This film is held by the BFI (ID: 459207).


Travelogue of everyday life in Nairobi, Kenya, concluding with the ceremony granting the town the status of a city.

A British voiceover outlines the development of Nairobi - 'today in this once barren land stands Nairobi, capital of Kenya' - as the film cuts from shots of cattle herded across scrubland to street scenes with cars, traffic and buildings. An African policeman directs traffic as 'hundreds of businessmen' drive into this 'great African metropolis'. Various forms of transport are highlighted, including a bus station and a train from Mombasa, which arrives at Nairobi station, where the platform is a 'scene of constant activity'. Amidst scenes of pedestrians and local shops, the film emphasises the multi-racial nature of Nairobi - 'Africans, Asians, Europeans' - before showing scenes from a local African market, which is described as a 'meeting place for Africans from all parts of the territory'. A European buys fruit, and outside the post office the film shows Europeans, Africans and an Asian letter-writer at his desk. The commentator further contrasts the old and new, noting 'the great blocks of flats and huge hotels standing where once the skin huts of Masai herdsmen stood'.

Prominent public buildings are shown next: the town hall, the railway headquarters, the National Bank of India building, and the public library. This is followed by footage of rugby at the national stadium. The game is intercut with shots of the crowd - including Africans watching on a bank - while a South African flag flies from the stadium. Further developments are shown, including new offices, flats and roads, as locals also construct new railway lines and bridges. At Eastleigh airport an Air France plane comes in to land, while locals refuel another plane. The commentator explains that at the end of the day 'the businessmen drive out again to their suburban homes' as the film depicts the evening rush hour. Workers and shoppers get on buses, and the locals reach their homes. The film then shows scenes from the ceremony at which Nairobi was granted a Royal Charter and became a city on 30 March 1950. Opening with a shot of the Union Jack, the film shows the pageantry, parades and African military band. The Duke of Gloucester inspects the guard of honour, watched on by crowds 'without parallel in Nairobi's history', while the mace is handed over to the Mayor of Nairobi on the podium. A pageant the following day includes floats carrying dinosaurs and strange creatures 'of an Africa thousands of years ago' as scenes mark the history of the city. The commentator describes this as a 'great event that will live long in the memory of all', concluding 'Long may Nairobi city prosper'.



Nairobi concludes with the events of the last two days of March 1950 when Nairobi was granted a Royal Charter and became a city. Yet 31 March 1950 also represents the day on which the Colonial Film Unit’s East African operations were closed down. Although two units were left in Tanganyika and Kenya to continue 16mm production until December 1950, 35mm production – as seen here – finished at the end of March, seemingly with the filming of this Royal event.

The East African Unit, consisting of ten technicians under the control of H.L. Bradshaw, had begun in February 1949 with a 35mm unit stationed in Nairobi. Finance was secured under the Colonial Development and Welfare Act for a year, with the hope that local governments would subsequently assume responsibility. However, Rosaleen Smyth indicated that there were problems from the outset, suggesting that the demise can be credited, in part, to the political climate in East Africa. With the increasing tensions between white settlers and African nationalists – barely two years before the Mau Mau uprising – there was, she suggested, ‘not the same impetus to accelerate African development as there was in West Africa’. White officials and filmmakers derided the notion of training African filmmakers, while a proposed training school, similar to that established in Accra, was deemed ‘beyond the capacity of African trainees’ (Smyth, 1992, 170, 174).

The Colonial Office’s Annual Reports offered further information on the work of the Colonial Film Unit – ‘producing films on behalf of the Kenya Government’ – during 1949 and 1950. In 1949 it noted that four films and a newsreel had been completed, with the same number in production, while four mobile information units had given 917 shows throughout the year to a total of 1,118,088 Africans (Annual Report, 1949, 106). In 1950 it explained that in addition to five mobile units, ‘films were distributed to missions, estates, schools and private projector owners, through a library service of films made locally and obtained through the Colonial Office’ (Annual Report, 1950, 86).

Colonial Cinema reported in June 1950 that ‘the entire staff of the C.F.U. in East Africa’ had returned to the United Kingdom (Colonial Cinema, June 1950, 28). Given this rapid demise, it is unclear whether Nairobi was widely distributed. The film was very briefly reviewed in Colonial Cinema a year later in June 1951, but it would appear likely that the final sequences were originally intended for newsreels (Colonial Cinema, June 1951, 48). Rosaleen Smyth noted the widespread production of newsreels by C.F.U. teams in East Africa and footage from the Royal ceremony filmed by the East Africa Sound Studios did feature in an edition of British Movietone News on 13 April 1950. Indeed, this material also appeared at the end of Kenya Capital (1950), a film produced by East Africa Sound Studios under the supervision of local settler officials, sharing much in common with Nairobi.

The Royal Charter for Nairobi was widely celebrated within the British press during 1950 as an indication of British imperial progress and expansion. The Times reported the event under the sub-heading ‘From Swamp to City within the Span of a Lifetime’. ‘Nairobi is really what it is’ the article concluded, ‘because British men and women came to make permanent homes in East Africa. In its municipal Government they have admitted the other races to membership but they have always kept a European majority because neither Asian nor African has the British tradition, without which local government as it is to-day could not have emerged’ (The Times, 30 March 1950, 7).

