Back to Basics: The Value of History

Guest Writer
30 August ,2016

by Robert Munuku

Often, while growing up in primary school, we challenged each other to name the capital cities of African countries, and it was a thing of pride to be the child who could name the most. There was one boy called Kieven Yu, of Chinese origin but born and raised in Mombasa town by his mother. Kieven could name ALL the capital cities, not only of African countries, but of all countries. Many times, I would sit for minutes on end with the Atlas trying, not only to cram the capitals, but also trying to look for that one country Kieven did not know about. I mean, how could he possibly know all capital cities?

At the time, this exercise would be compartmentalized into the subject Geography and was taught & examined as such. I however now feel that History would have been the more appropriate subject to teach the capital cities. What I’m alluding to here is a general observation (that has become more pronounced in recent times) that many Kenyans (especially youth) do not know much about Kenyan history. Moreover, most Kenyans do not know a lot about the general areas in which they live.  For instance, many youngsters born and raised in Nairobi do not know much about other areas in Nairobi other than those areas that they reside in, work at, and more importantly, that fall under the scope of their ‘class boundaries’.

I grew up in Eastlands, went to school in Westlands and now live in what one would call ‘Nairobi South’. Those who are aware of the class stratification dynamics in Nairobi know that Eastlands is the place where (according to many who are not from Eastlands) all the riff-raffs, the scary robbers, and vagabonds hail from.  Eastlands is also ridden with street litter, and is home to what is arguably the largest dumpsite in East Africa – the Dandora dumpsite.

Eastlands is also next to the Industrial Area, where dozens of factories manifest themselves as grey clouds of copious waste emissions from a forest of chimneys.  Eastlands further lives up to the stereotype by having itself dissected in sections by railway lines – a thing affluent areas are never close to. How could they be?  Imagine Kitusuru (upmarket Nairobi) being butchered topographically by railway lines – unthinkable!

Now, a majority of my Eastlands compatriots have never lived, been schooled, worked in or even visited the upmarket suburbs of Westlands just as (is more often the case) most of the upmarket Nairobians (most of whom comprised my schoolmates) have never visited Eastlands. It’s not surprising, they would be mugged on the spot, no? Besides, how can they enter a matatu and go to Eastlands, that’s risky!

My sister, part of the same ‘born in Eastlands, schooled in Westlands’ sub-culture of children, almost choked on her shock when she overheard her classmate ask, “You mean matatus have (route) numbers?” What seems like a very naïve and annoying remark is actually further testimony to the class reclusiveness that exists not only in Nairobi, but in other parts of the world as well in its many variations. A remark like “You are from Eastlands? Aren’t you scared of being mugged when walking home?” is as severe a display of naivety (or what some have described as ‘class blindness’) as the remark, “You are from Africa? Do you guys see giraffes and lions walking in the streets?”

What knits the above phenomena together is a failure to access, or desire to access, information & knowledge. I have never been to Turkana in Kenya yet I am a Kenyan. I want to go to Turkana, partly because being a Kenyan I should, but also because I acknowledge the value of universality and moreso the need to continuously gain knowledge of others other than myself.

This is especially so when these ‘others’ are fellow countrymen. I often talk to my friends about Pan-Africanism but how can we talk of it when we have barely grazed the surface of knowing our own history as Kenyans? Worse still, when we do not know Nairobi in its totality (for those who hail from Nairobi)? We are busy indulging our peculiar appetite for what is foreign, constantly seeking to satiate it with accolades, scholarships and fellowships to the Western World as we dance to the fiddle played by overly benevolent donor agencies.

I want to attend a fellowship in Africa; I want to visit people in Turkana and Moyale before even contemplating a visit to Berlin & New York. To discuss Pan-Africanism as a philosophy is to presuppose an already achieved premise of a complete understanding of the very elements you wish to synthesize with this Pan-Africanism. This has not happened yet, but can.

Back to History. History for me is as important as Philosophy. History as a taught subject in the formal education system must be revised thoroughly. I will not get too much into the education system, but a curriculum that elevates History to a compulsory subject at high school level (and as a core compulsory course unit at university level) is critical. This, however, must be done accordingly – content has to be continually updated, diversified and revamped. In short, know about your city (say, Nairobi), then know about your County, and then know about other counties and the people who live there. Then only can one consider breaching the borders to venture into other African countries (hence a move towards Pan-Africanism).

African Fellowships – my new area of interest. How do we make these possible? How do we get Africans to interact with each other and share their rich experiences which, as diverse as they may be, still bare threads of similarity that make the very same experiences not too far removed from each other? How do we celebrate our own artists, musicians, poets, journalists, photographers and writers without first waiting for them to go abroad, win a prize, get foreign validation, then return home and finally get a clap from us?

To be able to make a difference in your society is to be able to first acknowledge the need for change. To acknowledge the need for change is to first become aware of your society, such awareness is not automatic and takes conscious effort only made possible by knowledge whose appetite to pursue stems from information, which then comes from knowing your history.

I urge all Kenyans to learn their history if not anything else.

Robert Mũnũku is a visual artist, writer & filmmaker based in Nairobi. Mũnũku is also the founder of Mau Mau Collective which is an organization that seeks to create a strong network of independent visual artists, filmmakers & performing artists on the continent with the shared goal of independence and art-driven, community based creative education.

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