Former First Lady Mama Ngina Kenyatta this week reignited the touchy debate on the fate of Kenya’s freedom fighters and other national achievers.
A tough-taking Mrs Kenyatta, who met Field Marshall Mary Muthoni in Nairobi on Thursday, was forthright in her displeasure with how the country treats its special class of citizens. She took the moment to tell off modern-day parrots, who, in her words, masquerade as men and women who did wonders for the nation. Some, she says, are seeking undeserved credit for work done by others in the seminal stages of the republic.
Muthoni brought her shaved hair strands to the former First Lady alongside two goats and food. The freedom fighter hopes the State will find value in preserving the hair strands at the National Museums of Kenya for future studies into the fight for equity and self-rule.
Listening to Mama Ngina and Muthoni speak, I recalled events of May 30, 2003 when President Mwai Kibaki’s government paraded Ato Lemma Ayanu, an Ethiopian peasant farmer, at JKIA claiming he was freedom icon General Mathenge.
Mathenge was said to have crossed into Ethiopia as colonial authorities bayed for his blood during the 1955 uprising. When Ayanu arrived in Nairobi, he was given top honours and enjoyed niceties in city hotels. But the long-lost ‘hero’ could not utter a single Swahili or Kikuyu word let alone remember anything about his supposed motherland.
When doubt exceeded expectation, the government quickly ordered a DNA test which proved he was not related to the Mathenges. Ayanu would later agree he wasn’t Mathenge but not before slapping the Kenyan taxpayers with a Sh3 million bill for his expenses together with his family. The Narc government was deeply embarrassed.
It is the same embarrassment Kenyan authorities continue to face whenever the subject of neglected heroes is broached. Sixty years after independence, the few surviving freedom fighters and their descendants are fighting in their own way to feel appreciated. The government is stuck on sweet declarations without much action.
The Kenya Heroes Act was enacted in 2014 to provide a framework for recognising, identifying, and honouring heroes. You may wonder when last the State mapped out Mau Mau families to find out their situation. Has this group and their families been shunted? Besides loss of lives and land, support to the Mau Mau kin has been given out selectively. The country yearns for a status update from the National Heroes Assistance Fund.
There have been positives such as setting aside of Mashujaa Day on October 20. Dedan Kimathi has also been immortalised on Kimathi Street, Nairobi. It was equally a big relief for the 5,000 who successfully sued the British government for torture in detention camps in 1952. It is refreshing that justice can be within reach however long it takes.
Most neglected heroes and heroines have since died a poor lot. But President William Ruto and his Kenya Kwanza team can choose to map out the remaining ones. With the benefit of hindsight, the country can do ‘something’ even if too little too late.
The financial help to this special group, if any, must not be on the basis of tokenism like what recently happened when Mukami Kimathi was detained over a Sh1.3 million bill at a city hospital. We need a structured, transparent, well-resourced and legally-binding support system devoid of political interference. Let’s not use the welfare of our heroes for political expediency.
Importantly, we need proper documentation. The National Heroes Council should consistently tell us who these heroes are or were, the obstacles they overcame, and their character strengths and how, as a nation, we can share their qualities. Mau Mau icons are an indisputable point of our national pride.
The writer is an editor at The Standard. Twitter :@markoloo