BY AWUOR ONGURU
A tweet I read about The Duke of Edinburgh’s death reflected on the fact that he was only a few years older than the State of India. At the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, over fifteen countries were still under British Occupation, my home country of Kenya included. The death of Prince Phillip reminds not only of the finitude of world orders but of the infancy of the newly independent commonwealth. In many ways, we are still dealing with the aftershocks of colonization: the vicious cycle of corruption, disparate inequality, and, nevertheless, a persistent bizarre nostalgia.
It is a strange phenomenon that occurs within the commonwealth. Even though we are free from the shackles of colonialism, post-colonial culture still occupies itself with admiration of the British Crown and her relations. The memory of suffering seems to have been erased—at the very least, selective amnesia occurs, making it possible for us to maintain the fairy-tale that was sold to oppress us.
Nostalgia for the commonwealth wasn’t under the surface in my childhood, it was apparent and at times, codified. My great-grandfather plastered posters of King George VI on his wall until they were a part of the wall itself.When William and Kate got married, my middle school gave us a week off from school to watch the wedding. Kenya’s relationship with the crown is particularly close: in 1952, when Queen Elizabeth’s father George VI died, she received the news while on vacation at Treetops Lodge in Nyeri, Kenya. Nairobi and its surrounding countryside was the stage for many royal excursions: for years during our occupation, Britain’s richest and wealthiest travelled around the Kenyan countryside, moving from manor to manor and lodge to lodge, living a life of hedonistic pleasure. Echoes of the Happy Valley set still remain in Nairobi today: the crossroads at which Joslyn Hay, the 22nd Earl of Errol and notorious womanizer was shot in 1941 remain largely unchanged, and the subject of urban legend.
The British left Kenya in 1963, when we gained independence. Their legacy, however, still remains . Kenya’s government systems are largely based on their British counterparts. Government systems were modelled after those of the British, and British culture remains largely ingrained in the infrastructure of the country: many colonial buildings still remain in use, such as the previous Police Constable’s office, now the Nairobi Gallery. We drive on the British side of the road, write in the British style, and follow British customs, like wearing school uniforms. Travel outside of the capital city and the resemblance is even more uncanny: in many major towns and cities, colonial buildings and storefronts are still in use.
It’s, therefore, no surprise that the British Crown keeps a steady hold of our decolonized hearts. For years we have followed royal births and deaths as if they were our own. Where does this sense of ownership come from? Perhaps from existing within a system that loudly calls to our past, and, in many cases, glorifies it. The existence of the Commonwealth in and of itself chains us to the concept of being ruled, of being part of British imperialism. Why not subscribe to its joys?
My own writing has been influenced by British imperialism. Before I discovered the gold mine that was the Black African Literary tradition, my work was informed by Britishness. Karen Blixen and Elspeth Huxley, two white settler women, dictated my literary view and love for my country. This was in turn influenced by the 1950’s style Anglican prep school I attended, where we sang “God Save the Queen” before the Kenyan National Anthem on Remembrance day, and had a special procession for Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee, and read histories of Kenya told by white settlers— the fathers and grandfathers of the men that taught there. I spent hours downtown at the East Africa Women’s League, looking at the preserved tapestries that had been inspired by the various neighbourhoods the European settlers created. To be a woman pioneering a new world! The fact that I wasn’t white didn’t matter to me— the thought of belonging to something bigger: to be a part of the people that appreciated. and in many ways, fostered the beauty of my country mattered to me the most.
I had no idea of the atrocities that the British committed while occupying Kenya. In many ways, Kenya’s youth seems to have forgotten its bitter past. Somehow, the combination of our proximity to British Royalty, internalized white supremacy (reverence for whiteness was also left behind by the British), and its continued friendliness with the countries it colonised has allowed the British Crown to create an identity entirely removed from their political policies. The Royal family is the ideal that our countries have strived towards for the entirety of our existence: rich, thriving, and with a legacy that outlasts the millennium.
Meghan Markle was a confirmation that our dreams were not too lofty. She too came from a tradition of self-starters: as a woman of colour with an established career behind her, she joined the royal family as one of us. To see that someone who looked like me, idealistically and physically, could ascend to the coveted tradition opened the gates. The Royal Family was no longer the castle on the hill: Meghan brought it to the townspeople, allowed us to touch her crown, and see what it was like to be nobility.
But was it a lasting fix? Still, the boundaries between the crown and the common remained drawn. From the outside, we had to watch as the British media tore her apart and demonised her, compared her new born baby to a monkey, and, when she finally had the wherewithal to leave, made her look like she had orchestrated her departure with sinister motives.
It’s not a new story. Remembering correctly, it’s the same thing that happened to our ancestors. Once independent, free-thinking people, their rights were stripped away. For years the crown exploited the commonwealth for profit and turned them away when they were no longer useful to their political goals. Even outside the question of Meghan’s race motivating the backlash against her, it has always been obvious how the crown feels about foreigners. We’re not welcome: our love is not requited. Even though I identified with the White British settlers that build my country, learning the history of their actions towards my people was like whiplash. If one looks across the glittering façade of romanticised British occupation, a long history of subjugation and cruelty is uncovered—a history that, despite the feeling of camaraderie and love for our countries, cannot be ignored.
Yet for the first time, we are able to see truly the machinations of the crown that rejects us so strongly. Meghan’s exit, although heartbreaking, has allowed us to see through a microscope exactly how the Crown and the firm that runs it operates. Even though we know that we are not welcome, we can now see closer into the establishment than ever before. What was once an unattainable empire is becoming more and more a celebrity family through the live-tweeting of their family squabbles. Continuing on this path will eventually wear down the illustriousness of the Royal Family—meaning that soon, it won’t matter whether they accept or reject us. The re-characterisation of the Royal Family as a normal family, with normal family issues means that they no longer have the hold of moral or historical greatness over the general population. They exist purely as another celebrity family, with replaceable fame.
This, of course, means that eventually, we will have to stop worshipping the Royal family and find a new ideal. Can we perhaps, begin to look into ourselves as the epitome of success? I’m excited for the day when prestige and exclusivity will no longer mean anything in post-colonial societies. Finally, we will be able to be what we have always dreamed of: strong societies, content in ourselves and in the histories that brought us here. The end of the Royal family will perhaps be the end of an era, but it will also be the beginning of a new order for the formerly colonized countries of the Commonwealth: that of self-reliance, unity in identity, and a releasing of the colonial shackles that still hold us.
Awuor Onguru is a poet and writer from Nairobi, Kenya. She is currently in her first year at Yale College, where she thinks she will study English and History. Her work has appeared in Menacing Hedge, Polyphony Lit, Kenya’s Daily Nation Newspaper, and the Langaa Publication Covid Stories from East Africa and Beyond.