Why Africans can’t mourn the death of a colonial queen
OPINION: Why should we forget our pain and absolve Queen Elizabeth of her role in the destruction of Africa?
In 1944, during the Second World War, my paternal and maternal grandfathers in Kenya, Mukanzi Miheso and Indonde John, were conscripted by the British government to fight in Burma (present-day Myanmar).
They were shipped there under conditions reminiscent of the transatlantic slave trade (which the British eternally congratulate themselves for abolishing). Black conscripts were crammed below deck on unsanitary ships for a long, difficult, painful voyage. Food was controlled and rationed by the white people above deck. Many went hungry, others contracted diseases and some died en route, including more than 1,000 on a troopship sunk by the Japanese.
My grandfathers were among the lucky ones who returned alive to Kenya after the fighting was over. The colonialists paid one for his service with a piece of Kenyan land that they had stolen earlier as part of the British occupation; the other was given a few shillings with which he, too, bought land.
But many of the Kenyan combatants who fought for Britain and survived, died without being remunerated for their service. Some are still alive and still angry at their treatment, including being paid three times less than their white counterparts.
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My grandfather Miheso lived until 2013, and I knew him well. He recalled his Burmese experience as one of endless horror, bloodshed and death, in which he witnessed friends and fellow countrymen fall to bullets, disease or starvation, only to be left, sometimes where they died, in the rainy forests of that foreign land. He made it back home, but was haunted, traumatised and changed forever.
But the horror of witnessing violence continued. He had barely any time to process the trauma of Burma when anti-colonial and pro-independence protests started to ripple through Kenya. To destroy these liberation movements, the British regime rounded up entire communities and herded them into detention camps.
They also set up so-called ‘protected villages’ across the country, surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, and patrolled by guards. In these camps and villages, people were enslaved, tortured, starved, murdered, left to die from diseases and even raped while their loved ones watched.
This is not ancient history but the personal stories we tell new friends and younger clan members
When Dedan Kimathi, the leader of the liberation movement called Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KFLA) but known as ‘Mau Mau’ by the colonial government, was captured in 1956, the British colonial government hanged him and dumped his body in a secret unmarked grave.
Just four years earlier, while on a luxury safari in Kenya, Elizabeth Windsor had become queen of Britain. She went on to reign for 70 years in the lap of privilege. When she died, (most of) the UK mourned her for a week as she lay in state in Westminster, before a lavish funeral watched by people all around the world.
Yet, to this day, Kimathi’s family is still begging the British government to reveal the whereabouts of his remains.
These Kenyan family histories are shared by so many others across Africa. The descendants of Sergeant Cornelius Nii Adjetey, Corporal Patrick Attipoe and Private Odartey Lamptey could recount how their forebears were fatally shot by a British soldier in Ghana in broad daylight in 1948 as they marched alongside fellow veterans demanding the overdue payment for their combat service.
The emotional wounds of Dedan Kimathi’s family are just as open as those carried by Igbo families whose relatives were among the one million wiped out in the 1967-70 genocide in Biafra, with ammunition supplied by Britain to the Nigerian government.
This is not ancient history but the personal stories we tell new friends and younger clan members at family gatherings. They are the stories that came tumbling out as silent memories, angry social media posts and official statements at the news of the death of Elizabeth Windsor, the monarch who wore the crown for which our grandparents were murdered, maimed, traumatised, dispossessed and scammed.
To our surprise, we were met with demands for decorum from the ‘tone police’. The reactions directed at similarly triggered Irish citizens – such as the football fans chanting ‘Lizzie’s in a box’ – were much less outraged.
Although many people had the audacity to tell Africans to show respect at the demise of a British monarch, we really don’t owe the British, or anyone, such decorum. It’s even absurd that we have to explain ourselves.
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