When constitutions entertain trivia, seemingly minor words

The promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya, 2010, in August 27, 2010 by former President Mwai Kibaki. [File, Standard]  

Constitutions suggest themselves to be serious documents full of the mechanics of State and profundities of governance, as the relationship between rulers and the ruled.

Yet from time to time, there appear in these documents of gravitas, sudden provisions of seeming triviality. One such example is in the 1963 Independence Constitution of Kenya, (as in the 1964 constitution). The 1963 is a crucial deed ending a struggle for freedom lasting 68 years, culminating in independence after a bitter and bloody decade.

In its broad and important provisions, there were some sudden and unexpected minor words – they ‘forbid discrimination in hotels’. Since discrimination was now forbidden in all public places, these words seemed superfluous. And trivial, set as they were among the key provisions shedding colonial rule, that entrenched all the human rights that colonial settlerdom had serially denied, and wrote a future governed within the Rule of Law through common roll representation.   

Let us go back ten years in time, to 1951, to England. Early that year, a leading British newspaper, The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) commissioned Peter Abrahams, the well-known South African novelist, journalist and writer for the paper, to travel South to see the state of Africa’s countries with white colonists.

The result was his moving and prophetic book, Return to Goli (1953). Goli was the African colloquial name for Johannesburg, Abrahams’s hometown. After months in South Africa, and then Southern Rhodesia, Abrahams arrived in early 1952 to assess Kenya. He was met at the airport by Jomo Kenyatta. They were close friends from London.

Kenyatta immediately took Abrahams to meet Senior Chief Koinange. The talks of the three continued throughout the week. A few evenings later, Abrahams was taken to dinner at a reputed hotel restaurant. As Kenyatta, Senior Chief Koinange, Abrahams and a few friends entered the restaurant, the manager came up to them, halting them. He said they could not be served.

Kenyatta would not budge. The exchange led to the manager saying these were the rules, but he would consult the owner, an Indian. Kenyatta and his guests remained in the disapproving silence that the room had become. The manager came back and said he had been instructed after all, to serve them. He led them to a table.

Abrahams was shocked. But what had concerned Abrahams more during that week, was the effect on Kenyatta of these daily incidents to which Kenyatta had returned. Abrahams had expected the Kenyatta of the London discourses. 

Abrahams and Kenyatta had been over years a part of the close and brilliant presence of Pan-Africa intellectuals and artists in London.

Among them were Paul Robeson, the Renaissance Man of Pan-African freedom, (Kenyatta had been his roommate, and Robeson had brought Kenyatta into film parts(!)). W.E.B. Dubois, the greatest Pan-Africanist was there. Another was Haile Selassie.

The West Indians, cricketers and writers, like C.L.R. James; and the West African politicians and lawyers including Nkrumah, were there.

All of them also worked with the British anti-colonial MPs and movement. So, Abrahams had expected the Kenyatta of those days – with his intellectual readiness, his wide political knowledge of London, of the colonies, of Gandhi whom he had met in London, of the USSR, the brilliant friend he had known over those many years. He found all of that missing, and in its place, he found a withdrawn mind, and bitter political views. Abrahams mourned this loss.

Throughout the week, Senior Chief Koinange also spent long hours with Abrahams on the parallel and deliberate attacks on Kenyan culture, targeted all the time at the dignity of the people of Kenya. The Senior Chief took Abrahams to the top of Ngong Hills and there conducted a traditional ceremony in defence of the land and the dignity of the people.

Abrahams wrote of it all in his book, together with the gloomy outlook it foretold. It was published the following year. (1953). But by the October of the year of the dinner (1952), vindicating his predictions, the Mau Mau war erupted, and the Emergency was declared.

So, let us forward back to 1963 and the Independence constitution. Was, then, ‘forbidding discrimination in a hotel’ trivia? Or was the trivia representing the core of our struggle. In the constitutions of a free Kenya the dignity of every single Kenyan, whether in ‘a hotel’ or anywhere else, is and will always be protected.

-The writer is senior counsel