Monuments are like family photos

“Monuments are like family photos. Perhaps your mother doesn’t smile in the picture or the children are dressed in dirty clothes. They are still your family. The same is true of our monuments ‒ they show the Kenya we have.” NAI guest researcher Lydia Muthuma studies monuments and statues in Nairobi.

Statues and monuments in city squares and parks serve as icons for people to gather around: they serve to unify the larger population and to promote a common national spirit.

“It’s not hospitals, schools or farmers crops that make a nation, but hope for a better tomorrow. Our monuments are aspirations for a united Kenya for all its inhabitants. However, we are not there yet,” Muthuma observes.

No easy equation

Kenya is still far from being a united nation. More than 40 ethnic groups share the country’s territory and history, but there are many conflicts between them. Most recently, the bloody violence during the 2007 elections had ethnic dimensions. This is a reason for Kenya not to have monuments that can be interpreted ethnically.

“Of course, those in power regulate and administer monuments. However, positive events for one group might be seen as cruel by another, and for leaders deciding on monuments it is not an easy equation. Certain monuments might be irritants for some people and actually fuel conflict,” Muthuma says.

Mau Mau an open wound

That’s why the Mau Mau movement hasn’t been granted many statues in Kenya. This was an armed resistance group that fought against the British colonial authorities during the 1950s. The rebellion was crushed, but a few years’ later negotiations for independence began. Mau Mau is still an open wound in Kenyan politics and its members are portrayed both as freedom fighters and as terrorists. Only in 2007 was the first monument commemorating the movement unveiled in Nairobi.

The monuments that Daniel Arap Moi, Kenya’s second president, had built may not be very popular today. Most are of an ideological nature, rather than depictions of the former president. In a way, this is a good thing according to Muthuma, since people would otherwise have torn them down by now. One of them depicts Mount Kenya with a giant iron hand above it. This symbolises President Moi’s rule over both Kenya and the Kikuyu people.

“He needed to show his iron fist because he was not sure of his people’s loyalty”, Muthuma concludes.

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