Statues, hero worship and contentious pasts: Can Kenya save us from the seemingly inevitable culture war?

By Matt Trinder

“THE statue of Winston Churchill, who is a national hero, has had to be boarded up for fear of violent attack, and that to me is both absurd and wrong.”

The words “is a racist” were graffitied on a statue of the famous World War Two-era leader following Black Lives Matter protests in central London in June.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was unimpressed.

“We cannot try to edit or censor our past [and] pretend to have a different history,” he argued.

However, for some the editing had already happened, and the graffiti represented an attempt to tell the murkier side of Churchill’s story, one usually left out of movies like Darkest Hour.

Churchill did after all claim that no wrong had been done to Native Americans as a “higher grade race” had come to take their place, and the two-time Conservative Prime Minister also advocated the use of poisoned gas against “uncivilized tribes” in a government memo.

Mr Johnson seemed to be missing an important point. Yes, violent acts had been committed against the statue, but for some the construction of a monument which glorified only one side of a very contentious story was in itself a violent act.

History is contentious. It is happening now. To ignore that fact and react with shock when such installations are met with violence seems short-sighted at best, and sinister at worst.

We’re seeing examples of this phenomena in many parts of the world at the moment, but one illuminating example which receives little international attention can be found in Kenya.

It is a vital case study as it not only tells us more about the problem, but also points to a potential solution.

A UK-funded memorial to Kenyans killed and tortured by British forces during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s was unveiled in Nairobi in 2015.

The monument, which featured a statue depicting an unknown woman passing food to an anonymous Mau Mau fighter, was part of a 2013 out-of-court settlement by the UK government.

It agreed to pay £20m in compensation to ageing veterans and also expressed “sincere regret” for abuses committed under colonial rule.

Mau Mau began a violent campaign against white settlers in 1952, but the uprising was eventually put down by the British colonial government before independence was ceded in 1963.

The final figures are still disputed, but the Kenya Human Rights Commission claims 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed, and 160,000 people were detained in hideous conditions.

UK High Commissioner to Kenya Christian Turner told thousands of veterans at the unveiling ceremony that the memorial stood as a “symbol of reconciliation” between the UK and Kenya.

The whole event was clearly the start of an attempt to draw a line under the issue.

But behind the platitudes and smiles, controversies were brewing.

Firstly, the Chairman of the Mau Mau War Veterans Association, Elijah Kinyua, had disowned the monument as, according to him, the plaques surrounding it were about glorifying not Mau Mau but the “facilitators of violence” against Mau Mau, namely the British colonists.

He said: “Kenyans must write their own history correctly and we protest the fact that British High Commissioner Christian Turner was there because it was not about his nation, it was about our country’s heroes.”

Secondly, most media outlets covering the event failed to emphasise the extremely contentious nature of the memory of Mau Mau in Kenya today.

What exactly was Mau Mau? Ask any two people and you will get two different answers.

E.S. Atieno Odhiambo claimed many today see it as a nationalist uprising, but as Muthoni Lakimani confirmed, most Mau Mau fighters came from the Kikuyu, a central Kenyan tribe which still dominates the national political scene, leading many to see it as tribal movement.

Members of the neighbouring Embu and Meru tribes also participated directly but are often left out of the Mau Mau story, leading to simmering resentment and the perception that, in a country already riddled with massive socio-economic inequalities, not everyone has been allowed to taste the ‘fruits of uhuru’, or independence.

This has contributed to the polarization of political debate along tribal lines in Kenya which saw severe election violence in 2008 resulting in more than one thousand deaths.

As historian Marshall S. Clough explained, expressing opinions on Mau Mau has become a “risky way…of saying something about the present.”

Discussions of history cannot be separated from contemporary political controversies, especially in Kenya where Jomo Kenyatta, the first President of newly independent nation, made the ahistorical claim that “we all fought for uhuru.”

It was a deliberate attempt to create an illusion of social consensus through induced historical amnesia.

The memory of Churchill has undergone a similar process, and monuments often play a key part in facilitating this process.

We have got to create a less divisive and more therapeutic way of engaging with our difficult past. Some say tearing these statues down would be a good start, but wouldn’t that just escalate an already fierce culture war?

As hinted at earlier, a possible solution may be on offer in Kenya in the form of the Community Peace Museums movement, overseen by a foundation of the same name.

The Agikuyu Peace Museum at Nyeri is an excellent example of this new type of installation. Established in 1997, it was intended not as a memorial to one perspective of history but to conflict itself. There are no items of war or violence such as guns in the museum.

“The message is peace and reconciliation. In its quiet little way, this is a deeply subversive place,” said historian David Anderson in his seminal work Histories of the Hanged (2005).

The process of setting each museum up is similar. Field assistants are trained to gather oral histories on conflict and conflict resolution in their local communities. The information gathered is then used to establish the museums usually locally sourced funds.

That is not all though. The museum at Lari, scene of an infamous massacre during the uprising, also runs several projects including ‘Peace Clubs’ in local schools, ‘Inter-ethnic youth exchanges’, and ‘Community healing events.’

Such projects are integral to the movement’s ethos. The installations are considered alive, not dead entities set in stone or bronze.

It is a genuinely constructive, progressive project at grassroots level, and is light years ahead of what we are seeing in the West right now.

History and heritage must not be used as tools to promote unequal power structures today.

Its role should be to provide a safe space to diagnose unresolved trauma and work towards a solution.

Education is the only way to break the vicious cycle we are trapped in.


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Featured Image: jothee@Flickr

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