This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: CCE 202).


Kenya's first two years of war.

Opens with establishing shots - Mount Kenya, wild-life, black schoolchildren, white settlers; maps and headlines tell of Italian invasion of Abyssinia, outbreak of war. Men go into training with Kenya Defence Force; various forms of 'filling the gap': women farm, become nurses, amateur pilots fly patrols. Italy joins war; Governor (Henry Moore) signs proclamation - troops and supplies come to Kenya from all the Empire (map): Governor greets S African troops; some service women (vehicle maintenance, nurses, cooks etc.). (Reel 2) African Tribes (Kikuyu and Masai) make gifts to war effort; convalescent soldiers stay at a settler's farm; Governor's wife organises civilian aid scheme; Smuts visits South African troops; making armoured cars; Mombasa (docking operations, naval training, minesweeping); soldiers in training (including Indian mule-gun battery). The advance into Abyssinia, and return of Haile Selassie to Addis Ababa.


Production company: appears as "African Films, Johannesburg".



Although produced by the Johannesburg-based African Film Productions, War Came to Kenya was presented by the Kenya Information Office and distributed in the UK by RKO Pictures. Established at the outbreak of War in September 1939, the Kenya Information Office was intended to support the work of the Ministry of Information in Britain. ‘The duties of the information office’, wrote Fay Gadsden, ‘were to counteract enemy propaganda, publicise information about the war, strengthen loyalty to Britain and the Empire, and create confidence in the ultimate victory of the allies’ (Gadsden, 1986, 406).

However, as Gadsden noted, ‘The Kenya Information Office was ill equipped to achieve these aims in 1939. The Government possessed no facilities for making films, no travelling cinematographic vans, and only two Kodascope 16mm projectors’ (Gasden, 1986, 406). During the War the Information Office imported and subsequently planned its own educational films, while the MOI donated a cinema van in 1940, which played to an average of two thousand viewers a day. Three more travelling projectors were acquired in 1942 yet throughout this period, film remained ‘most accessible to the urban European and Indian communities’ (Gasden, 1986, 408). 

The films chosen by the Information Office, alongside talks and articles, stressed ‘the theme of the Empire at war’. The Kenya Information Office avoided showing films of ‘heroic failures’ and films that revealed that black Americans were paid the same as whites. The Information Office instead ‘organised broadcasts by loyal chiefs who called for support for the war effort. Examples of African involvement in and commitment to the war in fighting or contributing funds were given much publicity’ (Gasden, 1986, 413). This is most apparent in War Came to Kenya.

Although Kenya supplied troops, particularly for the military campaign in Abyssinia, according to Clayton and Savage ‘the main thrust of the war effort was within Kenya’ (Clayton and Savage, 1974, 235). Kenya became a strategic base and a centre for the production of food and raw materials. John Lonsdale argued that ‘Wartime prosperity reunited whites but divided blacks more bitterly, not just against whites but against each other’ (Lonsdale, 1986, 119). Certainly the notion of a united war effort is not entirely consistent with subsequent accounts. Lawrence James noted that ‘in July 1943, the Kenyan Government reported that it had reached the limit and, with 67,000 men already in the army, could find no more’ (James, 1994, 508). The government was ‘dismayed’ by the lack of volunteers, but also felt the cost of taking men away from areas of production.

The Government of Kenya hoped to overcome this problem in 1941 by ‘calling on British European women between 18 and 60 to register compulsorily for work’. The Times explained that ‘the Government’s decision arises from the growing scarcity of men, whom the military authorities are reluctant to release’. The paper also noted that ‘the view is officially expressed that while the women’s effort has been splendid, there are many who have done nothing’ (The Times, 5 September 1941, 3). By February 1943, the Government announced that it was applying conscription to European women in order ‘to meet the further requirements of the services, which are still shorthanded’. An article in The Times outlined some of the roles undertaken by the women – ‘most of the farmers’ wives are also carrying on their husbands’ farms’ – and concluded that ‘there are probably few real shirkers’ (The Times, 1 March 1943, 3).



In outlining the Government’s wartime intentions for the Kenyan people, War Came to Kenya prioritises the importance of volunteers, of women and of farming and production. In doing this, the film also emphasises the ‘solidarity’ of the British Empire, the unity of Africa and the continued benefit of British involvement in Kenya.

