Who is this man and why is he smiling?

Written by | Quick Reads

It seems like an easy question to answer, but it isn’t.

The man is definitely a collaborator, someone in good books with the colonial government. He might even be the supervisor commanding the operation given that all the officers in the image are black. But that’s the easy part of the question to answer.

The question is not what the man did for a living, or what was so amusing in the middle of such a dark day. The question is who he was as a person. What kind of person smiles while the entire Nairobi undergoes its first proper ethnic cleansing. Look at the distress on everyone else’s face and movement, like the two men at the front who seem to be running for their lives. There’s a clear sense of distress in this picture, except for the one man in the foreground who couldn’t be bothered.

To say the man was a collaborator and possibly a home guard is to say what he did for a living. There are no moral absolutists, which is why even our seeming disdain of home guards is often inspired by a simplistic view of the politics of the time. To collaborate was to survive, although some people took it all the way from surviving to thrive. Some did it to survive, others for the mere fact that the taxes were crushing everyone and they had bills to pay too. Being a loyalist meant getting a special pass that saved you from harassment. You were exempt from some taxes and could get away with alot. It wasn’t as easy as joining the other side. If you think about it, all the independence heroes started out employed in some capacity by the colonial government, with Kenyatta being a meter reader. Even the men who eventually retreated to the forests to launch a losing war were conscripted into the army to fight in Burma and other places. Everyone has a choice, is the gospel of our time.

The problem with any analysis of this photo, and attempting to understand exactly why the man is smiling, is that one cant help but dabble into moral absolutism. Are people entirely bad or entirely good? Is this man, seeing the pain and distress of his countrymen, entirely bad? Is he a psychopath who enjoys seeing people in pain? Will he, a few years after this photo, be one of the notorious interrogators in The Pipeline who rape women and stuff their vaginas with hot eggs, castrate men and feed them their penises, and kill people with abandon. Then go home and kiss his wife and kids. Is he that guy?

Think about the fact that Kipchoge Keino, the deity of Kenyan athletics, was actually Mzee Kenyatta’s jailer at Kapenguria and Maralal. He was a policeman following his orders, yet that does not entirely absolve him of his past and the side of history he was on. If you think about it though, history has no winners or losers, just, when it all boils down, people. No one is entirely good or bad. We idolize the Mau Mau now, but they also did some pretty dark things, including the human sacrifice of Gary Leakey. The Europeans and their collaborators did some ugly massacres and tortures too, but that doesn’t absolve our side. Even in idolizing them now, we forget that not only did they lose the war, they also lost independence to the other side. The Mau Mau was banned until 2003. Let that sink in.

The man in this photo is perhaps testament of the fact that moral absolutism is a terrible lens for studying history. He is a man who, given the power and comfort he feels he needs, can afford to smile while other people are hounded from their homes. They will be locked up at a midway concentration camp around the place Hilton Hotel stands today. They will be screened, first by tribe and then by an informer wearing a sack. Then some will be shipped to a concentration camp in Langata, the hardcore ones to another in Embakasi, and the harmless ones to the reserves. Each will have a completely different fate, but the common thread will be one of pain and misery. But what about the only man who is smiling in this photo?


Cover Image is featured in Caroline Elkins’ ‘The British Gulag.’

Owaahh, 2015

One Story is good,

till Another is told.

Last modified: November 8, 2018