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Neglected Heroes Remind Us of Our Heritage

By Ken Kamoche, The Nation (Nairobi), 22 April 2001

A country without a past cannot expect to have much of a future. Or to put it differently, a country that does not cherish its past will not generally show much concern for its future. I've been reminded of these truisms in recent weeks after reading about the forgotten Kenyan heroes.

First there was the story three weeks ago about the man who composed the national anthem and how he now languishes in poverty. Then only last week I read about how the man who climbed Mount Kenya to hoist the national flag on independence day had been confined to a hospital bed for failure to pay a medical fee, and was only released after a good Samaritan came to his rescue.

These sorts of stories tend to generate a lot of indignation amongst the wananchi who go on to demand, and rightly so, that national heroes be accorded the respect and recognition they deserve. As tear-jerking as some of these reports might be, they, somehow, come as no surprise.

In fact what surprises me is that people are still shocked by these revelations. It has become our lot, part of our modern history, a reflection of the disdain with which we view the foundations of our short history as a nation and as a people. The fact that the remains of Dedan Kimathi are still interred in a prison says a lot about what sort of a country we are. The neglect extends to the arts, as in the case of once famous musicians who die penniless, artistes who are daily exploited by agents, music pirates and radio stations and never get to realise the material rewards of their talents and personal sacrifices, unlike their counterparts elsewhere.

Could Kenya possibly create a Madonna or a Michael Jackson - artistes who combine art and an uncanny business acumen, and more interestingly, who can manipulate their musical and business world better than it manipulates them? Not for some time to come, I expect, though the examples of other

African countries like Senegal, Zaire and Cameroon suggest it can be done.

But to get back to the point, what is it about these stories of forgotten and neglected heroes that is so emotive and that generates so much heat? In the majority of cases, the initial reaction on making the discovery is probably one of disbelief - they can't be doing that to someone who sacrificed so much for the country!

Disbelief in turn comes from previous ignorance, i.e., one did not have a clue such a person existed or that he actually did what is being reported, be it arranging the national anthem or scaling the mighty Mount Kenya to plant a flag. This points in the first place to serious shortcomings in the educational system. Nevertheless, even if these facts are taught at school they are quickly forgotten because there is no subsequent effort to reinforce them, particularly on occasions when their full significance would be most impactful. I have in mind the days on which the flag was hoisted at school and students were made to sing the national anthem.

Similarly, public holidays would be an excellent time to remind ourselves of who we are, where we are coming from and what sort of vision we want for our future, rather than simply singing praises to current leaders.

In Asia, I find they have been much more successful at celebrating their past and learning from it as they look into the future. But it isn't just a question of celebrating the past. In any case, sometimes things that happened in the past are a constant reminder of the frailty and folly of mankind. It is more positive to think of it in terms of cherishing a people's heritage while learning from past mistakes.

One finds an extremely rich mosaic of history and culture in Asian countries, from the Mughal emperors of India, the dynasties of Vietnam and China, to the Japanese Samurai warriors and so forth. Histories that tell of famous and benevolent leaders, brave warriors who rescued their people from foreign aggressors and tyrannical leaders. What I find interesting, coming from a country with a relatively short recorded history is the amazing volume of knowledge that ordinary people seem to possess and care about. Discoveries and inventions, changes in musical form and drama, poetry and military conquests might be associated with such and such a dynasty. People will point at a painting or print, a piece of earthenware or form of dress and declare it belongs to such and such a period of their history. They will tell you who was the emperor during that time, what he did or did not do for the citizenry, what he is remembered for.

You walk into museums and art galleries and are informed that the offering is by such and such a famous artist from an era that goes back centuries. Of course not everyone is interested or extremely knowledgeable, but at least one sees a genuine effort to educate, inform and preserve, to entertain and to celebrate. This is not easy when you have a recorded history that spans several thousand years.

By comparison, what constitutes Kenyan history is relatively short, and yet we seem unable or unwilling to understand and treasure it. Of course the individual and interactive histories of those peoples who consider themselves Kenyan is pretty lengthy. After all, Kenya is supposed to be the cradle of mankind. As ironic as it sounds, we can and often lay claim to being the cradle of mankind, but it seems we're unwilling to treasure this historical fact which is time and again borne out by all those archeological findings.

Even more surprising is our failure to develop the touristic potential of this phenomenon in any real and convincing manner. If the oldest fossils on earth were persistently showing up in places such as Japan, Europe or

North America, you can be sure they would have created a new Mecca, with pilgrims trooping down there in their millions every year.

And the cash they bring in would have transformed the desolate plains of the Turkana region. But this is wishful thinking. We have neither the wherewithal nor the will to achieve these dreams. And instead of honouring our heroes and cherishing our heritage, we prefer to forget them, in the process casting our history into the trash can.

It is, however, heart-warming when one reads of the efforts of those whose indignation at the neglect and abuse of our heritage leads them to demand change and actually try to do something about it. Heroes give hope. They inspire and remind us of what can be achieved if only we put our minds to it. There was so much hope and promise at independence that a man like Kisoi Munyao was prepared to get to the top of the highest mountain in the land to hoist the flag of a nascent nation at the precise moment that the flag of the departing colonial power was being lowered. Where is that hope now? Whatever became of that new nation that was proudly celebrating its birth, looking forward to a bright future and chanting the words of a newly composed anthem by one Meza Morowa Galana?

Our post-independent history has given us little to celebrate and as long as we continue to be guided by the wrong values about what constitutes a nation, the destiny that was charted in the Mount Kenya flag hoisting and the chanting of a new anthem nearly four decades ago will continue to elude us.

Dr Ken Kamoche can be contacted at kendotcom@hongkong.com

Copyright 2001 The Nation. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com).