Donna Pido & Odoch Pido

Independence Monument of Kenya. 1973. Uhuru Gardens, Nairobi. (c) K. Gituma & Luide Kakembo (Wikimedia)Commons

Commemoration offers collective memory tie - monuments and rituals fix and affirm collectivity

This article is a brief exploration of collective memory through visual culture in Kenya. In exploring Kenya’s visual culture, we overview East African Independence monuments hoping to provide clues on how the monuments do not always fix and affirm collectivity. In other words, Kenya’s visual culture and collective memory are somewhat disconnected, which appears to contradict Halbwachs’ thesis “Commemoration offers collective memory tie to society and its conceptions where physical monuments and rituals fix and affirm collectivity” (Wikipedia May 2022). That the Kenyan collective memory appears to contradict many years of scholarly work is amazing but difficult to fully explain in this short piece; we need to proceed with the business at hand. In order to forge ahead in our undertaking, we adopt the view that collective memory is “community or family memories influencing views on life” (Wood et al 2015). In Kenya, collective memory depends on the ethnic community (one people speaking one language), the magnitude, extent and impact of the event. Our other view on the subject is that Kenyan visuality is sometimes used by authoritative bodies in ways that do not have the desired effect. At the same time, grassroots collective memory often thrives and perpetuates itself. In this undertaking we confine discussions to a few examples.


 ke pido monuments intro


Our brief exploration includes discussions on Independence monuments of Kenya (Figure 1a). We also discuss Kenya African National Union-KANU emblem (Figure 1b) and flag (Figure 1c) because it is the political party that received Independence from Great Britain. It is rather clear that the founding political party developed, if not approved, the national flag (Figure 1d) similar to its own flag. Finally, we discuss the World War II monument in Nairobi because the war educated KAR soldiers on racism and colonialism; WWII soldiers helped to shape the political destiny of Kenya. We also discuss pre-Independence flags in order to provide one example of visual culture that existed with intentionality determined by the colonial regime. 

  • Donna Pido
    Donna Pido

    Kenya’s Independence monument resides at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi (Figure 1a), most likely because this is where received Independence (Kiarie 2022).  Though only a few people visit Uhuru Gardens and get to see the monument, it reminds us of 12 December 1963, the day of Independence and when Kenya Army soldiers first raised the national flag on Mt Kenya.  Mau-Mau and other guerilla soldiers see hoisting the flag as a visual symbol of military victory over King’s African Rifles and their British collaborators though some felt it is the same collaborators who inherited power from the British (Branch 2007).  In this context, Independence is remembered as a military defeat of the British sense of military invincibility.  However, a political class  comprised  of ‘under-educated’ intelligentsia saw Independence as an intellectual contest and a defeat of so-called colonial arrogance.   Rural dwellers, on the other hand, seemed spectators with the view that Independence was coming ready with ‘owners’ (politicians, businessmen and educated elite).  That Independence has owners who enjoy it while rural remain on the sideline is evident the persistent poverty thriving in rural Kenya (Njeru 2018).  So, even Uhuru Gardens and the Independence Monument have ‘owners’ who are not rural dwellers; it is clear that the monument is the collective memory and visual culture of its ‘owners’.  


    It seems the majority of rural dwellers understood Independence according to what politicians said- wealth as the accumulation of money, health as getting treatment in hospitals, education as attending school and passing examinations (Kenya African National Union 1969). We are not sure they are able to read and understand the Independence monument at Uhuru Gardens.  Why KANU did not install the rooster at Uhuru Gardens draws considerable curiosity. That is beyond our scope here.  One with a thick African cultural knowledge could easily choose the image of a rooster instead of that of hoisting the national flag because KANU was a nation-wide party and the rooster has cultural meanings nationwide.   Among the Luos of Western, establishing new homesteads entailed carrying an axe and rooster to the site of the first house; this ideology is well-represented in the KANU flag (figure 1d).  In other parts of Kenya, the rooster is a symbol of manhood required to make many children (Wikipedia. 2022).   By crowing early in the morning, the rooster does not simply announce time but also sets the work-eat-rest rhythm of life in rural areas.


    Before discussing WWII monument and of pre-Independence flags, we want to briefly address meanings in choices of colors and other elements in party flags and the national flag.  The black, red and green stripes in KAU, KANU and the national flag have the same meanings. The black stood for the indigenous population, red for the common blood of all humanity or blood shed during the struggle for Independence. Green symbolized the nation’s fertile land or landscape of the country, while the weapons were a reminder that organized struggle was the basis for future self-government (Smith 2001). No doubt the shield and spear are common traditional Kenya tools of offence and defense. It is said that white represented unity and peace.  It is rather clear that a section of Kenya’s coat of arms is modeled on KANU’s flag- colors and the rooster carrying an axe. Meanings herein are similar to those we mentioned in our discussion on KANU’s flag; the shield and spears also bear the same meanings as we mentioned when discussing the national flag.


    ke pido monument

    The combat boots (Figure 2b, Internet sources) tend to strike a note that is closer to the Acholi collective memory of WWII because they refer to it as too bin (Acholi for ‘come ye death’).  Among the Acholis of Northern Uganda, the combat boots symbolize the massive death in the War and the sacrifice of people forced to be loyal to the King of England. There is quite a stark contrast between the intended collective memory and the actual one.  At least among the Acholi, the boots are infinitely more meaningful that the bronze images so hapless servant/soldiers.


