Adam Rodgers Johns assesses the Kenyan view on England’s World Cup run

Being a white Englishman man in Kenya can be uncomfortable. In my local canteen, I was recently greeted by a drunk fellow patron with the words “welcome home”. The National Museum in Nairobi presents its visitors with a history of the atrocities committed by the British colonial government in the buildup to independence in 1963.

It was in a bar in Nairobi that I watched Croatia come from behind to eliminate England in a surprise World Cup semi-final. There were mutterings of approval from the people watching as the Croatian players skillfully played triangles around England in the dying moments of extra-time, eliminating any hopes of England rescuing the game.

The next day, recovered from the semi-final disappointment, I went to visit the award-winning Kenyan photojournalist and activist Boniface Mwangi at his radical arts space, PAWA254. Boniface, like many Kenyans on social media, had thrown his support against Kenya’s former colonisers in the semi-final, and comically responded to the national emblem emblazoned on the team’s crest: “they don’t even have lions!”

Although the three lions on the England crest harks back to the Middle Ages, in Kenya, the lions evoke a much more recent and raw past. Shooting lions was a pastime of white colonialists, while numerous Indian workers employed by the British were killed by lions in the building of the Kenya-Uganda railway. Today, vast numbers of British tourists flock to Kenya on safari every year, participating in a dubious industry which benefits a largely White minority.

I met with Boniface Mwangi with the purpose of collaborating on the new Museum of British Colonialism, which aims to raise awareness both at home and in the former colonies of this recent yet neglected history. The pilot exhibition will focus on the Mau Mau, the resistance movement which opposed British rule in the years 1952-1960 and paved the way for independence.

Although the three lions on the England crest harks back to the Middle Ages, in Kenya, the lions evoke a much more recent and raw past.

The British government, for its part, had shamefully attempted to ‘draw a veil over the past’ and prior to independence, destroyed incriminating documents detailing state-sanctioned abuses in an official exercise known as Operation Legacy. Others, however, could not forget the violence. In 2005, five Kenyan survivors of torture launched a claim for historical reparations from the British crown. The claim was settled in their favour in 2012, with the High Court ordering the British government to pay reparations and expenses of almost £20 million.

There is an awareness that having the agency to recount the past is essential for resistance in the future, and Kenyans are currently in the process of retelling their history. To do this, people must have access to that history, and it wasn’t until the litigation brought on behalf of the Mau Mau veterans that the foreign office was forced to acknowledged the existence of its secret archive. 

As the possibility of football coming home became tangible, I was looking on thousands of miles away from home, watching in a country that feels very differently about England’s success. With the popular move globally towards the decolonisation of knowledge, it is important to create dialogue between the different actors in this extremely fraught episode of our shared heritage.  This England team has been heralded as marking a new beginning for English football. Yet in Kenya, the past of the nation that these young lions represent cannot, indeed must not be forgotten. 

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