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National Archives: You don’t know Kenya unless you’ve been here

NATIONAL
By Peter Muiruri | June 1st 2021

Inside the Kenya National Archives.[File, Standard]

At the heart of the city stands one of Kenya’s most iconic buildings, but one that few bother to visit. To some, the Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service is more of a landmark, meeting point, or to yet others, “a place where old things are kept”.

Granted, the building is a national monument. It was constructed in the 1930s in place of a tin shack that housed the first National Bank of India. Decades later, the building was acquired by the Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB).

It was KCB that popularised the area that is still known as ‘Commercial’. From his expansive office in the building that is now occupied by the Archive's director, John Michuki, who once served as the bank’s chairman, oversaw the construction of the new Kencom building across the street. 

Yet, as the country celebrates the 59th Madaraka Day, few buildings in the country hold Kenya’s history as does the building simply known as “Archives”.

The National Archives Department under the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage is the custodian of all government records. Vital correspondence dating back to pre-colonial times as well as writings by the past three presidents are stored here.

A large portion of the building is also dedicated to historical artifacts donated by Kenya’s second Vice President, Joseph Murumbi.

Handwritten notes of Kenya’s prominent leaders give insight into the thinking process of the men who had larger-than-life profiles.

For example, former President Daniel arap Moi’s strict Christian character comes to the fore through a handwritten note that was found in one of his Bibles. It reads: “Step by step, step by step, I will follow Jesus. Every day all the way I will follow Jesus.”

A look at founding President Jomo Kenyatta's signature will reveal similarities between his and that of his son, Uhuru Kenyatta.

In the building too, is the history of Mau Mau, the armed group originally made up of landless Africans from Central Kenya and that gave the well-equipped British army a run for its money. So sophisticated was the group that it mastered the art of making its own rifles, much to the consternation of the colonialists.

A visit to the Archives will also debunk the myth that the Mau Mau insurgence was largely a Kikuyu affair. For example, Argwings-Kodhek, the first African barrister in Kenya used his legal expertise to defend the Mau Mau.

“We have evidence that people from other regions such as Western Kenya provided vital information and war strategy to the Mau Mau. The British would rarely suspect non-Kikuyus for actively assisting the Mau Mau activities,” says Francis Mwangi, the facility’s director.

While the records at the Archives show that the British had an upper hand militarily, the struggle for Kenya’s independence had gained momentum. On June 1, 1963, Kenya attained self-rule when the last British Governor Malcom Macdonald handed over the instruments of power to the new Prime Minister, Jomo Kenyatta.

These events are immortalised in two seats placed besides each other on the building’s first floor. According to Mwangi, the seats take on more meaning as the country keeps the Handshake debate alive.

“The red seat is the one that Mzee Kenyatta sat on for the first time as prime minister. Before he took to his seat, Kenyatta had just received a warm handshake from Governor Macdonald. This in effect, was the first political handshake in the new Kenya,” says Mwangi.

But as Mwangi explains, the seat may also remind us of the country's governance over the years. For example, he says that following that first “handshake”, the country adopted a parliamentary style of governance with Kenyatta as prime minister.

A tour of the national archives will reveal yet another coincidence. In one of the photos, Jomo Kenyatta is seen riding on a ceremonial truck flanked by Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first vice president. As he leads the nation in celebrating Madaraka Day today, President Uhuru Kenyatta will keep very close company with Raila Odinga.

While there appears to have been no conversation between Jomo and Oginga during the ride, both Uhuru and Raila may perhaps reminisce on the thoughts that were going on in the minds of their fathers. 

“Interestingly, the current quest for political reforms that seeks to reintroduce the post of prime minister mirrors the first government,” says Mwangi.

While the building holds more than 40,000 records of Kenya’s history, some believe the number could have been higher had the British not destroyed some documents that cast their occupation in a negative light.

Musila Musembi, who served as the director between 1975 and 2004, says because of the bitterness between the freedom fighters and the British, there was no way the latter would hand over incriminating evidence to the new government.

“The destruction of key records pertaining to the British stay and their activities in Kenya was an open secret. The incoming government had tried in vain to stop the wanton destruction of these records, especially in 1961, in vain. But because they may have contained details of some of the British atrocities in Kenya, they (the British) ensured these were destroyed permanently,” says Musembi.

Still, Musembi says whatever material is archived at the building is worth a visit, and decries the ignorance among Kenyans on the importance of the national archives.

“It is a pity that the building is often visited by foreign researchers who go on to produce powerful literary works that could be produced by our own people. These archives help us to know where we have come from and that will inform where we are going as a nation,” he says.

Are there items the archives would love to keep? Yes, including some of the key items used by former president Moi such as the famous rungu.

Mwangi says the service will try and engage the family and see if they can release some of the items that were associated with the late president.

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