    Many of us in Kenya may not be able to remember the pre-Independence flags presented here because they were in use a long time ago.  Between Indonesians, Indians and Arabs, we are not sure on who first visited Kenya.  However, Arabs came in greater numbers over a longer period, intermarried with the local population and eventually set a government with the Sultan of Oman as its emperor or king.  We included the flag of the Sultan of Zanzibar (3a, Internet sources) as a part of the visual culture of Kenya.  The flag does not fly anymore but Arab dhows and their sails are prominent visual feature at the coast of Kenya. History has it that the Portuguese followed and displaced the Arabs  and built Fort Jesus- we included Portuguese flag (3b, Internet sources) of that time since we consider it a part of the visual culture of Kenya at that time.  Apart from Fort Jesus in Mombasa and the Vasco da Gama monument in Malindi, there seems no outstanding visual feature that rigorously reminds us of the Portuguese.


    We turn now to the World War II monument standing on Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi (Figure 2a, Internet sources).  Our action was driven by the thought that the monument is also a reminder of how Africans were roped into a war they did not start, meaning, they did not have any special interest in the war.  While the British saw this monument as honoring the regional war dead, we remember our own who died in North Africa, Burma or elsewhere as WWII raged.  In any case it would have served us Kenyans more meaningfully if the monument had represented Kings African Rifles in action instead of as the transport company that was its main function.  The figures of this monument are just standing as if posing for a photograph.


    ke pido monuments flags


    The eagerness related to the partitioning of Africa and the establishing of colonies saw the Germans come to Kenya and German East Africa (Tanganyika) where the German flag flew (Figure 3c).  Heller, the German coin is the most outstanding collective memory of German East Africa; old folk still refers to coins as heller (hela, eeera, Figure 4a and 4b, Internet sources).   Though rupee was more popular as an Indian coin, it was also used in German East Africa and its name was integrated into many languages that still use it to mean ‘money' (Figure 4c, Internet sources).


    ke pido monuments coins


    Some people think that if Germany had won World War I (WWI), East Africa would have been a German colony.  But that was not to be; various parts of East Africa were under Brisstish rule until Independence in the early  1960s.  The Witu flag (Figure 3d) was hoisted soon after the British drove Germans out of East Africa, this was followed by the British East Africa flag (Figure 3g, Internet sources) and flags (Figures 3e and 3f, Internet sources) were used in Kenya colony, specifically.   The Union Jack was prominent in flags for British East and Africa and Kenya Colony.  British influence is massive in Kenya and related visual culture is so massive that it deserves more attention that is possible here.  Meanwhile we note that the structure of Kenya’s coat of arms is similar to emblems and related devices that were in use when Kenya was a colony.   


    Summary of Discussions


                 We embarked on writing this article hoping to add to on-going efforts in exploring collective memory in Africa.  Our short article touched on political collective memory including but not limited to past and existing monuments, flags, coat of arms and emblems.  It is difficult but possible to argue that pre-Independence devices form a part of Kenya’s visual culture; we argue thus for believe that the past makes today as the present makes tomorrow.  Heller, the German coin of colonial Kenya, provides one example of how past visual culture persists through time to be a part of the present and does so with  little cultural transformation.


                 In this article, monuments, flags, emblems, coats of arms and coins provided fodder for discussions.  It seems the Independence monument is a Government object that only officers of Government and the intelligentsia communicate with and use it to remember Independence and WWI.   Kenyans who paid the price of WWI and Independence have yet to enjoy whatever benefits may accrue from the two.  The once very powerful KANU that received Independence from Great Britain is now a pale shadow of the political party it was.  However, its rooster remains a visually powerful emblem that speaks of time, space, majestic manhood and connection with the universe.  


                 We do not know why KANU’s rooster is dwarfed in the coat of arms and is absent in the national flag.  The absence or minimizing of such a powerful symbol can raise questions.  For example, is it a part of continued colonization that thrives on suffocating local expressions?  Or was it a matter dictated by non-Kenyan concepts of design?  These questions need addressing soon and with more concerted efforts.


    References cited


    For further reading: Lydia Waithira Muthuma. How Public are Public Statues? (Public statues in Nairobi)