In 1952, the then Princess Elizabeth was on a royal tour with Prince Philip at Treetops lodge in Kenya. Unknown to them at the time, she would receive news of her father’s death during that visit, and the forest lodge would long be remembered as the place where Britain’s longest-serving monarch “went to sleep a princess and awoke a queen”.
Just two years after her visit, the Mau Mau, Kenyan freedom fighters opposed to British colonial rule, burned the lodge down. It was rebuilt in 1954, and older residents who live along the long and winding path to the lodge remembered her second visit to the area in 1983 fondly, saying it had placed their neighbourhood on the map. But Treetops was not open for the end of the Queen’s life. It closed its doors last year after a dive in tourism during the pandemic forced it out of business.
The lodge, in Aberdare forest, has a lofty presence but dusty stairwells and webbed windows suggest solitariness and abandon. Most people who interacted directly with the Queen are now dead, said a hunter who worked there. The treehouse is adorned with pictures and stories of her visits but few stories about her were passed on. Vague recollections mirror the faded relevance of the monarchy in Kenya.
After the announcement of the Queen’s death on Thursday, however, reactions in Kenya were swift. The country’s leaders paid tribute with messages expressing “great sorrow and a deep sense of loss”, hailing a “towering icon of selfless service to humanity” and lauding her “admirable” leadership of the Commonwealth. Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, ordered four days of mourning as news of the Queen’s death made the front-pages of major local papers and dominated conversations online.
But many on the streets in Nairobi were indifferent or unaware of the news. Some younger Kenyans spoke of it in detached tones. To a number of them, she was a distant figure, better known through fictional portrayals of her on popular TV series such as The Crown.
A wave of criticism also flooded online spaces. During her reign, British soldiers committed widespread atrocities against Kenyans at the height of Mau Mau uprising between 1952 and 1960. Roughly 1.5 million people were forced into concentration camps where they were subjected to torture, rape and other violations. Reports later showed the British had made concerted efforts to destroy and conceal official records of their brutal crackdowns.
Observers say the erasure of history had consequences that have stretched on to the present. “I don’t remember learning about the ills of the colonial empire,’’ said Dr Njoki Wamai, an assistant professor in politics and international relations at the United States International University-Africa. “Many of us have had to educate ourselves in public spaces, and because of the legacy of colonial education in Kenya, the Queen has been venerated and treated as an iconic figure.”
Even so, harrowing tales of British colonial rule have been passed on through generations. “When you sit with your grandparents and they tell you their stories, the pain is almost tangible. You can feel it,” said Nyambura Maina. “I refuse to centre the pain others are feeling over the pain our people went through.”
Kikonde Mwamburi, 33, said: “Death should not be used to sanitise her brutal legacy. I’m glad this obtuse culture is being questioned by younger generations.”
Rather than pay tribute to the Queen, a number of Kenyans chose to honour the independence movement. The words “Mau Mau” and “Dedan Kimathi”, the leader of the uprising, trended through the early hours of the morning.
Still, public sentiment was in stark contrast with the statements of high praise from the country’s leadership. “Political elites benefitted from the empire either through political or economic power,” said Wamai. She believes the British legacy of violence is downplayed for economic reasons.
Kenya has strong economic and trade ties with the UK and is a part of the Commonwealth, membership of which bolsters countries’ lobbying capacity and provides business and education opportunities.
But the association’s geopolitical relevance has been challenged in recent years and King Charles III will be pressed to strengthen ties with Commonwealth countries and solidify Britain’s soft power. Earlier this year, the royal family’s efforts to do so were subverted in Jamaica, after leaders and the public called for slavery reparations and “a full and formal apology for their crimes against humanity”.
The Queen maintained strong relations with leaders of Commonwealth countries over her 70-year reign, including many of Kenya’s presidents. Experts say King Charles may face an exacting task in sustaining those ties amid criticism of the British empire in former colonies across the globe, and that he can expected to face growing calls to address colonial injustices.