However, the ‘celebration’ met with strong opposition from local groups. The East African Trade Union Congress (EATUC) led a boycott against the celebrations in protest at the ‘racial and anti-trade union policies’ of the government, and urged far-reaching social, economic and political reforms (Agyeman, 2003, 88). Makham Singh, the founder of the EATUC, argued that ‘if people will not attend, the King’s son will observe that Africans are not happy in these celebrations…that there is slavery and that there are slaves’ (Clayton and Savage, 1975, 329). Singh subsequently wrote, in a book on labour history, that ‘the workers cannot be pleased by the Nairobi of the rich. By their boycott they wish to demonstrate that the so-called “progress” is not the progress of the millions of toiling people but of a handful of capitalists’ (Singh, 1969, 254). Indeed the Kikuyu, who had already been forced to relocate to the city in large numbers, viewed the charter as an indication of further urban expansion and expropriation of their lands. Furthermore, shortly after the boycotts Makham Singh was arrested and there followed in May 1950 a nine-day general strike within Nairobi. The response to the granting of the charter was thus evidence – however well concealed by the colonial government – of escalating tensions within the city, which would ultimately climax in the Mau Mau uprisings.



From the outset, Nairobi presents a message of British ‘development’ and ‘progress’ within East Africa. The British commentator stated, as did British press reports, that what was ‘less than fifty years ago… waste and swampy land’ was now a ‘great African metropolis… a centre of ever-growing industry and nationwide commerce’. The film highlights technological advances – ‘motorcars parked where once the cattle roamed’, ‘great blocks of flats and huge hotels standing where once the skin huts of Masai herdsmen stood’, modern airports, trains, motorbuses which have replaced ‘carts and rickshaws’, ‘huge offices grow higher and higher’ – and notes that ‘everywhere there is progress’. The film does not consider the impact of such ‘progress’ on local Africans, but resorts to stereotype in suggesting that ‘for the older people Nairobi’s growth must seem near to magic with its daily contrasts of the new with the old’. Certainly there is no sense of the local opposition to this development. For example, the commentator triumphantly explains that ‘in every direction Nairobi is extending’, seemingly ignoring the fears about such expansion from those in nearby lands, such as the Kikuyu.

The Colonial Film Unit titles were intended for local African audiences, and while Nairobi could be viewed as a reaffirmation of British progress and a call for loyalty, its lack of acknowledgement of the experiences or concerns of local Africans would seem likely to incite, rather than placate, and further indicates a growing disparity between the colonial rhetoric and the local experience. Indeed there is little evidence of allowances for an African audience. The film appears as an introduction to the city for those unfamiliar with it, while the film’s narrative – a day in the life of the city – is framed by businessmen driving into work and then returning to their ‘suburban homes’. The film appears to focus on a westernised elite and although European, African and Asian groups are shown together – for example on the pavements, at the station and outside the Post Office – there is little consideration of the experiences of these majority groups, or indeed of the different factions within these categories. The final sequence of the Royal Charter, which opens with a shot of the Union Jack, reiterates this message of loyalty and British progress, suggesting that the crowds were ‘without parallel in Nairobi’s history’.

Nairobi serves as an example of the government’s use of cinema during a period of escalating social and political tension, but it also indicates, in its refusal to acknowledge local grievances or to address the experiences of the African communities, a failure to respond to these evident problems. The East Africans are largely represented in traditional terms, with such racial prejudices clearly evident in the attitudes of the C.F.U. filmmakers towards prospective African trainees. They are represented as superstitious, loyal to the British crown, contented – in enjoying their leisure, watching white athletes playing rugby - and grateful for British ‘progress’. Over the next few years, the inaccuracy of such a representation would become increasingly clear. 

Tom Rice (January 2009)


Works Cited

Agyeman, Opoku, The Failure of Grassroots Pan-Africanism: The Case of the All-African Trade Union Federation (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2003).

Clayton, Anthony and Donald C. Savage, Government and Labour in Kenya, 1895-1963 (London: Routledge, 1975).

Colonial Cinema, June 1950, 27-29.

‘Nairobi’, Colonial Cinema, June 1951, 48.

Colonial Office, Annual Report on the Colonies: Kenya, 1949 (London: H.M.S.O., 1949).

Colonial Office, Annual Report on the Colonies: Kenya, 1950 (London: H.M.S.O., 1950).

Singh, Makham, History of Kenya's Trade Union Movement to 1952 (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1969).

Smyth, Rosaleen, ‘The Post-War Career of the Colonial Film Unit in Africa: 1946-1955’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 12, No.2, 1992, 163- 177.

‘Royal Charter for Nairobi: From Swamp to City within the Span of a Lifetime’, The Times, 30 March 1950, 7.




Technical Data

Running Time:
8 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
762 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Production Company
Colonial Film Unit





Production Organisations