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It is time to spice up our national days

By Mohamed Guleid | November 17th 2014

On November 11 every year, many countries around the world remember those who died in World War I.

In the United Kingdom, this year's celebration marked the centennial anniversary since the war began.

Britain alone lost more than two million people in the war and of course, the number of dead all over the world is uncountable; some have suggested over 37 million might have perished during that war.

By coincidence, I happened to be in London when the people of England assembled in various cities in the UK. The highlight of the remembrance was at the Tower of London, where millions of maroon poppies were laid and could be viewed clearly from the Tower Bridge.

The event was a major attraction for visitors to the capital including myself.

But it was something else that attracted my attention; the silent manner in which the celebration was conducted made me think about our own national celebrations, including Mashujaa Day - the Kenyan equivalent of Remembrance Day observed in the United Kingdom.

National holidays in Kenya are very costly. In addition, we have introduced too many holidays that keep people away from their jobs.

In Kenya, we probably lose billions of shillings simply because businesses are shut down.

But that is not what surprises me. Our national days lack innovation and as a result, the celebrations are routine and boring.

We seem to have got stuck in the past. Other than maybe the national holiday gatherings in Nairobi or other big towns, wananchi elsewhere have lost interest in the holiday barazas.

In fact, the only thing that attracts the crowd, if they turn up at all, is the entertainment. And most wananchi walk away once the entertainment - usually comprising singing by choirs and maybe some skits by groups such as Vitimbi - is over.

Times have changed. Contrary to the days of one-party rule, chiefs can no longer quote the Chiefs' Act and force people to listen to the Presidential speech.

In contemporary Kenya, the Constitution has empowered the mwananchi so much that any attempt to stop someone from leaving the venue of the celebrations will imply that affected citizens can quote the Bill of Rights that allows a person to leave at his own pleasure.

The purpose of remembrance celebrations, even in Kenya, is to help citizens realise the importance of honouring those who died so we could live in peace and freedom today.

Those supposed to be at the centre of attention are the war veterans who are still alive and among us, and those who sacrificed their lives for the rest of us.

Unfortunately, our celebrations have lost focus.

Instead, our leaders dwell on general policy matters and sometimes, such gatherings can turn into a place of political contest where supporters are ferried to the venue to cheer their leaders.

This is an indication of the loss of interest in the ethos of the celebrations.

It is time celebration committees' started finding innovative ways of making these celebrations more relevant for the present times.

The current format of congregating at the municipal or sports stadium does not belong in the current world.

During colonial days, such gatherings were necessary because it was the only avenue available to pass a message to the general population and inform them of where to pay poll taxes, how to inoculate their children or any other messages that needed to be passed on.

Modern times demand that we make better use of these national holidays so that instead of leaders spending a whole day at the sports stadium, such a day could be spent visiting the sick, the aged and the orphans.

The day could even be used to raise funds for charities.

In fact, we could borrow a leaf from the British where in this centennial remembrance day, millions of poppies were laid at the Tower Bridge with the intentions of selling them at £25 (Sh3,550) per piece for charities. The organisers hope to raise more than £40 million (Sh5.6 billion).

That is a better way to remember the War Greats. In Kenya, such an amount of money could easily resettle all the post-election violence victims or pay for the education for needy children for a year, or help equip a hospital in a far-flung region with solar for heating and refrigeration.

Unfortunately, we are busy trying to make a quick million in the organisation of these events (remember the tender to airlift speeches?). In any case, the way we conduct our celebrations needs a total overhaul.

One way of looking at it is to turn our celebrations into a tourist attraction fete to raise the number of visitors. In other words, show-casing 'utamaduni' (culture).

Instead of forcing people to bear the scorching sun in a stadium, we could encourage them to organise major cultural festivals surrounding their communities that attract tourists, with proceeds from such celebrations going to charity.

And yes, not all the public holidays have to translate into time away from work or business.

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