru Highway, and the former Queen’s Way became Mama Ngina Street. Our politicians gave their names to monuments, streets, and estates – Ngei, Rubia, Onyonka, Ngumo, Atwoli.  

But for the most part our relationship with the colonial power we love to hate remains strong and our messaging remains conflicted. 

The Queen’s death and burial has resurfaced the uneasy truth of Kenya’s unfinished business with colonialism in the dichotomy of what we do and say and in our silence. While #KOT vilify the Queen, the out-going president declares four days of mourning and a swathe of the population looks on in silence. 


In the meantime, here’s:

What We’re Reading: It can be desperately hard to tell local stories that need to be told when you live in a rural part of the country that doesn’t have many resources and where media are poorly supported. Top news anchor James Smart took time out to share lessons from his freelancing days with journalists working in Kilifi County. It was also interesting to learn about the triumphs and complications oon the ground revealed through the inspiring stories told by the Kilifi journalists during the jointly organized Baraza Media Lab and Thellesi Trust training.

What We’re Watching: We’re eagerly waiting for the fifth episode of County 49 on Showmax, a new binge-worthy series that brings to life the political intrigues in a fictitious county called Bwatele. Fiction aside many of the goings-on sound really real in many instances. A strong script propels the main drama starring Wakio Mzeng, and the action keeps coming – abduction, corruption and a lot of backstabbing – all in one morning! And the softer sub-themes, like the fragile marriage of Malik and Debra, are equally enthralling. Look out for new episodes every Thursday.

What We’re Listening To: Gqom: The Babusi Nyoni Story. He says he makes robots for people who can’t and describes himself as a tech entrepreneur and innovator who builds tools for the “future Africa”. Others describe the Zimbabwean Babusi Nyoni as one of Africa’s most gifted creative technologists and Gqom music producers. In this episode of African Tech Roundup he shares his story of triumph over tough times and discusses his exploration of the intersection between machine learning and Gqom.

As always, 

Christine Mungai

Curator | Baraza Media Lab

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