Owning Kenya

Unveiling the national flag in 1963, Tom Mboya inaugurated an important, ongoing debate about how national symbols function. In his comments on September 25, 1963, he said, “This flag is a flag of unity and we expect it to be respected and symbolize something deeper for all. We would like to appeal to the public not to fly the national flag on bicycles and so forth. We do not want to see it made of cheap material in River Road. It must be treated with respect.” At this foundational moment in Kenyan history, the “we” Mboya represents tells “the public” not only what the flag means but also how it means.

Although Mboya claims that the flag unites all Kenyans, his comments distinguish between two key groups: the “we” who define the flag’s meaning and the public for whom this meaning is defined. The flag is a dividing line that creates a socio-political distinction between the public and what we now call the political class. In retrospect, Mboya’s statement indicates that Kenya’s national symbols both unite all Kenyans and divide us into the public who follow orders and the political class that issues them.

At this early stage in Kenya’s independence history, Mboya understands that governments rule by creating symbols and controlling their meanings. By claiming that the flag means “something deeper” without clearly explaining what this something deeper is, Mboya mystifies the flag and grants the political class the power to define the meanings of our national symbols. If we want to know what these symbols mean, we must ask the political class. It is no coincidence that even today we learn what the colors of the flag represent through government-approved school textbooks.

The distinction between the political class and the public is further defined by the spaces the flag should occupy. Mboya’s comment that it should not be displayed on bicycles expresses a clear division between the public and the political class. While the flag is not supposed to be displayed on bicycles, it is proudly displayed on vehicles belonging to politicians.

From the early years of the twentieth century, the bicycle promised freedom and mobility to black Kenyans. Even today, elderly Kenyans remember the first individuals who owned bicycles in their villages. The bicycle was the mwananchi’s lexus. During the 1920s, Jomo Kenyatta was famous for owning and riding his bicycle around Nairobi. In fact, it’s not overstating the point to claim that the bicycle is an integral part of Kenya’s political history.

By the 1960s the bicycle had become an easy and convenient mode of affordable transport. It could navigate narrow streets and hidden byways. More eloquently than the expensive cars that only elites could afford, the bicycle embodied the freedom of uhuru, the freedom of mobility. After the harsh colonial detention camps and restrictive kipande laws that restricted black Kenyans’ movements, the bicycle symbolized freedom. As Kenyans traveled all over the country on their bicycles, they symbolically marked Kenya as a country of free movement. More than any other mode of transport, the bicycle symbolized the public’s movements, their hopes, their dreams, their ambitions, their abilities to mix and mingle together as Kenyans.

If, at independence, the bicycle represented the spread of freedom, why does Mboya urge the public not to display the new “flag of unity” on bicycles? In one respect, Mboya expresses a longstanding tension in the history of modern democracy: the opposing claims of freedom and unity.

On the one hand, independence meant we were free from British rule and could join together as one people. On the other hand, the ethnic, political, and regional factions, visible in the distinction between KANU and KADU, the so-called shifta wars, and the government-sponsored war against labor politics, divided Kenya into zones of freedom and un-freedom, where unity was an unrealizable ideal.

Kenya was founded as a state riven by the competing claims of freedom and unity, and these competing claims are embodied in how we use and spread national symbols.

Prior to and after independence, River Road was a space of economic opportunity, where petty traders could build their businesses and cater to wananchi at wananchi-friendly prices. Within Kenya’s history, River Road is one of the most important spaces of upward mobility that caters to wananchi. When Mboya derides the “cheap material” from River Road, he advocates a divisive class politics that creates a further separation between the political class who can presumably afford the expensive flag and the public, who learn that owning a flag is an expensive proposition.

Ironically, through the 1980s and 1990s, the cheap paper flag pasted to wooden sticks became a symbol of national unity. Students from Nairobi Primary, State House Primary. and St. Georges, and I was one of them, would be removed from their classrooms, handed paper flags, and instructed to wave and cheer as former President Moi and visiting dignitaries traveled to State House. Cheap flags became the norm, not the exception.

However, in 1963 Mboya wants to limit how the flag circulates. The public “must respect” the flag by buying and owning expensive versions and not flying them on bicycles.

At this moment in Kenya’s history, when we seem to be transitioning from a hope-filled experiment in multi-party politics to a cynical, despair-filled multi-party state, we would do well to return to our founding moments, those similarly hope-filled days of independence, to discover, there, some explanations for how we came to this point.

By focusing on Mboya’s statements on the significance of the flag, I advance three claims. The first is that Kenya’s founding moments are marked by a distinct and explicit split between the political class and the public. The political class creates symbols of national unity and tells us we are united. They tell us what symbols of national unity mean and demand we comply with their directives. We have yet to address this split in any significant manner.

Second, the split between the political class and the public is deeply rooted in a fundamental economic disparity between a “we” who can afford expensive flags that will fly on cars and those who ride bicycles and shop at River Road. The very existence of the political class depends on maintaining this economic disparity—witness the massive salary increases of the current parliament and their reluctance to pay taxes.

Finally, if Kenya is to move from its current status as a peri-oligarchy, a country by the political class and for the political class, we must re-imbue our national symbols with a citizen-driven style. We all feel different emotions when the flag is raised. Some of us cry, some of us smile, some of us want to stand still, some of us want to dance. We do not need to stand still, hands at our sides, as though we are scared of the flag or as though we are trained soldiers.

Our relationships to our national symbols should be creative and innovative, rooted in how we live, work, love, and play in our country. The flag represents our independence and unity, our bodies and faces should reflect both.

On December 12, 1963, Kenyans assembled to see the new flag being raised. Those who arrived in government cars had the privilege of taking home their own flags, the realized promise of independence. Those who arrived on foot and on bicycles left with memories of a beautiful, inaccessible object. The flag that represented independence could be seen from a distance, admired and revered. But only those with money and power had the right to take home the flag and the independence it promised.

2 thoughts on “Owning Kenya

  1. Not sure if this is the most appropriate word but I really enjoyed this post. I wonder how many other African countries have made similar distinctions between the public and political ruling class through the flag or similar nationalistic symbols such as anthems, images of leaders etc. Personally I am becoming more and more adverse to flags and other nation symbols as I see them as tools of exclusion, oppression and excuses for wars violence, rape slavery and so on. All these symbols of belonging seem to me to induce people into behaving inhumanely as children from Kenya are trafficked to Nigeria and vice versa because as long as they are not ours we can treat them like shit. This also works within countries – Hausa versus Igbo etc etc. So back to the flag which on the one hand is supposed to be a symbol of national unity but at the same time is a symbol of class as you right state but also a symbol of ownership and exclusivity.

    I hope this makes sense. My point is I no longer wish to be part of any nationalistic project or claim the sole right to live in any particular geographical space – except my blog of course. However this maybe because I have never been wholly accepted in any geographical space!

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