One of the film’s functions is to recruit and encourage volunteers. The film constantly reiterates the voluntary work performed by the public: ‘the young men of the land become the Kenya Defence Force’, we are told, ‘the housewives and the typists have become voluntary assistant nurses’, and ‘the senior naval officer was a coffee planter, his first lieutenant a solicitor’. The film depicts female workers – on the farm, as nurses, in canteens – but still endorses traditional gender identities as ‘alone each woman manages hundreds of acres, yet remains the mother of her family’. The emphasis on white female workers, repeated throughout the film, was particularly significant as European women were urgently needed to assist production and assume the jobs vacated by men going to war.

Yet, the film’s emphasis on exclusively white female responsibility also highlights one of the film’s paradoxes: this is a united Africa, but one clearly divided by race. The commentary states that ‘This war has proved the solidarity and brotherhood of the British commonwealth of nations. It has also shown a united Africa’. Wendy Webster claimed that the film was re-titled ‘War Comes to Africa’ for distribution in England, which further promotes this notion of a united African response to the War (Webster, 2005, 31).

It is however clear that the film sets up a division between the Africans and the Europeans, both in its formal structure and in its representation of the respective groups. In the first reel, despite mentioning ‘a vast land where twenty thousand Europeans and forty-five thousand Indians live in the midst of three and a half million Africans’, there are virtually no black Africans featured. The film shows a young white girl eating, and white boys playing cricket, as it talks – seemingly in reference to the wildlife - of ‘a land where the savage and the civilised live in harmony’. A further sequence, outlining how troops have arrived from countries throughout Africa to support ‘the colony’s European, Indian and African manpower’, depicts only white Africans.

Although the film ostensibly follows a chronological path, it is also structured in racial terms. The second reel begins with a consideration – from a white colonial viewpoint – of the black African experience. The film then cuts from the tribal Africans, who are depicted in traditional head dresses and described as nomads ‘subsisting on a diet of milk and blood’ who fight lions ‘with a spear as their only weapon’, to a shot of convalescing white soldiers playing cricket, which is widely used on film as a signifier of ‘civilised’ England. A later section depicts the work of African naval volunteers, but again this sequence is at a remove from the sections featuring white volunteers.

While the film does reveal cultural and racial divisions, it still seeks to highlight the loyalty of the local Africans and, in asserting that British and Indian troops arrived from overseas, the continued value of colonial rule. Consistent with other government propaganda, the film depicts local tribes donating to the cause and states that no one has ‘proved more loyal, more generous or more wholehearted in their support of the Empire’s war effort than the African tribes of the colony’. The historical validity of these claims, and the subsequent notion that many of the tribes ‘volunteered’ for military service, has been challenged by much recent scholarship. Yet, the commentary describes the donations as a ‘magnificent gesture for a small tribe who were once German subjects’. This serves to highlight the local loyalty to the Empire, while also reiterating previous British successes over the Germans.

The film’s conclusion illustrates the continued war effort in Kenya, even though the ‘combined forces of Africa have left Kenya’. The film prioritises the need for production and closes, as it begins, with a romanticised shot – akin in music and image to Gone with the Wind – of the land, emphasising once again the essential role of farming and production in the Kenyan war effort.

Tom Rice (March 2008)


Works Cited

Clayton, Anthony and Donald C. Savage, Government and Labour in Kenya, 1895-1963 (London: Frank Cass, 1974).

Gadsden, Fay, ‘Wartime Propaganda in Kenya: The Kenya Information Office,1939-1945’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 19, no. 3. (1986), 401-420.

James, Lawrence, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (London: Little, Brown, and Co., 1994).

Lonsdale, John, ‘The Depression and the Second World War in the Transformation of Kenya’, Africa and the Second World War, edited by David Killingray and Richard Rathbone (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1986).

‘War Came to Kenya’, Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 9 (1942), 92.

‘Call-Up of European Women in Kenya’, The Times, 1 March 1943, 3. 

‘War Production in Kenya’, The Times, 29 June 1942, 3.

‘War Work for Women in Kenya’, The Times, 5 September 1941, 3.

Webster, Wendy, Englishness and Empire 1939 – 1965 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).




Technical Data

Running Time:
18 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
1650 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
South Africa
Kenya Information Office
assistant cameraman
Blanckart, Eric
commentary spoken
Wetherell, Ian
commentary written
Johnson, Guy
Johnson, Guy
Johnson, Guy
Production company
African Film Productions