Saturday, March 10, 2012

Official History in Nairobi

Last Sunday I realised that I had never visited the National Museum.  The first time I was here it was closed for renovation, and it hadn’t crossed my mind since.  It seemed like a Sunday morning might not be a bad time to go, since everyone else in the city, along with their mother’s fourth cousins, seemed to have descended on the YMCA to sing hymns at an impressive volume.  So I wandered just down the road towards Chiromo until I reached the turn-off up Museum Hill Road.  You’d never guess that the country’s prize museum was up this road because the tarmac was torn up for some construction project and there were no signs.  The road up to the museum crosses the Nairobi River, where people were doing their laundry, turning bits of the river a milky white.

The Museum entryway is quite impressively modern, and blends nicely enough into the older, colonial-era building.  There were only a couple of other people around, and so I was snatched up by a guide who would escort me through the various sections on biodiversity, cultural heritage, history and birds (why birds get a separate section I wasn’t clear, but I like birds so I had nothing against the decision).  The guides offer their services for free (plus a tip), as they’re on some kind of placement through the government.  Mine was a high-school aged student who said that he’d later be joining a college in Mombasa to do some sort of course in tourism.

He asked what brought me to Kenya.  I said that I studied East African history.  He looked at me, nonplussed for only a moment, and then he launched into his spiel, not in the least bit altered for my benefit.  And so I ‘learned’ that Kenya is a country of great diversity, that it has, in fact, 42 tribes.  And that it was colonised by the British, but that its first African President was Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.  And that it is a country of great geographical diversity, in addition to being the cradle of mankind.  And did I know, he wondered, that Kenya was home to a great many interesting wild animals?  I allowed that I might have heard something about the animals...

Once or twice he got a date or chain of events wrong, but I didn’t have the heart to call him on it, and the exhibits were reasonably well-done.  On the whole, his performance was impressive.  What was most interesting was to see how the casual visitor would have been exposed to Kenya’s history.  The presentation of exhibits was, unfortunately, less than impressive.  We jumped from a detailed exposition on the early hominid discoveries up to something called the ‘pre-colonial’, where people lived, it was suggested, a relatively unchanging sort of existence (the exception being an interactive, lighted map that showed the migration of various linguistic families into Kenya, sans dates or any mention of technology or ways of life).  No dates, no names; just some anthropological photos showing various ‘tribal peoples’ doing their thing.

Then came the Big, Bad British.  They were a nasty bunch, and brutally colonised the country.  The exhibits named and shamed a few of the more egregious specimens (Lugard, Meinertzhagen), and discussed some examples of colonial abuse (the kipande, the Harry Thuku Massacre), but didn’t discuss how colonial rule unfolded, what it looked like on the ground, or how it lay the groundwork for much of Kenya’s contemporary government.

The post-independence section was probably the most surreal.  There were photos of the presidents, of the men who everybody assumes the presidents had killed (Mboya, Kariuki, Pinto, Ouko), and the man who never quite got to be president (Oginga Odinga).  Both the exhibitions and the guide were fairly frank about the failure of post-independence governments.  There was a photo and caption describing Moi’s torture chambers, so the excesses of Kenya’s second president are not exactly state secrets.  Yet the man continues to reside in his fancy residence beside the French Ambassador, and recently endorsed Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidential bid, perhaps offering Kenyatta (who stands accused at the ICC of playing a key role in the violence that followed the 2007 election) some advice about impunity (Moi has since recanted the endorsement, suggesting that he was misunderstood). 
There was a rather hopeful and forlorn-looking diagram of a model city, some paintings by contemporary artists and (rather strangely) a Mexican painter, and then we were in the bird room, where I inspected each specimen with the greatest care before sending my guide off to inflict this rapid tepid version of Kenya’s history on the next guest.

I left the museum building, declined to enter the Snake Park which sits on the same grounds, and then wandered around the garden which slopes down to the Nairobi River.  You can peer at the river and the neighbourhoods on the other side across razor wire-topped fences.  The grounds were peaceful and unpopulated, and from them the downtown area was visible, rearing up above the dustier neighbourhoods out towards Ngar and Murang’a Roads.  It was a warm day, and so there was not much birdlife out, but I’d been told that in the right conditions you can find quite a few species in the considerable museum grounds.  I saw a couple of turacaos and a sunbird, and then beat a retreat to the shade of the YMCA patio in search of a nice cup of milky, sugary tea and a mandazi (it was Sunday, so I felt entitled to splurge).

The ‘Sunday Shouting’ (as another secular, long-term resident terms the day’s festivities) hadn’t subsided, but I had a Jo Nesbo novel that was sufficiently distracting that it all faded into the background.

1 comment:

  1. so do they deal with mau-mau at all?

    you know, it's interesting, the rwandan national museum actually does a pretty good job with pre-colonial history (there's actually a separate pre-colonial musum in nyanza), except for the fact that it's a very oversimplified narrative that's told within the context of contemporary politics. but i think there are always the pitfalls of the "precolonial," this idea that we lump everything from the end of prehistory until the 19th century into one really essentialized and objective narrative.