The 2019 Mashujaa Day (formerly Kenyatta Day) is unique as a national holiday for two good reasons. First is the origins of Kenyatta Day in 1959, 60 years ago when Jomo Kenyatta and his Mau Mau co-convicts were colonial jails.
The then growing leadership rivalry between Tom Mboya and Oginga Odinga had helped return Kenyatta’s name into public anti-colonial discourse. Second, the weekend preceding the 2019 celebrations showed that Kenyans can excel when they choose to be good. Two Kenyans, Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei, excited fellow citizens by breaking world records, with the entire world watching.
The period between 1959 and 2019 has been full of ups and downs, joy and gloom, exhilaration and disappointment. Currently, the ups, joy, and exhilaration trump downs, gloom and disappointment.
The scenario in 1959 was of “natives” overcoming gloom and disappointment to mount a Kenyatta Day. Revelations of official atrocities, such as the Hola Massacre, seemingly emboldened the accepted African leaders to demand Kenyatta’s release.
They, with Mboya leading, organised, among others, boycotts and street demonstrations on October 20, which nearly paralysed the country. Following the Kenyatta Day demonstrations, Britain's PM Harold MacMillan did not want to be overwhelmed by the “wind of change” that was blowing across Africa, agreed to hold an all races constitutional conference in London in January 1960 which then spelt doom for colonial rule.
They repeated that spirit of defiance on October 20 in 1960, 1961, 1962, and thereafter made it a traditional national holiday. By then Kenyatta was prime minister and then president of independent Kenya.
With independence, Kenyatta Day became institutionalised, but it did not have the same fire as in the pre-independence days. In part, this was because it was no longer symbolic of anti-colonial defiance. Rather, it became more an occasion for national officialdom to enjoy.
This was especially so given that, in the colonial days, many at the high table of celebrations had been opposed to the independence struggle, and had happily sang “God Save the Queen”, and wouldn't have minded if Britain continued ruling. Although the public continued to have a day off from work, the day lost its traditional colour as political tribulations of the 1960s and 1970s made some to question what exactly was being celebrated.
The question of whether the celebration was about a man or about a national achievement continued to arise even after Kenyatta’s death in 1978 and lingered on in the multi-party agitation era and featured the 1990s constitutional discussions.
By then, Vice President Josphat Karanja had—in 1989—pushed through Parliament another holiday, October 10, named after President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi.
There was agitation to stop naming public holidays after individuals. The 2010 Constitution almost achieved that in two ways. It renamed Kenyatta Day Mashujaa Day and ordered removal of personality portraits from the national currency. While Kenyatta Day disappeared into Mashujaa Day, Moi Day remained intact as a public holiday because the court said so.
The 2019 Mashujaa Day celebration comes in the midst of national tragedies, constitutional confusion, by-election violence, and marathon induced pride. The Likoni ferry management was negligent of safety safeguards and disaster response preparedness. Floods swept away bridges in Marsabit, killing motorists. Politicians in Kibra and Kilifi felt free to use language of incitement and some people died in the heat of political campaigns.
Of more interest, however, is the disappointing constitutional confusion that makes a mockery of the 2010 Constitution, barely nine years after coming into being. People involved in its crafting have since turned against their own creation and now run around calling for a new constitutional dispensation.
First Ekuro Aukot, a member of the Committee of Experts, gave politicians something to debate in his Punguza Mizigo initiative as they spent weeks either praising or condemning it. Although it did not make it beyond debates in the county assemblies, it dominated the constitutional discussions. It also appeared to be in competition with Uhuru and Raila-induced Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) which seeks additional seats at the top.
But neither Punguza Mizigo nor the BBI, excites disillusioned public.
While political bickering does not excite, the marathon prowess in the preceding weekend did. The world stood still as it watched Kipchoge run the marathon in under two hours. Then Brigid intensified the celebrations by breaking the long-standing Chicago Marathon record. In the midst of national gloom, the two became the mashujaa that Kenyans want. They lessened our pain.
Prof Munene teaches History and International Relations at USIU