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Kenya's history through Uhuru Gardens' relics and treasures

President Uhuru Kenyatta during media tours the Gardens on July 25, 2022. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

Two engraved sculptures, one of Mekatilili wa Menza and another of Dedan Kimathi, both iconic freedom fighters, face each other from opposite ends of the entrance of the renovated Uhuru Gardens National Monument and Museum in Nairobi.

The museum is shaped into the country’s Coat of Arms. Atop each, two lions keep guard. They symbolise the unwavering spirit of our founding fathers in resisting colonialism as much as they underscore Mekatilili’s and Kimathi's fierce struggle and that of more men and women who played a critical part in winning back the country from the barbaric clutch of British colonialists.

Mekatilili was chosen to represent the collective struggle of women and her sculpture was placed at the entrance because she was among the first Kenyans to face the British. She led the Giriama against the British well into her 70s, invoking a sacred funeral dance in rallying people to swear oaths against the colonial masters.​

Field Marshall Kimathi, on the other hand, led the Mau Mau struggle against the British. He was captured by the colonialists during the State of Emergency and executed and buried in an unmarked grave, whose location was only discovered after 67 years. He stands as the figurehead of the struggle for independence.

Starting next week Friday, Kenyans from different professional backgrounds will access the museum, celebrated as Kenya’s birthplace, where the flag of independent Kenya was unfurled at the stroke of midnight on December 12, 1964, to replace the Union Jack six decades ago.

They will savour Mekatilili’s immortalised heroic glory and that of thousands more whose blood paint – figuratively – the National Flag and the rich history and heritage on offer in the 16 galleries currently completed.

An aisle, fringed by fountains lit up in the colours of the flag, leads into the entrance of the grand white structures that first catch the eye, and into the Hall of Witness, a gallery fitted with giant screens that showcase Kenya’s scenic beauty.

Clips of the sea and its white beaches and wildlife played on the screens were barely visible when President Uhuru Kenyatta took us on a tour of the museum on Monday evening, majorly because of the brightness of daylight.

Tunnel of martyrs at Uhuru Gardens. [George Maringa, Standard]

The walls of the Hall of Witness come alive when darkness, kinder to the indoor and outdoor LED displays, sets in. The view of the glowing building is most vivid from across the main museum structure, at the banks of a replica Mara River, where a sculpted crocodile digs its teeth into the belly of an escaping model wildebeest.

From the Hall of Witness, one sinks into the dark cavernous Tunnel of Martyrs, the second gallery. Etched on its cardboard walls are names of the shujaas (heroes) who have “paid the ultimate price for the love of country,” the project’s lead architect Peter Wasilwa, said on Monday.

There are names of those who lost their lives in the struggle for independence and of soldiers whose blood has soaked battlefields in the decades that followed.

The tunnel ushers the Hall of the People, which chronicles the history of pre and post-independent history in the ancient and modern galleries within its two floors – ground and first. Galleries on the second floor are yet to be completed.

Among artefacts preserved in the galleries include the skeleton of the ‘Turkana Boy,’ a 1.5-million-year-old fossil discovered by palaeontologist Richard Leakey in Turkana, among other prehistoric cultural artefacts from across the country such as garments and beads.

And the journey of pre-colonial and colonial Kenya is told by an animation of an old man to his grandchildren at a fireplace, as displayed by projector screens. Equally important, it is told by the historical materials preserved for more than a century.

They include one of the earliest steam trains, Locomotive 2401, which journeyed through the Lunatic Express in the 1890s and statues of the of Indian heritage constructing the railway. So grand was the locomotives that they needed two drivers to brake. Another steam train, which will soon be converted into a restaurant, sits outdoors.

KDF helicopter on display. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

The coming of the white man brought with it suffering as is documented in the photos of the incarcerated freedom fighters and the nooses, stained by the blood of those hanged during the State of Emergency that lasted from 1952-1959.

And the story of Kenya’s victory is told by the original piece of the National Anthem, the independence Constitution and Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s oath of allegiance, all preserved in Mzee Kenyatta’s gallery.

“On this momentous day, Kenya takes her place among the Sovereign Nations of the world,” Queen Elizabeth’s message of congratulations, read at the Uhuru Gardens on December 12, 1964, also preserved in the gallery, reads in part.

President Kenyatta's original three-bedroom bungalow that was brought down at his Ichaweri home after he was arrested in 1952, was rebuilt at the museum using some of its original materials.

The late former President Daniel Moi has a gallery, too, whose walls are painted green like the colour of his presidential standard. Inside, his famous rungu and a fly whisk lie inside a glass display case, which also houses his personal Bible, hymn book and telephone.

The late former President Mwai Kibaki’s gallery features his white presidential standard as well as his photos.

Former President Daniel Moi's famous rungu. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

The museum also chronicles the history of Kenya’s military. From the roof of the Military Heritage gallery hangs a decommissioned Hughes 500MD helicopter as well as a Bulldog aircraft. Military tanks and other paraphernalia sit below the room decorated with the colours of the military’s three branches.

Other features include a Hall of Innovation, which celebrates the innovative ideas produced by Kenyans. As he welcomed the Press to the amenity, President Kenyatta said it was meant to be a place to “celebrate the good, see the bad and remember the ugly.”

Indeed, the good will be remembered even outside the walls of the main museum building and in the 68 acres that form the historic grounds where freedom fighters were detained.

Decorating the memorial park is the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, where an eternal flame burns in honour of the heroes who lost their lives fighting for the country. Their memory will live on at Mashujaa Park, where commemoration tombstones will be placed.

“Even though we cannot bury them here, we will honour them by having tombstones engraved with their names,” Chief of Defence Forces General Robert Kibochi said on Tuesday.

And the public will have a recreational park, ‘the Garden of the People’, designed to fit 50,000 and which will be used during national celebrations. The park’s renovation began in August 2020 and is being undertaken by the Kenya Defence Forces, who project to have all its 33 galleries completed by 2025.

-An earlier version of this story said that two sculptures of Mekatilili wa Menza face each other at the entrance of the Uhuru Gardens Museum. The correct position is that a sculpture of Mekatilili faces that of Dedan Kimathi. The story has also been updated to clarify that Kenyans from different professional backgrounds will access the museum starting next week Friday (August 5, 2022).