After the row this week about the Nairobi County Assembly delegation’s visit to Denver, Colorado to collect Mijikenda artefacts, one does not need to belabour the point about the past being a matter of present-day importance.
Without wishing to venture into the dispute about the rightful owners of the artefacts and other objects that are the subject of so much controversy, the episode does beg the question of what Nairobi’s authorities plan to do with the city’s own heritage.
With every passing year, the city’s original features become scarcer. The colonnades of Biashara Street look evermore incongruous with the addition of every new glass, concrete and steel office building.
In many cases, it is difficult to be nostalgic about the death of colonial Nairobi. Whatever their aesthetic merits may be, it is hard to escape the fact that so much of what remains of the old city are buildings, like the DC’s office or Kipande House, used to control Africans.
Until the statue of Dedan Kimathi was erected, one had to look hard to find monuments depicting the ways in which African agency shaped the history of colonial Kenya. This agency can, however, be vividly found in one monument on Kenyatta Avenue.
WHITE AND BLACK SOLDIERS
Erected in 1928, the memorial to the African troops who fought in the First World War is no less a colonial creation than the buildings mentioned above. The very fact that there are separate monuments to the white and black soldiers who fought in the war on the side of the British Empire says a great deal about the apartheid of colonialism.
So too does the fact that there is no attempt to name the African victims of the war, who are left anonymous. But the monument, with its depiction of the three soldiers, remains a powerful statement about the role Kenyans played in the Great War.
Here in Britain, the impending centenary anniversary of the outbreak of that war has already produced an extraordinary amount of discussion about the war’s continued historical significance.
The tone of this debate is not celebratory. The First World War is a conflict remembered for the needless sacrifice of thousands of lives for little obvious gain and for laying the foundations for communism and fascism.
According to historian Mark Mazower it was Europe, not Africa, which was the real dark continent during the 20th century.
In contrast to the attention given to the anniversary in Britain, there has been little coverage of the forthcoming centenary in the Kenyan media.
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What has been written has been mainly about the possibilities for battlefield tourism in Voi and Taveta by British and German visitors. The inference is clear — this was a European war and its centenary is a European affair.
PRECIOUS FEW BOOKS
This is not a new development. Precious few books have been written about the war in East Africa and official commemoration of the role of Kenyan forces in the war that ended at independence. Annual ceremonies held at the memorial on Kenyatta Avenue on the anniversary of the war’s end, November 11, were abandoned after 1963.
But the statue on Kenyatta Avenue should give pause for thought. In his 2007 book, Edward Paice reminds us that 45,000 soldiers and porters (the Kariokor) from Kenya died during the march and battles across southeastern Kenya and across the border into the then German East Africa; a figure almost certainly greater than the loss of life during Mau Mau. This was neither a small war, nor one in which Kenyans did not participate.
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The men who died were not loyalists or collaborators. They were mostly compelled to join the British forces. Those that volunteered were simply looking for a salary with which to pay the taxes imposed on them by the British colonial authorities.
The war was not just significant in terms of the loss of life. Geoffrey Hodges’ classic study of the Kariokor tells us how the war cast a long shadow on Kenya. Settler power was boosted, colonial authority extended and unpopular policies like the kipande were introduced.
The First World War in East Africa was the final stage of the colonial conquest, the consequences of which have shaped Kenyan history ever since.
Given the apparent enthusiasm for the city’s heritage demonstrated by the delegation’s journey to Denver, perhaps attention could turn, on their return, to other ways of protecting and marking Nairobi’s past. The monument on Kenyatta Avenue or even the Kariokor neighbourhood would seem good places to start.
Reviving the annual commemoration ceremony might, if only until 2018, be one appropriate measure. But whether organised by the county or national government, some recognition of the war, the loss of life and the conflict’s lasting effects on Kenya seems necessary, if only to remind us of the need to remember the past while dreaming of the future.
Prof Branch teaches history at Warwick University, UK