Where is Kenya? A Review

Michael Onsando
19 December ,2017

“Today we commemorate our 54th Birthday as an independent nation.  On this day, 54 years ago, the Union Jack came down and the Kenyan flag went up.”

With these words, a week ago, the president began his speech to mark our 54th year of independence. It was in this speech that he revealed his ‘big four’ i.e. food security, affordable housing, manufacturing and affordable healthcare. These are all noble causes. At the core of human existence is food clothing and shelter – the four pillars address all three, and add longevity to the mix.

But, with 54 years of independence, we must continue to ask ourselves why we aren’t there yet. What are the things that are getting in the way of us and our ability to provide decency for the citizens of the country? An abstract question that could make for polite conversation at a bar that would last the whole night – and make little progress while at it. It is still an important question to be asked – to be considered by as many Kenyans as possible, because without answers from people with diverse interactions with the country, how can we be sure we have a full picture?

Perhaps this is what Footprints Press sought to do when they put together the book 50 Years since Independence, Where is Kenya? A collection of 50 essays in three parts, the book is a collection of views from a diverse group of Kenyans with different experiences of the country. From bleak:

“As Kenya marks 50 years of independence I have little to commemorate and nothing to celebrate. It bothers me that we are glossing over the past with such aplomb yet in the present we have outgrown our national significance.”

  • Anyango Odhiambo

To optimistic:

“It is my perspective that whether by design or accident, we have put the necessary building blocks that will pave the way for a sustained economic take-off”

  • Tony Githuku

The authors are drawn from various backgrounds with the book organized in 3 parts – Society and Culture, Politics and the Marco-Economy. Because of the nature of essays (an argument must be contextualized) the book is packed, not just with historical facts, but insights on mindsets and how those mindsets affected the decisions that were made. Take this by Margaret Wambui Ngugi Shava for example:

“I have often wondered how my parents, who endured the vagaries of a racist colonial power, whose lives were fundamentally touched by the Mau Mau resistance, managed to bring up my siblings and myself in such an even handed manner… how is it that as we grow older, most of our friends seem to speak the same language we do?”

This is of particular value to the ‘new’ generation. Those who live with little context to the current mess. Gladwell Otieno puts it best:

“What happens to an injury, an injustice unprocessed? Does it fester, burrowing into the psyche and leaving its traced being inherited from one generation to the next? As a country we are not good at dealing with the sins of the past or the present. The current motto of ‘move on’ in response to the presidential elections is typical. We do not learn from our history and are thus condemned to keep on stumbling over the same hurdles, committing the same crimes”

This book allows us to begin to contextualize current Kenya. In giving us their insights on where Kenya is at fifty years, the writers allowed us to see into their own world, into their own (versions of) history so that we can have a clearer picture of what here looks like. It is in seeing the collection as a whole, as an arena of debating voices, that we begin to understand that competing interests that have been pulling at our country for the last half a decade or so.

A lot of the essays agree on the significances of certain happenings. There are repeated mentions of the death of Kenyatta in 1978 and the attempted coup in 1982. The repressive nature of the Moi regime comes up repeatedly as well as an impediment to freedoms in business, in law, in media and in development of identity. The constitution (promulgated in 2010, I’ve decided we need to stop calling it new) also features a great deal.

But even on these things that they agree on, the perspectives are wide. When writing about the constitution, for example, Henry Awori writes:

 ‘The referendum overwhelmingly approved a constitution that set some high standards for leadership. But when the tenth parliament legislated for its operationalization, the threshold was lowered, making a mockery of the people’s wishes and throwing the principle of public goods to the dogs.’

And Githu Muigai writes:

‘The recent constitution making process remains one of the greatest achievements in our nationhood in the last fifty years… this design has brought new ideas, a transformed conception of government, and, certainly, new applications of old ideas.’

Perhaps if there was something that stood out sharply for me in the book was the importance of hope. The need to believe (or at least try to believe) that this thing called Kenya is possible – that it can be done. Each essay attempts to shed a perspective on the mechanics – how it can be done, what needs to go, what needs to stay, what has been forgotten, what needs to be forgotten and so forth. But it seems strongest that even before we begin to think of how, we must first accept that it is here and that we have a stake in it – then begin to work towards making it better.

‘Where is Kenya? 50 Years Since Independence’ is available from Footprints Press for KES 3,500. Click here for more details.

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