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Politicising History: Who and What does Kenya's Mashujaa Day Celebrate?

Last month Kenya commemorated its independence heroes. But the inclusion of Mau Mau and current-day heroes in celebrations suggests political agendas may be at play.
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A statue of Kenyan rebel leader Dedan Kimathi Waciuri in Nairobi. Photograph by Jorge Lascar.

Nairobi, Kenya:

For Kenyans across the world, October 20 is a date of key political and national significance. Mashujaa (Swahili for ‘Heroes’) Day – formerly Kenyatta Day – is an opportunity to reflect on how far the country has travelled since independence, while celebrating those who contributed to the struggle for freedom against colonial rule half a century ago.

It forms one of three national days recognised by the new constitution, alongside Madaraka Day (June 1) and Jamhuri Day (December 12), which respectively commemorate the days that Kenya attained internal self-rule in 1963, then full independence from British rule just over five months later. The constitution promulgated in 2010 rebranded ‘Kenyatta Day’ to Mashujaa Day to commemorate all those involved in the liberation struggle. A month on from the third Mashujaa Day celebrations, clarification of its true political and historical connotations is still needed. Exactly who and what is being celebrated?

Emergence of the Mau Mau

"Suburbia in darkest Africa sits tight on dynamite." So reported the Daily Mirror in late October 1952, echoing the growing fears of central Kenya’s white settler community. Naturally, the date chosen for Mashujaa Day is no coincidence. On October 20, 1952, Evelyn Baring, the newly-installed Governor of Kenya, declared a state of emergency in light of the abrupt deterioration of stability in Britain’s prized East African colony. The date essentially marks the first serious recognition by the British government that their position in Kenya could be under threat.

For decades, the colonial state had expropriated land in the ‘White Highlands’ from local – mainly Kikuyu – cultivators, who were forced to either pay rent on European-owned farms or be banished to the colony’s barren extremities.

As this erosion of the status of Kikuyu farmers intensified, so too did the need for a meaningful form of local political representation, and thus an answer to the land question. By 1950, three distinct political factions had developed within the Kikuyu community: the conservatives, represented by chiefs and senior elders; the moderate nationalists led by the likes of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and Koinange wa Mbiyu; and the militant nationalists personified by influential figures such as Fred Kubai and Bildad Kaggia.

When none of these could provide the reforms desperately needed, many took matters into their own hands, and thus the Mau Mau movement was born. Mau Mau violence was indisputable and British military retaliation was severe. By the time Mau Mau had been formally eradicated in 1960, thousands of Kenyans had been killed or remained unaccounted for on both sides. Three years after this Pyrrhic British victory, however, Kenyan independence was achieved.

Unpacking a legacy

For half a century academics have squabbled over the Mau Mau’s true significance. Western academics have failed to reconcile a number of questions. Was it a civil war? Was it a unified, well-orchestrated anti-colonial movement against the British? Or was it little more than an ad hoc response to years of economic suppression, not just by the colonial administration, but by those ‘loyal’ Kenyans who reaped the benefits of British collaboration?

Academics may not have reached a clear verdict, but the current Kenyan government has certainly seemed to. Mau Mau is now being recognised as a genuine national movement, and its leaders lauded for their heroics. This is in stark contrast to the immediate post-independence years and former President Daniel arap Moi’s subsequent 24-year tenure. Jomo Kenyatta himself, the first leader of an independent Kenya and the man whose name remains inextricably linked to Kenya’s liberation, even once referred to Mau Mau as a "terrible disease" which "had been eradicated", and "must never be remembered again".

Yet it is remembered, thanks to efforts of incumbent president Mwai Kibaki. The Heritage Ministry has built mausoleums for a number of the ‘Kapenguria Six’ – six leading Kenyan nationalists arrested and imprisoned in 1952: Bildad Kaggia, Kung'u Karumba, Jomo Kenyatta, Fred Kubai, Paul Ngei, and Achieng' Oneko. The memorials are part of a wider government initiative to heed the call of Mau Mau veterans to recognise their role in the fight for Uhuru (“freedom”), which was first answered in 2001 when some of the important sites in the struggle were transformed into national monuments. Quite literally, the memory of Mau Mau is being set in stone.

Granted, dealing with the Mau Mau’s legacy is no easy task for the current Kenyan government. It must be difficult to commemorate a movement so restricted to one section of Kenya’s varied population. It is equally controversial to celebrate figures such as Dedan Kimathi and Waruhiu Itote who helped orchestrate a campaign that killed so many Kenyans. Some may argue that championing the Mau Mau and coating it in a veneer of nationalist rhetoric is an insult to those at the receiving end of the movement’s more ruthless tendencies. Nevertheless, flocking into Nyayo Stadium once a year to recognise the Mau Mau’s influence as an instrument of independence is undoubtedly a convenient way to overlook its much darker undertones.

Forging forwards

What the first two instalments of Mashujaa Day have illustrated, though, is that the emphasis lies not on the recognition of ‘the fathers of the nation’ or inspirational figures of the past, but on modern day heroes and heroines. During last year’s celebrations, President Kibaki paid tribute to the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai for her contribution to environmental conservation and protection of human rights. He went on to congratulate the country’s finest athletes and marathon runners such as Patrick Makau for breaking the world record in Berlin. This year’s list of Kenyan heroes was understandably topped by the athlete David Rudisha; according to Sebastian Coe (former middle-distance runner and chairman of the London Olympic committee) Rudisha’s performance at this year’s Olympic Games cemented his status as the greatest 800-metre runner of all time.

But Kibaki’s speeches have gone far and beyond the recognition of this generation’s outstanding Kenyan citizens. He has also taken these opportunities to outline the nation’s economic status quo, from rising inflation to high fuel costs, and laid out the ‘concrete steps’ that his government are putting in place to mitigate these hurdles.

Mashujaa Day, then, sets out to appreciate how far Kenya has come since independence, and in the process honour those who wrenched it from Britain’s imperial clutches. And these sentiments have been modified not necessarily to celebrate where the country has come from, but where it stands and, crucially, where it is destined to end up. The current prime minister, Raila Odinga, echoed these ideals speaking before the first Mashujaa Day two years ago. "As we look back at the sacrifices our mashujaa made on our behalf, our overall aim must now be to look forward", he said. "It is where we are going that really counts now". 

With the next general election just around the corner, it is interesting to see yet again how far political agendas outweigh what is in essence a day of true historical and cultural significance. The history of Kenya’s liberation struggle has consistently been politicised and, fifty years on, not much seems to have changed.

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This article is stereotypical and endorses the same old, same old single narrative on Africa. Imagine if you grandfather was put up in a concentration camp for decades, not because he had done something wrong, but because he was born in a fertile land that some fellas wanted! A country that does not honor its elders, heroes has no future ' In the UK old and young come out to honor war heros, regardless of their actions in the war,or who they were fighting, there are heroes simple as. Mau Maus in Kenya Jon, whether you like it or not, fought to liberate the country, nobody would have fought had the BrItish not taken their land! The rebellion was about 'LAND' initially, before it escalated . Depending on where you listen to  an estimated million people perished, most of them children and women!i don't know what they have taught you.We will honor our athletes, our mothers, our tech innovators, and heros the same day, we don't have to do it they way you do it here.This is not politics, but you can call that, your article is what i would call politics.Kenya is trying to move on, we have had challenges, without being reminded, our peace is still very delicate please let us be, at our pace!Jon, being an academic or being born in Kenya does not qualify you as an authority. This sort of narrative is painful .