Death of Queen Elizabeth reignites debate on legacy of empire in Africa

‘For Kenyans and Africans in general we are victims of colonisation, and sometimes we don’t realise’

The death of Queen Elizabeth II has reignited a debate about the legacy of the British Empire and colonialism across much of Africa.

Amid this, there are many people across the continent trying to make sure this history is properly documented and understood, particularly by the continent’s younger generations.

Dennis Mavingo is one of them. The Kenyan 29-year-old has been a photographer since 2014, normally working for NGOs or doing fashion photography.

But Mavingo is also working on a project to preserve and exhibit the memories of survivors of Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising against the British, using video interviews and photography to bring that period back to life for a new audience.

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The independence rebellion started in Kenya in 1952, the same year Queen Elizabeth II both visited the country and began her reign. Eight months after her trip, the British declared a state of emergency in Kenya.

The Treetops Lodge, where the queen famously stayed, would be burned down two years later by Mau Mau fighters.

The people from my home county were really involved in the war ... My grandfather used to tell us stories about the independence fighters

As the British moved to quash the uprising, as many as 1.5 million Kenyans were locked up without trial in a system of detention camps, where torture and other forms of abuse were common.

At least 11,000 Kenyan fighters are thought to have been killed, though some academics say that the real number could be more than twice as high as that.

Much of the evidence relating to this time was destroyed, with the British reportedly burning huge numbers of documents before they left Kenya in 1963, when the East African country got its independence.

The Mau Mau fighters were subsequently marginalised by Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and it remained a banned movement until the early 2000s.

In 2013, the British government agreed to pay around €22.68 million to more than 5,000 claimants who suffered during the Mau Mau rebellion. In the House of Commons, then foreign secretary William Hague said “her majesty’s government ... sincerely regrets that these abuses took place”.

“It was a tough period to be alive,” Mavingo said. “I can’t compare the 1950s in Kenya to where we are now.”

Now, he hopes to “diversify” the stories told about Mau Mau rebels, who were not only good or bad, but many things in between.

“It’s something that touches my family directly,” Mavingo explained, sitting in an apartment in Kenyan capital city Nairobi. “And the people from my home county were really involved in the war ... My grandfather used to tell us stories about the independence fighters, his brothers and stepbrothers were among [them].”

The way the British put it, it’s like this guy just came into your home and did a few bad things, but he’s not a bad person ... A lot of things were covered up

He believes his grandfather remained angry all his life about what had taken place, while his grandmother — who was forced to do unpaid farming labour for the British — still had trauma and back pain from being beaten with the butt of a rifle one day when she was sick so could not work.

“My grandfather passed away in 2012 and he would have been so good at telling us details of all these things. It’s important for us to not let the older people who have witnessed this pass away [without sharing their stories],” Mavingo said.

He teamed up with German journalist Birte Mensing. Through a crowdfunding campaign they raised more than €750 to pay for their first visit to Embu County, where Mavingo comes from. They carried out an initial series of interviews and a photo shoot, speaking to four former fighters, three civilians and one former “home guard” who worked for the British. Their accounts were harrowing. None of them had ever been interviewed before. “We’re telling the stories we did not read in the history books,” Mavingo said.

The interviews were emotional. One woman showed them a scar from where a bullet grazed her leg. People described how their families were split down the middle. A man explained that he worked with the British at that time, saying it was the only way to protect his children. The same man’s wife was a Mau Mau fighter.

Mavingo said the version of British history that Kenyans usually hear is “polished”.

“The way they put it, it’s like this guy just came into your home and did a few bad things, but he’s not a bad person,” he said. “A lot of things were covered up.”

Yet, still today, he says there are still Kenyans who do not know where their relatives’ bodies were buried.

While in Embu County, Mavingo hired a group of local dancers — mostly between the ages of 20 and 40 — to recreate what the Mau Mau fighters looked like, using similar clothing and weapons. Some were descendants of the rebels. He photographed them. “It was something personal for them and they were excited to be part of the project.”

Now, Mavingo and Mensing are looking for more funding to “make this a bigger thing.” Mavingo says they’d like to have a website where they can compile testimonies, as well as making a book, and having the chance to hold a photo exhibition, or even to tour schools and speak to students. “We’re thinking about doing another crowdfunding. We are also trying to approach different NGOs.”

Remembering the past is important, he emphasises. “I believe history repeats itself in many ways,” said Mavingo. “For Kenyans and Africans in general we are victims of colonisation, and sometimes we don’t realise that it affects us up to date. We don’t even know when someone is being racist to us. We don’t even know when our resources are being taken and we are in 2022.”

“This project I believe can be a learning point for people, especially for young people to be able to speak up about injustice. We might not be in a position where we are being colonised again but we can be colonised financially, we can have a lack of education ... it might not even be a white person from Britain, it can be your own brother; politicians ... If we don’t learn from our history something is going to catch up with us in one way or another.”