Time Young Kenyans Were Exposed To Their Political History by Fr Gabriel Dolan

Volume 17, Issue 3  | 
Published 12/12/2020
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Fr Gabriel Dolan

Catholic Priest and Executive Director of Haki Yetu is currently in Mombasa. He has also worked in Turkana and Kitale

Those of us who have walked this earth a little longer than most, frequently like to compare notes on their favourite decade.  Was it the fifties, the sixties, the nineties or even the new millennium? For my part, without hesitation, I declare that the swinging sixties was the greatest decade to be alive and growing up in. It wasn’t just the decade of the Beatles and Motown, but the era of Martin Luther King and the French led youth protests and revolts demanding change and rights all over the globe. It was also of course the decade in which Africans rose up and rid themselves of the colonialists who had long overstayed their welcome.

It was a time of unprecedented change and optimism. Things could indeed be different and all of humanity could live together in a more peaceful, equal and just society. Northern Ireland was my home, then, and my first protests were on the most basic of political rights, the demand for ‘one man, one vote’, even before I had reached voting eligibility age. The initial outrage was about gerrymandering the vote but the calls increased for access to jobs, housing, representation and an end to discrimination on religious lines. This was a time of peaceful and non-violent protests. However, when the British Army mowed down thirteen unarmed protestors in Derry city on 30 January 1972 in what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’, the age of innocence ended and the conflict became more violent.

The Troubles, as they became known locally, rolled on for two more decades before peace talks gave way to a comprehensive shared governance agreement on Good Friday, 1998. However, having lived through this long struggle for justice and respect, the events of that era are as fresh in my mind today as if they happened yesterday. There are still many unresolved issues but life has improved for everyone in recent times. However, on recent visits to my native home, I am amazed that the next generation, who are currently enjoying the benefits of the struggle, knows so little about its history.

The matter is not taught in history class and parents are reluctant to remind their children of the pains and the hardships they endured living in an impoverished, unequal and divided society. When talking to my sibling’s children what strikes me most is that they cannot connect the present with the past, and so cannot garner sustenance and meaning from it. The old wearisome mantra of ‘accept and move on’ appears to be a global phenomenon. Yet, by opting for selective amnesia they fail to celebrate the heroes and events that shape the world they currently live in. Edmund Burke said that ‘those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it’.

This was the background towards our celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of ‘Saba Saba’. The events of that glorious July day are still fresh in my memory although I was not in Nairobi at the time. In fact, I was 1,000 kilometers away in Turkana. But the energy, hope and excitement of the audacious, defiant events of that day reverberated throughout the republic. It was a strike for freedom and democracy but one that would be resisted and demonized by the KANU propaganda and military machinery. Yet Saba Saba represented change, positive and bold demands and there was no going back. It became a unifying symbol of protest, freedom and democracy and the memory of it still warms the heart of many who lived through that era.

However, for some – the majority I guess – Saba Saba is just something from the distant past that they have limited knowledge about. The anniversary, then, offers an opportunity to provide a little history on the freedom struggle in Kenya. Realising that most of our team at Haki Yetu in Mombasa were just infants or toddlers in 1990, they had to be the first pupils and researchers and eventually the teachers.

Saba Saba was a street event, so its commemoration appropriately should take place on the streets. Demonstrations were forbidden due to COVID19 restrictions. However, that just provided the impetus for other creative initiatives to mark the day. At Haki Yetu we decided to do a ‘Picha Mtaani’ and to do it on a busy pavement outside our offices at Star of the Sea Primary School. This particular route leads to and from the Likoni ferry so thousands of pedestrians pass that way each hour.

After unearthing photos from the archives, we enlarged them and set up the display on the roadside, while playing patriotic and freedom music. We then began engaging with the public. It was extraordinary to discover how even young people were able to identify Martin Shikuku as well as a young Jim Orengo. The team just posed a few questions to the passersby: What do you see? Remember? Recognise? Why was that day important in the history of Kenya?

The engagement provoked a lot of discussion, most of which brought us to today and the progress or lack of it that the country has made in thirty years. Even in July the focus was already on BBI. We displayed a large banner with the provocative message: ‘BBI – Liberation or Fraud?’ We also distributed brochures on Saba Saba and other contents on constitution-making and social justice today.

The display aroused interest, support and energy. It also revealed that there is very little political education done in this country. Once off protests on single issues have become a predictable response to injustices by most CSOs. These protests produce heat but usually lack substance or impact. They can also become elitist in that they don’t mobilise or engage the masses. The public just take photos of the demos and post it on their Facebook pages. That is the sad reality. CSOs can often be very disconnected from the audience that they claim to represent.

In August we returned to the same venue and added two others in Mombasa, this time with other partners. The theme this time around was the tenth anniversary of the promulgation of the Constitution on August 27th. We did a week’s event on the Constitution, including three radio talk shows on the proposed BBI and the urgency to first implement the Constitution before considering any amendments. 

Saba Saba produced a ‘constitutional moment’ that was real and had widespread support. The BBI attempts to make similar claims but appears more like a damp squib in comparison. Saba Saba took place thirty years ago. That is more than a generation ago. To those who link generations not so much to years alone as to change, that is probably two generations ago, since so much has changed in our world in three decades. Yet even with the passing of time, the message of 7 July 2020 is as clear and resounding as ever. Governments must listen to the cries and clamour for change from their citizens. If they fail to do so, people power can sweep them from power at short notice. That message is as relevant today as ever.

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