Managing Heritage, Making Peace: History, Identity and Memory in Contemporary Kenya

Volume 13, Issue 1  | 
Published 21/07/2016

Authors: Annie E Coombes, Lotte Hughes and Karega-Munene

Publ: 2014 by I B Tauris and Co., New York

Reviewer: Prof. Ephraim W Wahome, Associate Professor, Dept of History & Archaeology, University of Nairobi.

The Book is divided into five chapters dealing with different aspects of conservation, interpretation and management of heritage in Kenya. The chapters are:

  1. Origins and development of institutionalized heritage management in Kenya,
  2. Object lessons: Learning from the Lari Massacre(s),
  3. Sacred spaces, political places: the struggle for a sacred forest
  4. Monuments and memories: Public commemorative strategies in cotemporary Kenya and
  5. The production and transmission of national history: Some problems and challenges.

Through the five chapters, theories and practical issues in conservation, management of heritage and development of history have been explored at length. It also examines new method of interpreting and identifying national and living heritage.

The strength of the first chapter lies in its ability to trace the history of institutionalised conservation in Kenya through time by examining the extant organisational and legal structures. It challenges the traditional conservation practices which are largely driven by the colonial conception of heritage with emphasis on professionalism and little or no consultation (p.19).   In this kind of conservation, the expert decides what to be conserved and what not to conserve. Since the colonial laws emphasized preservation of objects of archaeological and paleontological interest the work of such professional conservators and the work of management was clearly cut out and the interpretation and interest of local communities was literary blotted out of the process. The museum was defined within the same parameters and its focus was dovetailed to exhibit works of paleontologists and archeologists (p.23). In the process, culture was used to enhance colonization through domination and suppression of pre-colonial heritage (p.24). It is from this background that the process of conservation and heritage management was nurtured leading to a situation where there was no attempt to collect items of historical nature by the time of independence (p.27). This institutionalized conservation therefore hindered the emergence of true national history during the colonial period.

While this was a common practice in most of the colonies, the problem with Kenya is that the process continued into the post colonial era and any attempts to reconstitute any kind of national history was frustrated by virtual lack of a robust and inclusive cultural policy combined with domineering individual interests. This situation continued even after 1983 when historical heritage was defined and included in the Antiquities and Monuments Act (p.32).

Major transformations were felt in 1990s with the emergence of community museums, especially with the onset of community peace museums as a response to the ethnic conflicts of 1992. The author highlights the role played by Dr. Sultan Somjee in the research and eventual development of the Community Peace Museums Programme (CPMP). A number of peace museums emerging from the CPMP are seen as more practical, diverse and accommodating than the traditional museum because intangible heritage, which has not been traditionally legislated for, can be captured and managed (p.38). It also captures aspects of living heritage that the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) has been unable to capture in its traditional exhibits (p.39). The author also observes that besides conservation, interpretation of heritage is a controversial area that should handled with care as memory may be partly accurate or inaccurate (p.41). This means that all our interpretations may be impaired by overdependence on memory especially where stakeholders are not properly involved and sensitized.

NMK must make itself relevant in national building by seeking to accommodate the cultural narratives that define Kenya’s heritage and in the process aspire to create a national heritage by de-emphasizing ethnic identity (p.42). Unfortunately, as observed by the author, in its conceptualization of culture, the constitution tends to balkanize communities along ethnic line rather than create legislate for a national heritage.

The suggestions made in this chapter will need a robust policy that distinguishes between purely ethic heritage and national heritage and, by extension, national history. The distinction has been elusive due to the general approach to the concept of heritage within the framework of divide and rule since the colonial times. This chapter raises a controversial issue on whether national heritage is an amalgamation of ethnic heritages or a heritage shared by all? This question helps us to appreciate the complexity of the concept of national history which has been elusive to date.

The second chapter explores the role of heritage in enhancing peace using the commemoration of Lari massacre of 1953. The author demonstrates that Lari Peace Museum (LPM) has played a key role as a uniting force in bringing both veterans and Home Guards of the Mau Mau insurgence to memorise an event that had a long-term effect on their social relationship. LPM is therefore a unique concept that deviates from the traditional museums practice to enhancing peace and reconciliation as a communal value (p.55). Equally important are the artifacts of peace which seem to transcend communal boundaries, thereby giving sense to the idea of national heritage. LPM also serves as an education centre for the youth thereby transmitting the message of peace from one generation to the other. The author contrasts this peace initiative with similar museums like the Agikuyu Peace Museum in Nyeri and Amani Memorial Veterans’ Association in Kiambu dominated by Mau Mau veterans and likely to create intra-ethnic division than unity (p.80). Rukuma Health Clininc, dedicated to the memory of the victims of Lari massacre, also represents the dynamic and positive aspects of heritage tangible benefits to the society by enhancing their wellbeing (p.87). The author concludes that such positive initiatives ‘…might be critical in averting the bloodbath which many fear will erupt again in future elections’ (p.88). The chapter successfully introduces the concept of culture as a symbol of peace.

Chapter 3 examines a spirited attempt to ‘…establish a spiritual connection with nature…’ around a sacred tree shrine at Karima Hill, Nyeri (p.119). The debate revolves around the conception and manipulation of heritage by individuals, elders, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) and other interested parties for ulterior gains. The conspiracy to classify Karima community as a forest community hatched by experts, local and international NGO’s and elders demonstrates the complexity and susceptibility of heritage to manipulation. The experts in this case successfully manipulate the local community to create a form of collective memory that can be sold to the donor community (p.108).

