Kenya, and by proxy East Africa has one of the richest historical records in the world. But how many of us know that story? How many of us know where we come from, and how we came to be in our present situation as contemporary Kenyans?
Martin Luther King said that we are not makers of history but made by history. This is apt considering the many challenges we face as Kenyans today.
Most of us are familiar with the history that surrounds the holidays we celebrate every year. We know of the heroes who fought for our freedom from colonial rule, of the Kapenguria Six who were detained by the British crown for their anti-colonial efforts.
We know of the Mau Mau rebellion led by Dedan Kimathi and Musa Mwariama, and of the countless others who lead our struggle against the British crown such as Oginga Odinga and Tom Mboya.
We know that Kenya was granted independent self-rule on June 1, 1963, and the day we became an Independent Republic on December 12, 1964. But how many of us are aware of the details of how we became a colony in the first place?
How did the Omani Arabs, and then the Portuguese capture parts of the Kenyan coast to use as stopovers and trading posts for their international slave and spice trade in the 16th century?
How did Western Europeans infiltrate Kenya from the coast with the help of Swahili traders, and how did individual missionaries, the architects of the empire, set up churches and missions among different tribes throughout the late 1800s?
The very name which we call ourselves is a historical misnomer. The word “Kenya” did not exist among any Kenyans before the late 19th century, and the word was first recorded by German missionary Ludwig von Krapf.
As Krapf was travelling with a caravan of Kamba traders, led by chieftain Kivoi Mwendwa, he spotted Mount Kenya. When Krapf asked what the mountain was called, Mwendwa told him that it was ‘Kirima Kii Nyaa’, or ‘Ostrich Mountain’ in the Akamba language. Krapf, being German, could not pronounce Kirima kii Nyaa and simply coined the mountain, and the country, Kenya.
Our colonial history as a vassal of the British Empire is well recorded and documented by those who colonised us, and easily accessible to Kenyans who wish to engage with it. Our pre-colonial history, however, is a different story.
Historian and archaeologist Louis Leakey, the child of missionaries, who grew up among Kikuyus in present-day Kabete from his birth in 1903, undertook to write the seminal work the Southern Kikuyu before 1890.
Although he was initiated in Kikuyu customs and spoke the language fluently, he was nonetheless a colonial agent and settler himself and was aware that Western colonisation and education were going to supplant and destroy most of the pre-colonial customs and ways of living of all Kenyans. Subsequently, he undertook to record the ones of the people he knew before the inevitable occurred.
In the preface to the work, he underlies his reasons for interviewing Kikuyu elders at the time as a means of recording Kikuyu customs for the descendants of the Kikuyu who have provided the information to him.
He went on to state that it was his “sincere hope that in the few years that still elapse before the old generation of Kikuyu pass on to the spirit world, some of the young, educated Kikuyu will take my book, and using it as a basis, obtain and record much more information from committees of elders called together by themselves”.
How we have failed in this endeavour. Historian William R Ochieng states in the UNESCO-sponsored general history of Africa “unevenness and even the lack of documentation remain fundamental problems (in Kenyan history).
For example, little historical research, if any, has been done on interior societies such as the Gorowa, Zigua, Gogo, Turkana, Maasai, and most of the Kalenjin groups, to mention only a few”.
Our history is no one else’s but our own, and if we do not seek to preserve it for ourselves and our children, it will inevitably be lost forever.
As rapidly as the world is changing, Kenyans must take up the mantle of historians and preserve and record the annals of our past. Our history is not confined to the deep past of our pre-colonial ancestors, but our very own lives. At face value, you would assume that it is more important to keep up with the social trends and technological advancements that so rapidly change in our high-speed modern world, but that may not be the case.
We cannot hope to better our future as Kenyans if we do not know how we got to where we are today. As we head into an election cycle next month, how can we forget the election cycles of the past?
Is it not our duty to remember the actions of our leaders and the promises they made, and to hold them accountable? Our leaders would much rather prefer it if we forgot our history, and the wrongdoings of the past because then they have free reign to repeat it.