National Archives is misplaced, please relocate it to Uhuru Gardens

Kenya National Archives. [File, Standard]

Kenya is 60 years old and in search of a new direction. It is a British colonial construct that created two identities that are in constant conflict.

First, the ‘native’ identity forced people into one to serve the Mzungu interests. Second, the ‘tribe’ identity stressed tribal differences to avoid challenges to Mzungu governance.

The two conflicting identity counter forces, on the eve of independence, were symbolised by Kanu for ‘native’ and Kadu for ‘tribe’. With the winning Kanu/native identity failing to transform itself into postcolonial ‘nation’, the successor governments faced difficulties crafting a nation because the inherited peoples had been thrown into socio-economic and political identity crises. The new rulers, however, succeeded in creating organs which need reviewing.

Among them are the closely related National Museums and National Archives which deal with Kenya’s past. The museum had colonial beginnings, dealt with artefacts and periods stretching thousands and even millions of years back, and had adequate land on the Museum Hill.

It remained mostly a Mzungu thing, whether it was in archaeology or anthropology, examining the distant human past. The National Archives, in contrast, was a postcolonial construction that fought to be independent of the Mzungu-controlled museum. Not having land of its own, it ended up occupying a former bank building on Government Road. Its current location seems to be wrong. It needs to be relocated.

The need for the National Archives' relocation is physical and mental as well. Its beginnings were mental and Maina Kagombe, its main driver, fought hard in the early 1970s for its establishment to retrieve and preserve disappearing records for use in creating national identity.

At the time, the location was ideal, the archives were accessible, and there was growing interest in creating a nationalist narrative to counter colonial narratives. Postgraduate students and assorted researchers made the National Archives an alternative library with archivists eager to help.

The fortunes of the National Archives appeared to plummet in the 1980s and 1990s following the World Bank and IMF induced decline in scholarship and knowledge production. In Kenya, as ministers for Education intensified disparaging remarks for humanities, particularly history, interest in the National Archives declined proportionately.

The irony of ministers for Education despising history was that they and their presidential bosses wanted history to be kind to them even as they fumbled in policy implementation. In fumbling, they inadvertently increased the amount of policy dependency and outsourcing as well as levels of underdevelopment.

As the hosting building, with the matatu blaring nearby and hawkers occupying the pavement, the National Archives looked misplaced and inaccessible to researchers. In its current condition and location, therefore, it does not serve the purpose for which it was established. It needs to be relocated and revitalised.

There are, however, prospects for the National Archives as booster of national spirit in connection with the elaborate structures at Uhuru Gardens which President Uhuru Kenyatta constructed, using the military, as part of what he repeatedly called ‘my legacy’. While he might have done some debatable things, turning Uhuru Gardens into national heritage centre is among his positive ones. It has space for a national archive, presidential libraries, and for researchers to generate knowledge that would enhance national consciousness. The place, still closed to the public, appears like a monument to grand folly which needs recasting.

Turning it into a centre for rekindling the national spirit, however, depends on President William Ruto who once described its construction as wastage of public resources. He inherited a country in socio-economic and political transition, fuelled by intensifying demographic shifts as well as generational and class disconnect. His bad blood with his one-time political twin brother is an obstacle to his desire for recognition. He can rise above personal disputes with Uhuru, relocate National Archives to Uhuru Gardens and make it vibrant.