The sacred tree shrine case reflects the dynamic nature of heritage which also implies that cultural heritage can be manipulated, corrupted or created to serve diverse interest from time to time. This conforms to the usage of oral tradition based evidence to allocate land ownership in communities during the colonial (p.124). Such methods of ownership are likely to be abused in an environment of dynamic change for self-preservation (p.128). Culture is therefore not free manipulation hence a potential source conflict in society.

Chapter 4 deals with monuments and memories and its role in shaping the history of Kenya in pre- and post election violence of 2007. It shows a link between elections and the struggle for independence at least in the events preceding the elections when ‘suppressed memories’ seem to have erupted into violence in response to the hype about Mau Mau and liberation, heroes and heroines, inauguration of Kimathi’s sculpture, and interest in luminaries like Bildad Kaggia which seemed to be skewed in favour of one community. Concentration on Mau Mau and its veterans seemed to overshadow other national heroes, including the heroes of second liberation and pertinent issues of abject poverty. The process of sanitizing the Mau Mau initiated by Kibaki’s government from 2003 had the negative effect of raising an old historical debate on their contribution to Kenya’s independence.

The author concludes that the monuments served as symbols of controversy even if the intention was good. In fact instead of the anticipated cohesion, the process created discontent and bloodshed (p.165). It also pushed the agenda for the creation of national history in the face of increasing ethnicisation of the political landscape (p.149).

The post-election violence was, however, complicated by other issues which had no direct bearing on the monuments like the silent memorandum of understanding between Kibaki and Odinga and the general feeling that Kibaki had broken a promise. It was therefore more than the monument but generally tied to the interpretation of post-colonial history which is characterized by ethnic hatred and mistrust.

The author cites living monuments that can help avert conflict due to their inherent values like the Rukuma health clinic in Kimende, the garment of peace and the peace tree which incorporate the aspirations of diverse ethnic groups through Community Peace Museums (p.160). The author exalts the messages of peace inscribed on fixed structures like bridges and roads during the post-election violence as symbols of social harmony in contrast to proposed monuments that were likely to promote violence like the Kiambaa Church, where members of one community were killed as they sought refuge (p.168). The paper demonstrates the two sides of monuments as symbols of social and political relationships. They can create harmony and dissension in equal measure. Emphasis should be laid on uniting communities than creating boundaries. Most heritage messages are geared towards the latter through obsession with distinctiveness of the monuments and poor sensitization of the stakeholders. Monuments must be accommodating and sensitive to remain relevant to the aspirations of the community rather than combative and individualized. Stakeholders must see a universal value in heritage for it to be relevant for them and their progenitors.

Chapter 5 highlights the challenges associated with the production of a national history of Kenya. The author argues that the current debate on heritage in Kenya seems to promote multiculturalism rather than nationalism. In the process, the so called national history is replaced consciously or unconsciously with ethnic oriented histories. The use of oral literature based on myth and legends to construct history at the expense of reality that a nation goes through, like assassinations, is seen as a source of potential conflict in the development of national history (p.191). The author also challenges the union between culture and tourism as an extension of ‘colonial nostalgia’ which cannot produce representative history (p.194). This criticism is extended to aspects of cultural displays like cultural centres and ethnic exhibitions which hinder the development of cohesive and dynamic histories.

The failed attempts to reconstruct a national history of Kenya by the Kenya National Human Rights Commission (KHRC) (p.204), and the Institute of Historical Justice and Reconciliation (IHJR) (p.212) demonstrates a retrogressive link between history, culture and ethnicity in the interpretation of historical events. The author concludes that there is need to revolutionize the reconstruction of Kenya’s history by taking a national approach which represents the aspirations of all.

While I concur with the sentiments of the author on the ethnicisation of history, justification for the use of diverse sources like oral traditions and historical linguistic, where information is lacking, exists. The extent to which oral sources of can be used or generalized beyond specific ethnic groups or even beyond pre-colonial history is a controversial issue. The other question raised by this chapter is; can history be reconstructed without considering the contribution of individual groups through time? I would say no. The answer to this question lies in the interpretation of facts in terms of orientation and representativeness. Mau Mau, for example, has been interpreted as a representation of heroism among the Kikuyu, which deliberately ignores the national character of the movement. This kind of argument confuses facts with myths thereby creating disharmony or what the author appropriately calls history of ‘traditional past’ (p. 214). The real contemporary issues of assassinations and second liberation run the risk of being interpreted in the same way depending on entrenched individual or communal interests.

The unholy union between tourism, culture and history is generally unavoidable but properly interpreted history has a higher chance of withstanding the vagaries of the other two. The falsification of culture and history to attract tourists is the evil that all good historians must constantly guard against.  It is important to note that tourist only consume a small part of history, the most interesting, as they pursue leisure and recreation and it is upon professional historians and conservators to provide this component objectively.  I concur that revolutionising the development of the history of Kenya through proper interpretation can be achieved and sustained to avoid loopholes that enhance social conflict.

The book is interesting due to its visionary interpretation of the challenges confronting students of the history and heritage conservation in Kenya. It highlights issues that have been traditionally ignored in the presentation of static exhibits at the expense of the fairly dynamic processes that shape heritage.

Overall, the need for revolutionary reconstruction of history and interpretation of heritage is emphasized as a matter of urgency for the sake of posterity and harmonious co-existence in the society. All readers of the history of Kenya and conservators will benefit greatly from this work. Champions of cultural and heritage tourism will also find the book informative and challenging.

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