BBI report a big test in search for culture and a national ethos

Friday March 20 2020

President Uhuru Kenyatta (centre), Deputy President William Ruto (left) and ODM leader Raila Odinga launch the Building Bridges Initiative task force report at Bomas of Kenya, Nairobi, on November 27, 2019. PHOTO | PSCU


“We lack shared beliefs, ideals and aspirations about what Kenya can become if we all subscribed to a national ethos that builds and reinforces our unity,” states the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report.

In simpler terms, the task force found that 57 years after independence, we don’t have a “character” to describe the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterise our community, nation or ideology.

We are talking about the moral courage to do the right thing and without supervision, such as self-reporting, observation and quarantine to tame the spread of coronavirus.

And this is no surprise. We are a country that doesn’t have a clear cultural policy. Well, maybe that is not true, because in 2009, William ole Ntimama launched the first National Policy on Culture and Heritage. This came 46-years late. I believe we still do not have a sound national policy on culture and heritage because in 2010, we gave ourselves a new Constitution that “recognised culture as the foundation of the nation and as the cumulative civilisation of the Kenyan people and nation,” but the policy is not aligned to the new constitutional realities.


The Constitution’s philosophy, vision, design and architecture spoke to culture and the reawakening that should have in essence informed the revision of the 2009 policy. A process to do this was initiated but to date, it has never moved beyond the Cabinet secretary’s desk after it got stuck there during the infamous Hassan Wario era.


For once in Kenya’s 57-year history as an independent state, the Ministry of Culture has been extensively cited and recognised. The BBI report places a lot of responsibility on harnessing and nurturing the national ethos on this ministry. It recommends the strengthening of “the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to build and promote cultural policies that are linked to the counties’ promotion of cultural activities.”

The BBI report makes these and a raft of other recommendations that will help shape the national culture but fails to look at the opportunities that the Constitution offers in redefining our national ethos.

It is now increasingly becoming clear that a clamour to change the Constitution is going to be part of the intended process to fix the national ethos. However, would satisfactory and honest implementation of the Constitution have helped in curing the maladies that the BBI now wants to cure?

There is no doubt that an honest look at what the Constitution sought to achieve is at the very centre of everything that the BBI hopes to achieve. The BBI is, therefore, not seeking to cure anything that we don’t know or have not tried to adopt a mechanism to correct. The question that continues to linger is why we often revert to our default mode of behaving badly.

We quickly turn to the bad ways as seen by the noise, name-calling, trading accusations, suspicions, manipulation and all other vices that have characterised the rallies, meetings and engagements of the BBI process following its dramatic launch at Bomas of Kenya.


And therein lies the challenge of the task ahead of implementing some of the recommendations that have been suggested in the report and those that will be presented in the second round of gathering views. We have very good proposals on paper on what needs to be done to change things. However, “kwa ground,” on implementation, “mambo ni different,” things are different.

Developing a national ethos calls for a deliberate, well-planned, well-resourced, widely supported and soundly executed process to re-engineer our cultural psyche. It calls for change. However, change is not always easily embraced and welcomed. It is even harder if those expected to lead in the charge for change are the greatest beneficiaries of the current system that favours them.

The BBI report has made this call. It notes: “This report is a historic opportunity for us to begin willingly defining, developing and subscribing to an enduring collective vision that would lead to a united Kenya equal to all its major challenges. It would appreciate and honour excellence in leadership, in the civic practices of citizenship, and in our care and consideration of one another.

Such an ethos would be deeply respectful of differences in culture, heritage, beliefs and religions. Its character would guide and constrict the planning and actions of the State to the benefit of the people of Kenya. The journey to developing such a national ethos begins by accepting the desperate need for it.”

Cultural re-engineering as suggested in the report will require that we disembark from the bus we are currently travelling in. The BBI report, as it stands currently, is clear that this bus that we have boarded is full of bad things. It is full of con men, dishonest men and women who are intolerant of each other and who exploit others.

With this reality in mind, how easy can the recommendations that the BBI makes be embraced by all considering that they stand a chance of throwing some long-held truths upside down? For instance, the BBI notes that we should give ourselves a definitive, evolving and inclusive official history, i.e. an official and inclusive history.

The report says: “H.E. President Uhuru Kenyatta should commission an Official History of Kenya whose production will be led by an Office of the Historian resident in the National Archives.

This history should go back 1,000 years and provide an accurate and definitive account of the settlement of Kenya by the present inhabitants; the political, economic and cultural histories of all ethnic groups in Kenya; the role of women throughout this history; an account of the international slave trade and colonialism; the anti-colonial struggles; the postcolonial history of every part of the country; and contemporary histories including those of urban areas and newly formed communities in Kenya.”

A noble idea. However, how would the history of those who betrayed the country and the people’s cause during the struggle for independence be treated? Would we have the courage to tell the truth about people who sold out the country and the ideals of the struggle but later on became glorified as the founding fathers and mothers of the nation?

Would we be brutally honest with historical facts? The way out requires that the re-engineering is guided by honesty and the truth therein sets us free. It should not be limited to our communities and people alone.


We should also revisit the values or vices that shaped the country’s colonial era and later on adopted and perpetuated in the independent state.

A new national ethos cannot be realised if we do not also address the country’s political economy. The political economy that has shaped every sphere of our nation’s building effort was by and large designed during the colonial era and later perpetuated by the New Kenya Group as described by Colin Leys in his book Underdevelopment in Kenya: The Political Economy of Neo-Colonialism.

The ideas and ideals that went into shaping how land would be managed, involvement in commerce and industry, leadership, agriculture, running of government, the government’s responsiveness to citizens, etc. were based on a colonial fallacy.

The coronavirus pandemic might have slowed the action around BBI and especially rallies, but when the meetings resume, the hard questions on the way the national ethos will be realised should be asked. A practical way that will answer this national question should be outlined during the rallies and in the final report that will be developed.

Mr Wanjiru is an arts journalist with Kymsnet Media Network; [email protected]