King Charles confronted by empire's dark past on his first day of visit

King Charles III at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi on October 31, 2023. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

Britain’s King Charles III was confronted by his nation’s dark colonial history on the first of his four-day State visit, a tour rich in pomp as it is symbolic.

King Charles and Queen Camilla were yesterday morning welcomed at the State House by President William Ruto and First Lady Rachel Ruto. Their arrival late Monday was as low-key as their light convoy.

The Queen looked dashing in her white crepe dress and the diamond oyster brooch that belonged to the late Queen Elizabeth. The King chose a crisp pin-stripe suit, for which he is famous.

The morning rain gave the royals an African welcome, capped with a 21-gun salute by the military after a band had honoured them with Britain’s all-familiar anthem, God Save the King

A heavy early downpour had threatened to dampen the King’s first visit to a commonwealth nation. Not that, or a mishap by a woman soldier who almost tripped the King when she fell on the red carpet, could ruin the occasion that had everyone who witnessed it giddy.

At the residence that housed the colonial Governor’s office, King Charles would inspect a guard of honour by the Kenya Army, mounted in front of the Kenyan and UK flags that blew in the light wind.

The military band played Jambo Bwana, a welcome song for tourists, as the King marched back to join his host President Ruto at the dais. They would later plant trees in the garden before holding brief bilateral talks.

Elusive apology

As the officers later broke their parade, the patriotic song Funga Safari, composed as a new nation ridded itself of a brutal colonial master, rang out.

Charles visited the stage of this brutality, the Uhuru Gardens, in his second stop. As he walked through the tunnel of martyrs, painted with names of thousands of Kenyans killed by British colonialists, the King witnessed the outcome of his nation’s reign.

He had promised to acknowledge the “painful aspects” of Kenya’s and the UK’s shared history.  Lang’ata, not far away from where the king stood, was a notorious camp for freedom fighters  who were brutalised for demanding to be set free. 

Thousands of Kenyans died in this bitter struggle, with the eternal flame burning atop the tomb of the unknown warrior serving as a reminder of their unwavering patriotism.

Queen Camilla, King Charles III, President William Ruto and First Lady Rachel Ruto at State House, Nairobi, on October 31, 2023. [Dennish Ochieng, Standard]

There have been calls for a formal apology by the British government for its many atrocities, which grew louder as the King’s visit neared.

At a press briefing on Sunday, Kenya Human Rights Commission demanded that the King apologies for the sins of the colonial government.

On Monday, a group of Mau Mau victims were prevented from holding a briefing over similar demands. The King did not speak to the press. Not about the apology or any other matter.

Mau Mau struggle

Earlier, Ruto and Charles laid wreaths at the tomb of the unknown warrior, set against a backdrop of manicured graves of British soldiers killed during the Mau Mau struggle, who, even in death, seem better off than the freedom fighters condemned to a life of squalor.

Even their dead, with known graves, were better off than Kenya’s, buried in unmarked graves. Bodies of Kenya’s heroes, such as Dedan Kimathi, are yet to be found.

Britain has for over six decades refused to disclose where they interred the remains of the iconic freedom fighter who they hanged in Kamiti Prisons.

The UK Head of State’s visit was perhaps as much an apology as the victims of the colonial regime would get. There he stood, at a concentration camp in which thousands of Kenyans were tortured. At the same venue where the Union Jack was lowered and the Kenyan flag flew over an independent Kenya for the first time, ending a dark chapter of Kenya’s history. The Union Jack was lowered in darkness after the city was gripped by a planned darkness that lasted less than a minute.

His visit to Kenya was not meant to right his government’s wrongs but to enhance collaboration with a focus on the future. He must have been encouraged to learn that a nation that was eager to cast them off still maintained UK’s military traditions: Kenya’s army still wore scarlet ceremonial dress, borrowed from the UK and honours it’s dead with the last post, also adopted from the British.

His search for a better future with Kenya, a key player in the commonwealth, would take him to the Eastlands Library in Nairobi.

President William Ruto and King Charles III at State House, Nairobi, on October 31, 2023. [Dennish Ochieng, Standard]

Cleaners from the Nairobi City County swept the streets in a last-minute rush, with police officers lining up the route the King’s convoy would course. 

At the library, Charles and Camilla met innovative children from vulnerable and marginalised backgrounds, contributing to make the world a better place.

Students from Uhuru Girls High School in Turkana offered a tech showcase, showing the King their e-commerce innovations that had helped enhance their poultry and bead-making businesses, the proceeds of which help keep them in school.

They also displayed their environmental conservation efforts, a subject close to the King’s heart.

Charles listened with evident eagerness. “I’d love to hear more about it,” he told Faith Asigo, one of the students who made a presentation about their poultry business.

The Queen, too, enjoyed meeting a different set of children. She beamed as they read out from a storybook, following from a copy handed to her. Camilla paused to watch when the reading acquired a rhythm and later knelt to speak to them. She would donate books to the library set up by the British Council in 1969.

Later, Charles would witness a youth climate tech showcase, with green energy businesses explaining their conservation efforts. Although not as strict as is usually the case when foreign heads visit, security was tight with the UK’s Secret Intelligence Services and Kenya’s elite officers keeping close watch. There was little traffic disruption in the city.

Charles, who is in his fourth visit of Kenya, will today visit Kariokor Cemetery, Karura Forest, the United Nation’s office, the ivory burning sites, among others, before touring Mombasa tomorrow.