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To be truly Kenyan we must desire, strive for prosperity

By Charles Kanjama | October 20th 2013

By Charles Kanjama

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Exploring patriotism as a basis of national unity for prosperity? There is a paradox at the heart of Kenya, and of every Kenyan, that today’s Heroes Day celebration brings into sharp focus. And the heroes we remember today typify that paradox, especially the Kapenguria Six and others arrested through Operation Jock Scott after Governor Baring declared a State of Emergency on October 20th, 1952.

The contradiction at the heart of Kenya, and of every Kenyan, is that our identity is first given from without. And yet our Kenyan identity only crystallises by internal rejection of the external formulation. Kenya is a foreign and colonial construct, and yet only the indigenous and independent state really expresses what Kenya is. To the extent that Kenya refers to a territory; it is largely the product of the Scramble for Africa and of colonial British administrative choices. But Kenya refers equally to the population within the territory, unique, indigenous, independent.

Our heroes were rebels, but the failure of their rebellion was the spring of our success. Their rebellion is nameless, because its historical name Mau Mau was not its own, but a colonial pejorative. And yet the pejorative was turned into an acronym, a mnemonic that became our badge of honour. Kenya, therefore, is British in origin, but Kenyan in development. Ultimately, Kenya is 50 years old precisely because its core identity is not British. Like a child that only gains its real identity after birth, Kenya became Kenyan because it stopped being administratively British. And yet, Kenya was Kenyan long before the British came, because its Kenyan identity sprung from its indigenous population, and the culture they shared. Still, independent Kenya is unique and its modernity derives from collision with and rejection of British colonialism.

Kenya’s three major geographical features say a lot about what it takes to be Kenyan. Lake Victoria, quintessentially East African, yet named after a British monarch, reminds us of our origin. Mt Kenya, proud distinct and towering, reminds us of our indigenous identity. And the Great Rift Valley, intrinsically African, reminds us of our territorial and national place in the world, inseparably African but reaching out to the world. To be Kenyan is both a choice and a gift. It is a gift, whether we are Kenyan by birth or by registration, because we never fully deserve our Kenyan identity, which ultimately is given to us by an accident of birth or of geographical destiny. And yet it is a choice, because we are all free, and to be Kenyan is ultimately an interior disposition that we may accept or reject, whether we are domiciled in Kenya or abroad.

As Roger Whitaker, a classic exponent of Kenyan identity, sings, “You only got one mama/You only got one pa/You only got one life to live / No matter who you are... /But everybody living has one place where he was born... And mine is Kenya, so warm and wild and free/You’ll always stay with me here in my heart...”

Our patriotism means to be proud of being Kenyan, and to love the country, because of our origin, domicile or destination. It is neither colour nor ethnicity, nor even place of birth, which makes us Kenyan. While our shared culture hints at what makes us special and unique, Kenyan identity is a form of filiation, or of begetting. To be truly Kenyan we must desire and strive for our country’s prosperity and detest the vices that hold us back, including corruption and tribalism. G.K. Chesterton intuited, “‘My country, right or wrong’, is a thing no patriot would think of saying, except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’”

Several modern thinkers have been sceptical about patriotism. English writer Samuel Johnson, subject of Boswell’s famous biography, famously noted, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Oscar Wilde, the Irish writer, was equally cynical, “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.” George Bernard Shaw, equally Irish and a playwright, noted, “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.”

Yet this criticism arises because of a confusion of patriotism, which is both a moral and civic virtue akin to filiation and fraternity, with nationalism, which is a moral vice akin to tribalism or racism.

Hence, Chesterton responds: “A man who loves humanity and ignores patriotism is ignoring humanity... The fundamental spiritual advantage of patriotism is this: that by means of it all things are loved adequately because all things are loved individually.” Happy Mashujaa Day.

The writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya

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