On June 11, a significant anniversary quietly passed. It was the centenary of the day Britain officially annexed parts of East Africa to found the Kenya colony, the precursor to today’s Kenyan state. Over the course of the next four and a half decades, the British would consolidate their brutal, parasitic rule and establish a racist, colonial administration that would, in many ways, become the template for the government of the modern Kenyan nation.
It is perhaps not surprising that few Kenyans remember, or wish to be reminded, of that time. At independence in 1963, statues of British monarchs and settlers were hastily taken down and hidden away. Streets were renamed and any but the most generic references to the colonial period were kept out of history textbooks. What was left of the white settler community disappeared from public view, retreating to the huge, undeserved estates they had been allowed to keep. The reminders of colonial subjugation were almost completely obliterated from the public memory.
However, even as the symbols of coloniality were removed, the state the British established was allowed to persist. “Today we have a black man’s Government, and the black man’s Government administers exactly the same regulations, rigorously, as the colonial administration used to do,” a member of Parliament would declare just three years into independence.
Even after 57 years, this largely remains true. But Kenya’s political elite have continued to paper over their betrayal of the promise of independence by suppressing any attempts to tell more factual histories.
For example, the true story of Kenya’s war for independence is yet to be fully told because it would challenge the legitimacy of those who inherited the state, many of whom either fought on the side of the colonial occupation or cut secret deals with the British. Julie MacArthur, editor of “Dedan Kimathi on Trial,” which tells the story of the trial of the revered leader of the insurgent fighters, relates how the Kenya government hid documents and tried to mislead her by offering a fake transcript of the proceedings.
Of course, the statues and memorials erected by the British were not about an accurate remembering of what happened either, as those that survived the purge demonstrate. One, erected in 1928, purports to honor the “native” troops and porters involved in the East African campaign during World War I. It claims that they had “served and died for their king and country” but neglects to mention that many were conscripts with little inkling of white men’s quarrels and sometimes forced to fight family members because of the crazy way Europeans had drawn borders. The statues and the skewed history they represented thus needed to go.
A real problem, however, is what replaced them. In many cases nothing did. Silence, as Kenyan author Yvonne Owuor wrote in her novel, “Dust,” became one of Kenya’s official languages. And that silence should have been a worrying sign.
The failure to elaborate an honest history of the colonial period keeps many Kenyans blind to the fact that the colonial state was not actually dismantled. It is telling that the Mau Mau remained a proscribed organization until 2003. Kimathi didn’t get a statue in Nairobi till 2007, 50 years after the British hanged him.
A similar question arises when one thinks of the removal of statues and monuments to the edifice of racism and the people responsible for it in the United States and Europe. Dozens of statues have been toppled, defaced or slated for removal over the past month. From my Kenyan perspective, this is long overdue. Using public spaces to extol slavers, slave owners or people who fought to maintain the institution of slavery normalizes the pain and exclusion of the black minority. The monuments serve the same purpose they did in colonial Kenya: They attempt to petrify the public memory and set the narratives of the oppressor in stone while erasing those of the oppressed.
Yet it is not enough to get rid of the sculptures, busts and flags. Thought must be given as to what replaces them and to whether removing statues is accompanied by an uprooting of the attitudes, laws and norms that continue to undergird white supremacy more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Like has happened in Kenya, it is easy to confuse the symbolism of change represented by the toppling of a statue for change itself.
For example, many Europeans carry a romanticized notion of the Empire, imagining pith-helmeted administrators as something akin to stern, but benign and kindly headmasters bringing knowledge and modernity to the backward natives of Africa, rather than the agents of a racist and brutal machine of extraction. Similarly, in the United States, ignorance about the realities of slavery and its legacy is widespread, abetted by similar myths.
Monuments that correct these misconceptions can be designed to replace those that are taken down as part of a comprehensive public education effort that should be accompanied by real institutional reform. They can become venues for ensuring the public never forgets.
As Robert W. Lee IV, a descendant of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee who favors taking down the tributes to his ancestor, writes, “to rest when symbols of oppression fall is to have only done a portion of the work.”
Patrick Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer and award-winning political cartoonist in Kenya.