This film is held by the BFI (ID: 366717).


Near Nairobi, Kenya. Africans build a good permanent house using mainly materials which are available on the spot.

In a local village a colonial official arrives in a car to help re-build a house for locals. The film commentary details the building requirements as the Africans build the foundations. The building process - performed by and for Africans - is shown, highlighting how 'in a short time, at small cost and little trouble, a new and better home will have been built with materials that were on the spot'. The official returns to inspect the house, and the film then shows an African family enjoying these new homes and gardens within a village community. The film ends with a direct address to its African audience from the British commentator: 'Better Homes for Africans is more than mere words. It is a practical plan. Use the natural resources that surround you and ask the local authorities to help with advice. They will be pleased and you will be much more pleased'.



The Colonial Film Unit considered Better Homes an instructional film, which ‘shows how a good permanent house may be built using mainly materials which are available on the spot’ (Colonial Cinema, September 1948, 72). Rosaleen Smyth, in considering A Kenya Village Builds a Dam (1944), recognised a commonality amongst post-war instructional films produced by the Colonial Film Unit. Smyth referred to ‘films with a simple story line showing how the development of a community could be achieved through the cooperation of village Africans with the local administration’ (Smyth, 1986, 16).

Colonial Cinema magazine asserted in September 1947 that the function of the Colonial Film Unit was to produce films ‘for the instruction and information of the people of the Colonial Empire’, and included under the heading ‘Medical’, the need for films addressing ‘Better housing and town and village planning; brick-making and tile-making’ (Colonial Cinema, September 1947, 67). Better Homes, released in 1948, was thus intended as an instructional film for African audiences.

G. Anthony Atkinson, the Colonial Liaison Officer at the building research station in England, argued in 1950 that ‘To-Day all the British African governments are concerned, to a greater or lesser extent, with low-cost housing as a social service’ (African Affairs, July 1950, 230). He suggested that ‘direct participation’ was in many cases ‘a very recent development’, as housing opportunities were now partially funded by the Colonial Development and Welfare scheme. The housing was constructed and managed by the municipalities, yet Atkinson acknowledged that ‘only a few local authorities have the necessary technical and administrative experience to be responsible for housing’ (African Affairs, July 1950, 237). Marc Nerfin, a regional advisor at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, recognized the housing shortages in African cities, when writing that 52% of all households in Nairobi in 1955 had ‘more than three people in each room’ (The Journal of Modern African Studies, December 1965, 544). 



Better Homes proposes co-operation between the Africans and the local administration, but it is the manner in which this co-operation is presented that is of most interest to colonial historians.

The film illustrates continued British supervision in the development of African life. First, this is evident through the film’s use of a British commentator, who examines the existing local houses – ‘he has not made the best use of the material at hand. His house needs rebuilding’ – before outlining the building requirements and specifications for Africans wishing to build their own homes. Secondly, within the film the Africans are visited by a white official, who ‘has come to help build’ the house. This official, in jacket and tie, returns at the end of the film to inspect the work of the Africans who have constructed the house.

The commentary represents this house-building process as a further example of the ‘social development’, and ‘civilisation’ of Africa under the British. The perceived improvements under British rule are highlighted: ‘How different from the days not so very long ago when any sort of dwelling would do so long as it provided some sort of shelter’. The commentator further suggests that these new houses ‘will last much longer than the ordinary mud dwelling that one sees in so many African villages today’.

Better Homes suggests that the development of the house is indicative of social development. ‘Better homes’, the commentator suggests, provide a ‘brighter outlook for those who live in them’, while better gardens make for a ‘happier family’. The commentary discusses man’s duty, not just to his family but to his neighbour to help make ‘the whole village a more contented and better housed community’, Furthermore, the significance of the house in terms of sanitation and health is reiterated as it is important to bring children up ‘in an atmosphere of cleanliness’.

The building work itself is performed by Africans, which may suggest that the locals are able to assume responsibility for their own social development. The commentary claims that ‘Today it is possible to learn in a few weeks how to build one of these houses’ adding that ‘most Africans today can build for themselves’ such houses. Yet this also underplays the skilled work of the Africans –‘Building with these mud and blocks is simplicity itself’ – and ultimately the British filmmakers depict an Africa that is aspiring to be more like Britain. The ‘idealised’ African home is a reproduction of western British life. Concluding shots show a family of four, with the father, dressed in a suit and tie, his wife, shown at the window preparing the meal, and their two daughters playing in summer dresses. This is a very British familial construction, and would seem to ignore the realities of housing and family structures for many in East Africa.

Tom Rice (April 2008)


Works Cited

Atkinson, G. Anthony, ‘African Housing’, African Affairs, Vol. 49, no. 196, July 1950, 228-237.

‘Better Homes’, Colonial Cinema, September 1948, 72.

‘Films to Educate Populations’, Colonial Cinema, Vol.5, no. 3, September 1947, 65-67.

Nerfin, Marc, ‘Towards a Housing Policy’, The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 3, no. 4, December 1965, 543-565.

Smyth, Rosaleen, ‘The Colonial Film Unit During the Second World War’, paper delivered at ASA (UK), University of Kent, 17-19 September 1986. 




Technical Data

Running Time:
11 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
960 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Production Company
Colonial Film Unit





Production Organisations