In 1952, the British authorities declared a state of emergency in colonial Kenya, precipitating years of violent warfare. Thousands of Kikuyu were detained in internment camps on suspicion of supporting the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, known as the Mau Mau – insurgents infamous for attacking European settlers. British forces sought to purge these captives of what the colonial authorities characterised as mental anguish caused by the shock of modernity. The de-programming agenda involved inmates being forced to build their own prisons, including chambers in which they were tortured by the British. 

It’s a period of history that is unfamiliar to many British people, especially since the Empire did all it could to suppress any information about this dirty war in Kenya. Instead, the period of the insurgency saw glossy, big budget films produced, such as Simba, a 1955 ‘African Western’ directed by Brian Desmond Hurst – best known for Scrooge (1951), his adaption of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – and starring matinee idol Dirk Bogarde. The film depicts the British as victims of the Mau Mau’s supposed savagery, with no honest accounting of the atrocities perpetrated by colonial forces upon thousands of natives. 

Robert Winder, Soft Power: The New Great Game, Little, Brown, London, 2020.

I learnt about the Mau Mau Uprising – and the British propaganda in response – only very recently, through the 2020 BBC documentary African Renaissance: When Art Meets Power, written and presented by Norwegian-born British journalist Afua Hirsch. It enraged me, but it also made me thankful for the BBC. I watched this entire series in the middle of a lockdown in which the British government repeatedly refused to acknowledge the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on ethnic minorities, while continuing to pursue its hostile environment policy towards immigrants. I felt comforted by the BBC’s willingness to support this truth-telling about the dark side of the country’s imperial past.

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