Everytime I’ve come across an English speaker here in Europe, the initial question sometimes delivered with shock has been, “You speak English?”
Without skipping a beat, the answer has always been, “Yes I do.. Grew up in Kenya, we were colonized by the British.”
That I assume is explanation enough, for how else would I have learned to speak the language so fluently, if not by virtue of absorbing everything in it, from nursery to university; writing and reading every piece of information, books, newspapers, letters and watching television shows in the language.
The Republic of Kenya, as with many other former British colonies around the world, have a singular thread of commonality woven through them; that English is their official language. It may be slightly different from the English spoken across the United Kingdom, it may be colloquial, heavily accented or pidgin/sheng but it is English all the same.
When I heard of the Queen’s medical supervision and of the royals rushing to her bedside in Balmoral, I thought that the situation was quite serious, she was after all quite advanced in age, having been the longest serving monarch in Britain, reigning for seven decades and shaking the hands of 15 Prime Ministers into office beginning with Winston Churchill and ending just last week with Liz Truss.
Then there was speculation on twitter; the newscasters on BBC were wearing black, the BBC online normally with a red backdrop was now outlined in black. Some on social media concluded that Operation London Bridge was in place; code for the plans to be put in effect immediately after the Queen’s passing. Some suggested that because she was in Balmoral, Scotland at the time, it meant ‘Project Unicorn’ was in place.
The official announcement came and the notice on Buckingham Palace was put up. The Queen had died, and flags around the world now flew at half-mast. There was a flurry of reactions worldwide with many African leaders offering their condolences.
Since then, social media has been awash with reactions ranging from heavy grief, to nations of peoples who experienced unique intergenerational trauma from British colonization, putting up blunt posts stating exactly how they feel.
It has been the expectation of some from the formerly colonized nations, that if others with similar backgrounds don’t express the same acrimonious reactions, they will be looked upon as having ‘betrayed their ancestors.’
Trevor Noah expressed best what many of us felt by news of her passing, “It really is a complicated legacy, whilst many want to distill it into one idea, one feeling, it really is more complicated than that, some feel sadness as the Queen symbolised something and someone..perhaps a world that was moving in a certain direction, for some – a woman being in power, which was inspiring and obviously for some people, she evokes memories of colonialism, she makes people think of the worst of the British empire..it is complicated, its nuanced.”
I may be ambivalent and in my feelings because I’m nostalgic for the ages past, when my folks shared that very early in their marriage, they spent a few years in Edinburgh and London furthering their education, as well when we’d receive letters from friends with stamps bearing her Majesty’s face, or through watching so much of British media, following every Royal family wedding and hearing the fairytale rehashed of how at Treetops hotel, she went up a Princess and came down a Queen, also because long after independence our leaders were chummy, sitting down with her heading Commonwealth meetings. So maybe for so many years we’ve regarded her in abstract, a symbolic and ceremonial figure away from all the atrocities carried out across the British empire. I’ve always thought that surely a monarch’s distinct role stands apart from the actual setting of British foreign policy.
Those who give orders are forgiven for they did not carry them out themselves. Those who followed orders are forgiven for they did not come up with the plan. Again, colonialism is left with no perpetrators and amorphous momentum.” – reads another tweet.
Similarly, through the various thoughts openly expressed, it is certain that way too many westerners have a skewed outlook on the role Europe played in the exploration and subsequent colonization of these lands. There is an urgent need for a revamping of their curriculum, to unlearn and relearn this vital part of European history.
My teen with whom I’ve shared colonial history from the perspective of the colonized, said that her history teacher here, lays an emphasis on colonization ‘benefitting’ the colonized rather than the other way around, “We brought education, medicine, clothing to them, they were left with ‘a far better quality’ of life,” but glossing over the forceful means they employed to colonize peoples. He also mentions in a blasé fashion that “spices and minerals” were the ‘only’ benefit they got from colonized lands.
He fails to understand in his transmission of knowledge to the students, the complex ways that colonialism shaped and continues to shape the uneven power structures of the 21st century, as anthropologist and historian Ann Laura Stoler argues in her book, Duress.
We certainly cannot discount the many whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents were singed by the horrors of colonialism. We cannot police their emotions as they choose to remember at this time, what their ancestors lived and fought through. They bristle with anger feeling that the Queen has never offered an apology for this time in British history.
However, King Charles III just a couple of months ago while still Prince, offered an apology in a Commonwealth meeting held in Rwanda, ‘acknowledging the wrongs that have shaped our past.
He as well clarified in the same meeting that, “Each member’s constitutional arrangements as republic or monarchy, is purely a matter for each member country to decide,” when alluding to the potential for more Commonwealth countries severing ties with the British monarchy.”
There is a push to return the crown jewels to India and the African countries they were taken from. The royal jewels, which include India’s famed Kohinoor diamond and the Great Star of Africa, have long been seen as examples of Britain’s colonial domination
For former colonies, I just have to say we should do better. I look at Singapore, a tiny city-state likewise colonized by Britain and feel, “This could be us but.…”
Kenya gained independence in 1963 but we haven’t exactly lived in peace, love and unity. Tribalism has plagued the Republic since independence. Police brutality in Kenya continues to-date; there has been heavy suppression of dissent, the silencing of the opposition has occurred many times. Youth unemployment seems to be a constant. Extrajudicial killings, assassinations, unsolved disappearances have been a feature. We can do better, we have to do better.
Death comes to all eventually, and I’m acutely aware of the ensuing ripple effect with the huge gap created by the loss of a matriarch. I condole with Prince William and Prince Harry right now, just as I did when life dealt them a huge blow with the sudden death of their beloved mum Princess Diana.
About whether or not we should mourn as Africans, it ultimately boils down to personal preference.
No one should police another’s grief or lack thereof.