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Decoding symbols of the nation

By PETER MUIRURI | June 1st 2014

In almost every country around the world, there are certain values that act as the social glue that binds entire communities together. In the same vein, certain symbols are held in high esteem and have become like signatures through which different countries are identified.

For example, the Americans have the eagle while Ugandans have the crested crane. As Kenyans celebrate Madaraka Day, what exactly are the national symbols that hold the country together?

In the past, that question has elicited vast and varied comments. Kenya is made up of more than 40 ethnic groups and the answer may well depend on which part of the country one comes from.

Of course, the Constitution has spelt out certain symbols that are accepted across the board. Some of the gazetted ones include the national flag whose colours are meant to represent the black race, our fertile lands, peace and the blood shed in the quest for our independence.

On the same flag is another symbol, the coat of arms, an emblem that is to be found in government offices, and on official government documents and vehicles. It also forms the country’s official seal.

The list would not be complete without the national anthem, whose tune was borrowed from a Pokomo lullaby.

But did you know that apart from these obvious symbols, there are other unofficial ones that are said to represent the Kenyan psyche?

National bird

How many of us can readily identify the lilac-breasted roller (Coracias caudatus) at first sight?

Well, on a recent visit to a local park, a Japanese tour operator pointed to a small bird that had perched on a branch. It spotted a variety of bright colours. Upon checking it up on her bird listing, it turned out to be the lilac-breasted roller.

“It is Kenya’s national bird,” she exclaimed.

That took most of the group (read Kenyans) by surprise. None of us had ever thought of any bird as having that distinction.

According to some in our group, the national bird ought to be the cockerel, or the Kanu jogoo, as we know it since it is found on our coat of arms. In any case, some have argued that it is the bird most of us like to feast on, just like the Americans and their turkey. In any case, the cockerel appears on the national crest to signify a new dawn.

So, why should the lilac-breasted roller be our national bird? According to Ben Mugambi, a tour operator, visitors to Kenya may have designated the bird as one of our national symbols. He says there is no official record as to what our national bird ought to be.

“The lilac-breasted roller is to be found in almost every location in the country. Thus, it is easy to photograph and tourists may have been fascinated by it, hence terming it as our national bird,” says Mugambi.

True, a bird encyclopaedia says the bird is found in almost every national park and reserve in Kenya and “in some areas is a common roadside bird”. It is a colourful sight, with a beautiful lilac breast, green head, lilac throat, blue belly and even brighter blue wing feathers. Perhaps it is an apt representation of our colourful and diverse Kenyan personalities.

According to Mugambi, Kenya ought to have a national debate and conclusively come up with what will be truly an official Kenyan bird.

“Kenya is a country known for its wide variety and high density of birds. Their habitat is also much diversified. Despite the lilac-breasted roller being cited everywhere as the national bird, that is only in unofficial circles.”

Jacaranda? Neem? Mugumo (fig tree)?

If you guessed that the acacia has also been cited as our national tree, then you are not far from the truth. Acacias are some of the most recognisable trees in Kenya, especially on tourism circuits.

However, it is not all types of acacias (there are several hundred varieties in Africa alone) that are considered a symbol of Kenya. That distinction goes to the umbrella acacia tree (Acacia tortilis), also called the umbrella thorn. It is a common sight in the lowland arid and semi-arid areas of the country.

As the name suggests, the tree is characterised by its broad canopy that resembles an umbrella. This tree is known to withstand a host of difficult climatic conditions, including alkalinity, drought, high temperatures, sandy and stony soils, and sloped rooting surfaces.

It is perhaps these conditions that make it the ideal candidate as the country’s national tree. Like the tree, Kenyans are known to withstand and adapt to difficult living conditions, whether physical, economic or, of late, security-related.

National animal

Kenya is well known as the perfect destination for wildlife viewing. From the shores of the Indian Ocean to the slopes of Mount Kenya, wild game abounds. It is home to the so-called Big Five; lion, rhino, elephant, buffalo, and leopard.

Early visitors who came here on hunting expeditions coined the term ‘big five’ to describe the most difficult animals to hunt on foot. The exploits of Ernest Hemingway and Theodore Roosevelt belong to this era.

One animal, however, leads the pack in capturing the country’s spirit. Though not the biggest among the famous pentet, the lion has become a symbol of the country’s might. In the coat of arms, two lions are depicted holding spears symbolising the country’s defence system.

The lion also tops the list of animals most sought after by tourists — both local and international. Tour drivers scratch their heads if their guests do not spot a lion, or kichwa in local tourism jargon.  Many times they will speed past an elegant giraffe or regal rhino because of the unwritten rule that spotting a lion must be on the itinerary.

So what makes the lion tick? The beauty and aura of the male lion’s mane coupled with its strength make it one of the most admired of the big cats. The cohesive families are akin to those of humans where everyone in the pride feels a sense of protection.

Like in African families, males have the primary responsibility of instilling discipline in the pride. They also get the lion’s share (literally) of any spoils, though it is actually the females that do most of the hunting. Despite their fame, males are known to sleep for almost 20 hours each day.

In the wild, the lion has few enemies. Sadly, it has not been able to run away from its most savage predator; man. The lovely cats are in the danger of becoming extinct through the destruction of its habitat and poisoning.

As long as it lives though, the lion will continue to occupy a special place in the hearts of Kenyans.

Kenya is known the world over as one the largest exporters of cut flowers. Many would, thus, expect the country to have adopted a national flower by now. Unfortunately, we are yet to break ground on this aspect.

About two years ago, a call went out via The Kenya Flower Council to members of the public to submit their views on what should be adopted as the national flower.

The results were varied. Some felt the bougainvillea was the best pick because, like the lilac breasted roller, “it is found in every corner of this country”.

The African lily and the Nandi flame tree flower also made it on the list. Some even suggested the tea or banana flowers!

One flower that received more favourable mention than all others was the orchid. With more than 200 varieties native to Kenya, there is good reason for the orchid to find a place on the elite list. Only time will tell whether the flower will pass the test.

Of course, there are ultimate national symbols that Kenya has tried to explore in vain. Many know the country’s struggle to come up with a national dress.

Kenyans lack a distinct outfit, mostly because their ethnic diversity created obstacles in the long and winding search. A number of designers tasked to come up with a national dress hit a dead end as every other community wanted their representation on the piece of fabric.

The British conservative style also stood in the way of searching for the national dress.

Kenyans bemoaned the way our leaders dressed during the promulgation of the Constitution in 2010. Many were in Western-style suits. Only a few women, including Martha Karua, Millie Odhiambo, Rachael Shebesh, Beatrice Kones and Wavinya Ndeti, donned the national colours on this momentous occasion.

 “You have to wear a tie or, a nice skirt suit when you go to work. If you go in a tie-dye shirt to the office, you are most likely to have your boss call you in and tell you, ‘That is not something you wear to the office unless it is a dress-down Friday.’ It is sad — it does not make sense,” Kenyan designer Patricia Mbela told Voice of America a few years ago.

In the same vein, the country has no definitive national food, unlike some of our neighbours who have matoke (Uganda) and injera (Ethiopia).

A good candidate here would be ugali since it has become acceptable in all corners of the country. Some wags have even suggested nyama choma (roast meat, especially goat), a meal that even foreigners have come to love.

And so the jury is still out there as to what constitutes our national symbols.

Over to you, Brand Kenya.

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