Seven decades since she became queen, Elizabeth has soft spot for Kenya

Queen Elizabeth at Mitchell Park (Nairobi show) during her visit to Kenya, 1959. [File, Standard]

Seventy years ago this week, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip were in colonial Kenya, watching wild animals at the Tree Tops Hotel in Nyeri. Her father, King George VI, died and she came down the hotel as queen of England and empress of an expansive but declining British Empire. The reaction to the king’s death varied with race.

The wazungu cried, but one ‘bwana kidogo’ called Richard Leakey noticed that Africans neither showed sorrow nor were they expected to. At the time, tension between wazungu masters and their black servants and subjects was rising. The Africans were plotting how to get rid of mzungu governance in what became the Mau Mau War. A conceptual triad in Kenyan history linking Tree Tops, Mau Mau, and Elizabeth thereafter evolved.

With the Mau Mau War and Tree Tops fading from memory, Elizabeth symbolises continuity between Kenya’s colonial past and its post-colonial attachment to Britain. That linkage has ups and downs spiced with adorations and repulsions. While fighting the British, for instance, the Mau Mau seemed to admire and copy British ways. They tried to upstage the 1953 coronation of Elizabeth in England with their own coronation of Wagiri Njoroge as the ‘Mau Mau Queen’.

They adopted British titles in the forest and became Sir, Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi, Sir Field Marshall Macharia Kimemia and Sir Field Marshall Mbaria Kaniu. They also kept people in England and beyond informed of their version of events that were contrary to what colonial officials wanted. In part, that was how they exposed the horrors of the 1958 Hola massacre that jarred public conscious.

The jarring of consciousness eventually made Harold Macmillan to warn empires of a ‘wind of change’ that made territorial colonies obsolete which, in turn, called for new attitudes in world affairs. The new relationships that emerged turned former colonial powers into ‘master states’ and former colonies into ‘client states.’ Post-colonial leaders, thereafter, appeared like ‘graduates’ of colonial governance colleges where they were properly tutored to cling to ‘master states’.

The Mau Mau War, for instance, simply helped the sun to set in Britain’s colonial empire but it did not destroy ‘native’ desires to be like Britons. And as of 1968 when there was concern over Jomo Kenyatta’s health, Britain became deeply involved in planning Kenyatta’s potential funeral, which happened in August 1978. Elizabeth’s son, Prince of Wales Charles, represented his mother.

Although both Kenya and Britain continued to have soft spots for each other, there were occasional moments of dissonance, especially when Kenya forgot that Britain was the ‘master state’ and that it was a ‘client state’. This dissonance was most vivid in the 21st Century as British soldiers training in Nanyuki misbehaved with local women. And some British High Commissioners behaved like local prefects, ordering Kenyans around. Besides sending Kenyans to The Hague probably to teach lessons to other client states, they lit geopolitical fires in Somalia and it worked.

Elizabeth is now a 95-year-old widow and great grandmother with interests in Kenya. In the 70 years since becoming Britain's queen, Elizabeth’s linkages to Kenya remain intact. The two sides accommodate each other. Britain appointed the current ‘common sense’ High Commissioner, rather than previous bullies, to soften rough diplomatic edges. Elizabeth’s grandson, William, was in Kenya when he declared he had found a wife. The Kenya-Elizabeth memories are uniquely Tree Tops and Mau Mau connected.