Often, while growing up, we challenged each other to name the capital cities of African countries and it was a thing of pride to be the boy who could name the most. There was this one boy called Kieven Yu, of Chinese origin but born and raised in Mombasa town by his mother. Kieven could name ALL the capital cities, not only of African countries, but of all countries!
Many times I would sit for minutes on end with the atlas trying, not only to cram the capitals, but also trying to look for that one country Kieven did not know about. I mean, how could he possibly know all capital cities? At the time, this exercise would be compartmentalised into the subject of Geography and was taught and examined as such. I however now feel that History would have been the more appropriate subject to teach these capital cities.
A lack of history
What I’m alluding to here is a general observation (that has become more pronounced in recent times) that many Kenyans (especially youth) do not know much about Kenyan history. One good way of claiming to know about your country is by knowing your country’s history. Moreover, most Kenyans do not know a lot about the general area of the places they live.
For instance, many youngsters born and raised in Nairobi do not know much about other areas in Nairobi other than those areas that they reside in, work at, and more importantly, that fall under the scope of their ‘class boundaries’. I grew up in Eastlands, went to school in Westlands and now live in what one would call ‘Nairobi South’. Those who are aware of the class stratification dynamics in Nairobi know that Eastlands is the place where (as told by many who are not from Eastlands) all the riff-raff, the scary robbers, and vagabonds hail from.
Also, Eastlands is ridden with street litter and is home to what is arguably the largest dump site in east Africa – Dandora dumpsite. Eastlands is also next to the industrial area where dozens of factories manifest themselves as grey clouds of copious waste emissions from a forest of chimneys. Eastlands further lives up to the stereotype by having itself dissected in sections by railway lines – a thing affluent areas are never close to, and how could they? It’s hard to imagine Kitusuru (upmarket Nairobi) being butchered topographically by railway lines. Unthinkable!
Now, a majority of my Eastlands compatriots have never lived, been schooled, worked or even visited the upmarket suburbs of Westlands just as (is more often the case) most of the upmarket Nairobians (like many of my schoolmates) have never visited Eastlands. It’s not surprising; they would be mugged on the spot, no?
Besides, how can one enter a matatu (kombi) and go to Eastlands. That’s risky! My sister, being of similar ‘born in Eastlands schooled in Westlands’ sub-culture of children, almost choked on her shock when she overheard her classmate ask, “You mean matatus have numbers?”
What seems like a very naïve and annoying remark is actually further testimony to the class reclusiveness that exists not only in Nairobi but other parts of the world in its many variations. A remark like “You are from Eastlands? Aren’t you scared of being mugged when walking home?” is as severe a display of naivety (or what some have described as ‘class blindness’) as the remark, “You are from Africa? Do you guys see giraffes and lions walking in the streets?” is an equal display of naivety at the global level.
What knits the above described phenomena together is a failure to access or even desire to access information and knowledge. I have never been to Turkana in Kenya yet I am a Kenyan. I want to go to Turkana, yes; partly because being a Kenyan I should, but also because I acknowledge the value of universality and moreso the need to continuously gain knowledge of others other than myself. This is especially so when these ‘others’ are fellow countrymen. I often talk to my friends about pan-Africanism but how can we talk of it when we have barely grazed the surface of knowing our very own history as Kenyans? Or even, worse still, when we – for those who hail from Nairobi – do not know Nairobi in its totality?
We are busy indulging our peculiar appetite for what is foreign, constantly seeking to satiate it with accolades, scholarships and fellowships to the western world as we dance to the fiddle played by overly benevolent donor agencies. I want to attend a fellowship in Africa; I want to visit people in Turkana and Moyale before even contemplating a visit to Berlin and New York.
To discuss pan-Africanism as a philosophy is to presuppose an already achieved premise of a complete understanding of the very elements you wish to synthesize with this pan-Africanism. This has not happened yet, but can.
Back to History.
History for me is as important as Philosophy. History, as a taught subject, in the formal education system must be revised thoroughly. I will not get too much into the education system, but a curriculum that elevates History to a compulsory subject at high school level – and as a core compulsory course unit at university level – is critical. This, however, must be done accordingly. Content has to be continually updated, diversified and generally revamped. In short, know everything about your city (say, Nairobi), then know everything about your county, then know everything about other counties (provinces) and the people who live there. Then only can one consider breaching the borders to venture into other African countries, and hence, a move towards pan-Africanism.
African fellowships – my new area of interest. How do we make these possible? How do we get Africans to interact with each other and share their rich experiences which, as diverse as they may be, still bear a thread of similarity that make the very same experiences not too far removed from each other? How do we celebrate our own artists, musicians, poets, journalists, photographers and writers without first waiting for them to go abroad, win a prize, get foreign validation, then return home and finally get a clap from us? To be able to make a difference in your society is to be able to first acknowledge the need for change.
To acknowledge the need for change is to first become aware of your society, such awareness is not automatic and takes conscious effort only made possible by knowledge whose appetite to pursue stems from information, which then comes from KNOWING YOUR HISTORY.
I urge all Kenyans, and Africans, to learn their history, if not anything else.
Main photograph in article is by Robert Munuku