This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: AYY 1172).


START 10:33:25 Two Ford 98T 3-ton lorries deliver the performers and prefabricated theatre pavilion belonging to the East Africa Command's African Entertainment Unit to an East African Command camp somewhere in Kenya. Members of the entertainment troupe disembark from the trucks with their own kit bags and musical instruments whilst Askaris stationed at the camp unload folded prefabricated wooden stage floor panels. Other soldiers bring small wooden floor blocks, arrange them in rows on the ground and lay the stage floor panels over them. A canvas awning over the back of the stage and stage curtains complete the process by which a small music variety theatre is assembled. The stage curtains are pulled back to reveal five African army entertainers - two banjo players, two guitarists and accordion player - seated in a row (there may be others inside the canvas awning hidden by the shadow). They start playing their instruments and singing. Another troupe member playing a violin joins in.

10:36:38 Close-ups of the bespectacled and cheerful-looking British Education Corps Captain in charge of the African Entertainment Unit and of the African musicians, in neatly pressed khaki drill and slouch hats, playing their instruments. Another performer, a bugle player, steps outs onto the stage, salutes his audience, plays his bugle and then he sings.

10:37:53 A large audience of Askaris (service troops in khaki fezes) and riflemen (wearing slouch hats) forms a semi-circle in front of the small stage, to hear a British officer address them and then listen to the entertainment troupe.

10:38:45 The troupe's comedian reports to the British Education officer while he is conducting the musicians. Armed with a rifle with a bent barrel, a steel helmet chained to his head and wearing a scruffy uniform, this performer does a series of gags on stage playing the part of a backward, incompetent soldier.

10:40:53 The troupe's female impersonator, wearing pale foundation cream and lipstick and dressed in Asian trousers and blouse, does his/her act on stage.

10:42:08 Out-takes from the performance by the African Entertainment Unit showing all the musicians playing and singing, the incompetent soldier comedy routine, members of the audience showing their appreciation of the performance and the Education Corps officer leaping onto the stage to make an announcement. END 10:45:00

Entertainment for African troops in Kenya.


Summary: John Wernham recorded audio commentary over this film on 14 May 1992. DVD Reel 3-4 "Reel 11" from 22.23 to 1.30.

Remarks: This material, together with the rest of Wernham's film record of his time in East Africa, constitutes a valuable and possibly unique pictorial record at this time in the region's colonial history.



Created in September 1941 to relieve pressure on the Middle East Command, East Africa Command covered the areas of North East Africa, East Africa and British Central Africa, with its headquarters in Nairobi (Jackson, 2006, 175).

The East Africa Command operated a Mobile Propaganda Unit, which according to the Officer in charge, Captain A.G. Dickson, had been ‘travelling the length and breadth of East Africa since the summer of 1942, showing by now [January 1945] to an approximate total of not far short of a million people’. Dickson claimed that the Unit’s function was ‘emphatically not recruiting’ – although Ashley Jackson refers to these as ‘recruiting tours’ – functioning instead, Dickson claimed, to show the life and training of the Askari (soldiers), to demonstrate modern equipment and to ‘encourage an intensified war effort by the civilian population’. The 28 Askari selected from 19 different units performed gymnastic and physical training displays, presented mine detection, signal work, unarmed combat, and ceremonial drills, but most importantly to Dickson, interacted with the locals, serving as ‘missionaries’ once ‘off parade’. The unit also included a ‘diminutive bugler’, who Dickson suggested served as a role model and inspiration for African children (Dickson, 1945, 10). Timothy Parsons argued that ‘these performances created a favourable impression of the colonial army, which helped improve the morale and discipline of Askaris by increasing their social prestige at home’ (Parsons, 1999, 190).

The unit also presented and produced films, including, for example, actualities of African home life and a series of comedies featuring African actors, which Rosaleen Smyth suggested served to ‘keep up the morale of African soldiers’ (Smyth, 1987, 390). The films produced by Sergeant Wernham do not appear however to have been widely exhibited. Although he suggested his films may have been shown non-theatrically in Nairobi – and may also have been intended for screening to ‘homesick’ African troops in Burma – there is no evidence of this, and Wernham acknowledged that the films were produced predominantly for his own interest (‘Wernham Audio Commentary’).

