NGUGI: Mashujaa Day now masks rather than celebrate deserving history and heroes

Tuesday October 29 2019

A matatu displaying the Kenyan flag

A Kenyan clad in Kenya flag colours. Which heroes do we celebrate? Which history do we commemorate? These are potent political questions. They are at the heart of contestation over the definition and shaping of the Kenyan society and nation. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NMG 

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Mashujaa Day is Kenya’s national holiday marked on October 20 to recognise, honour and celebrate Kenya’s heroes

Before the 2010 Constitution, it was known as Kenyatta Day. The name—Kenyatta—was supposed to be merely representative of all those who had struggled in various ways to bring about Kenya’s independence.

But as the culture of a one-party dictatorship became entrenched in the country, the day became increasingly a celebration of the person of Kenyatta.

It became part of a deliberate and systematic process of what Ali Mazrui called the “deification” of political authority—the making of African presidents into demigods.

In Ghana, for instance, Kwame Nkrumah was worshipped as the “Redeemer.” In then Zaire, Mobutu’s visage would be shown emerging from the clouds at the start of news bulletins. Kamuzu Banda of Malwai became the ‘‘Savior.’’

Jomo Kenyatta, especially on the day named after him, was often likened to the biblical Moses.


Buildings, schools, streets, parks, stadiums were named after these and other African leaders. Their faces were on the currency and national costumes.

Their statues, in Christ-like poses—hands outstretched in a blessing gesture—or in quiet benevolent contemplation were erected in public spaces.

Those honoured as heroes became the cast of people playing supporting roles in the making of a demigod. In a TV interview some years ago, former attorney general Charles Njonjo, a key architect of the Kanu state, opined that his heroes were former army generals and police chiefs.

Kenya’s 2010 Constitution sought to reorder the relationship between the people and their government. In a very real sense, it sought to bring down the presidency from the pantheon of gods and re-establish it as an office of governance in a democratic state.

As part of this process, Kenyatta Day was renamed Mashujaa Day to honour and celebrate, not just one person and the coterie of people supporting his regime, but all persons who have contributed positively and significantly to Kenyan society.

However, a majority of honourees have remained well-connected politicians. Many internationally renowned Kenyans, honoured by foreign countries, have remained unrecognised by the state.

The meaning of national hero, despite the intentions of the 2010 constitution, remains one interpreted by the powers that be in a way that perpetuates a particular ideological viewpoint, validates a certain political culture and justifies a particular history.

At this year’s official Mashujaa Day celebrations in Mombasa, most of those mentioned as heroes were those who fought colonialism.

Except for Wangari Maathai, not a single mention was made of those who risked limb and life to liberate Kenya from post-Independence tyranny. Why is it that 60 years of British colonial tyranny is considered more egregious than the 40 years of Kanu tyranny?

Why is it that those who struggled against British colonialism are considered heroes, but not those who struggled against Kanu despotism? We remember the massacre of demonstrators in 1922 in which 25 people were shot dead, but not the Wagalla massacre of over 3,000 people in 1984.

We commemorate the Hola Massacre of 1959 in which 11 detainees were clubbed to death, but refuse to acknowledge the hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators shot dead in 1990.

We refuse to remember the massacre in Kisumu in 1969. We talk of those assassinated before Independence, but not those murdered after Independence. The names of Tom Mboya, Robert Ouko, JM Kariuki will not feature in official speeches or on official commemorative sites.

The made-for-purpose torture chambers at Nyayo House and Nyati House do not exist in official commemorative literature. We have blacked out a part of our history.

Which heroes do we celebrate? Which history do we commemorate? These are potent political questions. They are at the heart of contestation over the definition and shaping of the Kenyan society and nation.

Evoking the values represented by those who struggled against Kanu is to challenge today’s political culture of tribal demagoguery.

Remembering JM Kariuki and Pio Gama Pinto is to question the culture of corruption and the elevation of crude accumulation of wealth as a moral value.

To remember those tortured in Nyayo House is to question the legitimacy of the Kanu state and its successor regimes. To remember the massacres in post-independence Kenya is to call for accountability and restorative justice.

Acknowledgement as heroes of people other than leaders or their supporters is to suggest alternative leadership. Those who determine which history or hero to commemorate determine our national culture and political future.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.