An enlightened man once wrote: “A nation is the sum of its memories, and when those memories are allowed to die, it is less of a nation.” In other words, a nation’s past defines its present and future based on the memories it carries with it from generation to generation.
Through the ages, nations have strived to preserve their “memories” for posterity through public archives, libraries, museums and historical monuments. Archives are perhaps the most widely used means of recording and preserving historical memories for future generations.
Archives, therefore, serve as a nation’s memory and enable it to plan for the future by learning from the past. By memorializing history, they act as a vital reference for administrative decision-making.
The word “memorialize” is used here to describe the process by which individuals, groups and nations commemorate the past, honor heroic individuals and achievements, and build institutions through which to study and learn from history.
At the heart of this process is the irrepressible human desire to remember and reconcile with the old. Liz Sevcenko, a historian and expert on public memorials, argues that remembering is a basic human instinct and since memories cannot be imprisoned, the challenge lies in harnessing the lessons of history to avoid repeating past mistakes.
Previous governments in Kenya have been accused of deliberately suppressing certain historical facts and narratives and instead focusing too much on the present and future while ignoring the past with all its uncomfortable but beneficial lessons. Some even argue that as a country, we keep repeating the same mistakes because we never learn from history.
Yet, a nation is like an individual. To deal with the present and face the future with confidence, it must heed the lessons of the past. As the Spanish-American writer George Santayana cautioned, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Fortunately, the Uhuru Kenyatta administration has, in a bold departure from previous regimes, taken deliberate steps to rally Kenyans to be proud of their past as a Nation.
This includes putting in place policy and legal interventions to facilitate a constructive national dialogue on our history, not to mention deliberate efforts at memorializing the heroic achievements and sacrifices of gallant Kenyan men and women.
Three notable interventions stand out in this regard. First is the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), originally conceived as a national project aimed at healing ethnic divisions that fuel cyclic violence, by learning from previous experiences. Despite being shot down by the courts, BBI at least paved way for serious national conversations guided by the experiences of the past in building a more peaceful, cohesive, secure and stable Nation.
Second, the outgoing administration has set in motion the process of transforming the national public archives system with a view to modernizing and making it more responsive to the present needs of Kenyan society. Last month, the Cabinet approved the Public Records, Archives and Documentation Bill 2021.
The proposed law provides for the establishment of the Kenya Archives and Records Service (KARS) to replace the Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service (KNADS). Indeed, one of the BBI proposals was the revamping of the KNADS by re-naming it the Official Historian and National Archive Service, tasked with promoting research and analysis of Kenya’s history for schools and the general public. KARS has an expanded mandate along these lines.
The new law will also facilitate the creation of the Office of the Presidential Library and Archives (OPLA) under KARS. OPLA will coordinate and manage presidential libraries and archives as part of the national heritage. It will also provide a central repository for the records and archives of the President thus preserving them for future access by the public. This will help demystify the institution of the presidency.
The proposed legislation also safeguards the public right to access to information contained in public records and archives thus ensuring greater accountability to the people by institutions of governance. It also aligns the existing law on archives with rapid advances in technology while allowing for public-private partnerships on archives and records management. Hence the next administration should prioritize this Bill if the term of the current parliament expires before it becomes law.
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Third, is the newly inaugurated Uhuru Gardens National Monument and Museum. The President described it as “a place for remembrance, reflection and healing” and “an arena where the past, present and future converge.”
The new museum epitomizes the renewed push to not only memorialize but also re-imagine how we interact with our history. It has spaces for honoring our martyrs, showcasing Kenya’s cultural diversity, a presidential library and multimedia section dedicated to educating the public on the country’s history. The tomb of the unknown warrior is a physical node to the unsung heroes and heroines who died defending Kenya.
In addition, a lot of good work has gone into revamping the National Museums of Kenya. Strengthening the institutional and legal framework governing our historical and cultural heritage will indeed be one of the outstanding legacies of President Kenyatta as retires from office.
-Mr. Choto is a legal and policy analyst. Email: [email protected]