The East Africa Command’s African Entertainment Unit not only played throughout Africa, but also toured South-East Asia. Another unedited army film – No.1 East African Entertainment Unit, filmed in June 1945 – shows a very similar performance presented to troops of the 11th East African Division as part of an extensive tour of Ceylon, India and Burma. The dope sheet (cameraman’s report) explained that the No. 1 East African Entertainment Unit had covered 60,500 miles in Ceylon, India and Burma and had put on three hundred and fifty performances in a year. The dope sheets indicate that two distinct programmes were offered, for British and East African forces, while the performance again included an African band, a comic soldier and a female impersonator dancing to the music of “Minnie from Trinidad”.

A number of the musicians performing with the Entertainment Unit would subsequently enjoy success in post-war Africa. These include Funde Konde, who performed with the unit in South-East Asia, while the enormously popular Rhino Boys comprised men who had performed in ‘the entertainment unit of the Education Corps of the King’s African Rifles’ (Kubik, 1981, 92). Peter Colmore, a hugely successful impresario, bandleader, broadcaster and producer, was the man ‘entrusted with the recruitment of artists and musicians’ and, with three other captains, established the army entertainment units. An obituary upon his death in 2000 further noted that ‘as well as in Kenya, Colmore's unit presented very popular Ensa-type variety concerts in Uganda, Tanganyika and Somalia’ (The Independent, 5 February 2004). It is possible that he is one of the European figures featured within the film. 



Although skilfully shot and largely edited in camera as a self-contained narrative, An African Entertainment Unit was, in all probability, not exhibited or used by the army. For modern audiences however, the film offers a valuable historical record, representing African soldiers at leisure, African musicians – many of whom would become influential and popular figures in post-war African music – and a seemingly ‘westernised’ form of African entertainment.

The film initially highlights the transitory nature of the unit, as the stage is quickly and efficiently set up, and displays as much interest in the crowds as in the performers onstage. Sergeant Wernham offers lengthy shots of the watching servicemen and riflemen and avoids merely recording the staged entertainment. Indeed he uses the camera to enhance the performance on stage – showing close-ups of the musicians’ fingers and their instruments – while also filming the musicians walking towards, and beyond, the camera.

The film shows an essentially ‘westernised’ form of African entertainment, reflecting a confluence of European and African influences. First, the incompetent soldier owes more than a debt to Chaplin – who was, according to Colonial reports, immensely popular amongst African audiences – and to the caricatured British ‘tommy’ popularised in British army revues. The female impersonator is also a staple of British vaudeville, although this act is seemingly tailored for the African soldiers, and in particular to those serving in South-East Asia, as the impersonator appears as a Burmese dancer. In both cases, the unit positions African performers within established British roles. The African musicians played British and American tunes as well as local East African numbers, and although they display a local identity – for example in their methods of playing the lap guitar – these performances were still conducted and overseen by European men, such as Peter Colmore. The Entertainment Unit may thus appear to present local musical forms and performers within an established British framework. This would begin to shift after the war. Gerhard Kubik suggested that these African musicians began to use ‘the instruments in which they had been trained by Europeans for something quite different’ as new forms of music, and self-expression, less closely tied to colonial traditions, emerged within post-war East Africa (Kubik, 1981, 92).

Tom Rice (October 2008)


Works Cited

Dickson, A.G., ‘Studies in War-Time Organisation: (3) The Mobile Propaganda Unit, East Africa Command’, African Affairs, Vol. 44, No. 174, January 1945, 9-18.

‘Dope Sheet for JFU 259’, accessed from Imperial War Museum.

Ewens, Graeme, ‘Obituary: Fundi Konde: A Legend of East African Music’, The Guardian, 21 July 2000.

Greenfield, Peter, ‘Obituary: Peter Colmore: Multitalented Entrepreneur in the New Kenya’, The Independent, 5 February 2004.

Jackson, Ashley, The British Empire and the Second World War (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2006).

Kubik, Gerhard, ‘Neo-Traditional Popular Music in East Africa Since 1945’, Popular Music, Vol. 1, Folk or Popular? Distinctions, Influences, Continuities, 1981, 83-104.

Parsons, Timothy H., The African Rank-and-File: Social Implications of Colonial Military Service in the King's African Rifles, 1902-1964 (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1999).

Smyth, Rosaleen, ‘The Feature Film in Tanzania’, African Affairs, Vol. 88, No. 352, July 1989, 389-396

John Wernham Audio Commentary accessed from Imperial War Museum. 




Technical Data

Running Time:
11 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
289 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Directorate of Public Relations, War Office
Wernham, John (Sergeant)
Production company
Army Film and Photographic Unit







Production Organisations