Kenyan children don't know Martin Shikuku? Seriously?

Martin Shikuku when he addressed a Ford rally in Kamukunji in 1999. [File, Standard]

When veteran politician Martin Shikuku died in August 2012, young university students couldn’t make out who Shikuku was. “Who is this man the Media is talking about?” A curious student asked a fellow student. It was the student who had rudimentary information about Shikuku who told me about the total ignorance fellow students had about Shikuku.

I couldn’t help but sympathise with the students’ ignorance about one of the most compelling politicians Kenyans have had. Martin Shikuku was one of the founding fathers of this country who, at 28 years, was the youngest member of the Kenyan delegation to Lancaster House Conferences, England, where the independence constitution was carved.

Shikuku was at the centre of nearly every turning point this country has had—all the way from Lancaster House to the agitation for a multi-party political system in the early 1990s. That the young generation hadn’t heard of him when he died in 2012 is regrettable. They couldn’t have been ignorant of him and other eminent Kenyans had we, adults, done our duty of preserving Kenya’s history in formats or platforms that are easily accessible.

Shikuku, like other makers of this nation, lives in the pages of the Hansard—the written record of proceedings and debates in Parliament. They also live in the pages of newspapers through news reports about their actions and statements. They also live in TV and Radio clips. These records are inaccessible to many Kenyans except perhaps, researchers.

This shouldn’t happen. Children in such political and educational systems such as the USA, UK, India, Japan, and Brazil readily access the lives of the great men and women who have shaped the fortunes of their respective countries. These countries collect and organise statements policy and opinion leaders make in response to the issues and challenges and crises their countries have faced.

Nations respond to situations through speeches by policymakers and opinion leaders. They also respond to situations through Acts of Parliament, court decisions, editorials by the newspapers of the nation, letters, photography, press statements to name but a few. What some countries have done is to publish responses the political leaders have made during turning points in one book as references in future.

Publishers of educational materials have also copiously used some of these landmark statements, speeches and editorials as teaching aids for students, particularly in learning areas such as English grammar, comprehension, and functional writing such as speech writing, letter writing, reports, memorandum and minute writing.

For example, Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (1776), Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1864), J.F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s 'I have a Dream', Speech grace books on composition writing in the USA school systems. Newer books on rhetoric for students in the USA are now using President Barack Obama's speech on Race.

We have our own documents right from the Scramble for Africa in the 1880s, the various colonial ordinances, Treaties between Colonial Government and indigenous Communities, and other public documents that shaped Kenya over the years.

We also have speeches our nationalists made during the struggle for independence, culminating into President Jomo Kenyatta Inaugural speech in 1963. We have had landmark situations that elicited responses since 1963 to date. We ought to make these available either in whole or in abridged form to students.

Use of texts of speeches, reports, letters, and memos as models of writing in textbooks serve many purposes. Besides being models of excellence in writing, these primary sources help students develop critical-thinking skills. The study of how our predecessors handled public policy supports good citizenship, which is requisite for a fair and effective democracy.

Primary sources enable students to explore the documentary evidence of a nation’s history – the roots of its government, and value systems. By understanding the past, students come to appreciate the present as they chart the future.

History is made by great if not exceptional men and women. First-hand knowledge of the words, thoughts and ideas of the exceptional men and women who commanded the stage in the past enable the students to know the circumstances of the statements, and how they responded to them. It also widens their mental horizons to learn about the practical aspects of national life before they come of age. 

I don’t know another strategy to nurture children into citizens other than through studying history—the words, actions of political and other leaders when responding to the pressures of the moment. I don’t know how you can enhance the political consciousness of young people other than through exposing them to the verbatim statements of great political, religious and business leaders within a nation and across nations, decades and centuries.

High ideals, honour, duty and integrity are played out in those documents. In the hustle and bustle of practical life, in politics, words are the tools people use to get to the handle of issues. It is the same words that solutions are captured.

The student who unconsciously studies, comes to appreciate the place of words in the pen and mouth of the great and exceptional men and women he reads about. Either way, the ambitious student has excellent models of writing and thinking to learn from.