By Dikembe Disembe
What constitutes iconic photographs?
This year, together with other Kenyan students, I had an opportunity to visit, albeit for the shortest time, the United States of America. When the tour ended and I took the next plane back home, relived somehow, I sat in between an elderly couple.
Soon we were in a heated conversation during which the woman told me she was in the same class with our own Hillary Ng’weno and the man informed me he had been in Liberia when our own Gen Opande was searching for an elusive peace in that war torn country.
The man, a frenchman, as it turned out, was a retired former Assistant Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations. Between Dulles in Washington DC and Schipol, we pendulumed back and forth on so many international issues affecting Africa, Europe, USA and the little historical tidbits which make international politics such a confusing, contradictory and confounding affair.
Of course the man knew we had an election in March where we elected two suspects of internationally acclaimed heinous crimes. Of course he was aware of Raila Odinga. I cannot, however, vouch for Musalia Mudavadi – a relic of political history!
Then, as a by-the-way, Â he told me something about Barack Obama and an evolving US politics.
Up until 2008, white America did not imagine a black man could be resident of the White House. Even when Obama delivered his victory speech where he told the still doubting Thomases at home and abroad that ‘America is a place where all things are possible’, the white house still lived in the era where all things meant all white things.
In the oval office where the son of a white woman and black (kenyan) man would henceforth dispense the affairs of men under oath, a large portrait of Sir Winston Churchill rested side by side with other American heroes, including founder of the nation George Washington and savior of democracy, Abraham Lincoln.
Obama had a little historical issue to sort with Sir Churchil. Ironically, the ‘beef’ had everything to do with Kenya. Here was the man whose soldiers terrorised his father’s country, whose gulag massacred many and sent able men and women into concentration camps. Whose country exploited the vast mineral resources of his fatherland and, as he often said, whose own grandfather was condemned to work as a houseboy for some colonial master.
Despite his lighter skin, Obama entered the white man’s white house a very black president. The white house story ends when Obama insists Churchill’s photograph must be far in the hallway, not where he will constantly have Â to contend with his own forebearer’s colonial master listening to his every silent conversation whenever ‘issues of men’ get mused over.
Whether the story is factual or imagined I do not know. What is true is that it was told to me and I have told it to you. So why did I have to tell you the story?
When oxford dictionary elevated selfie as the 2013 word of the year, technology bore history, yet it is precisely for the same reason that 21st century politicians ought to Â be mindful of the legacies they wish to bequeath to the future.
Milibank, a columnist with the Washington Post recently accused President Obama’s White House photo policy as smacking of propaganda. To Milibank, a practice in the white house of altering photos (removing what may be a classified information captured by the cameraman) or releasing photos which show the president in the most flattering way, all cheated history in some way.
Even more egregious the fact that most of the photos are taken by in-house staffers.
Reading Milibank’s thoughts, it occurred to me that even here at home, president Uhuru Kenyatta has perfected this same Obama photo propaganda to levels where State House has literally replaced independent photo journalists with its in house photo staff – the Itumbis of this country.
In essence, Uhuru’s photographs are nothing beyond the Facebook page of our president. The photographs are just but mugshots of presidential selfies taken with the sole aim of feeding a frenzied social media audience with the everyday nuances of the most powerful office in Kenya.
May be, our president is an Emersonian transcendentalist who want history to remember him as the man who meticulously journaled his life for his time only. In each of those photos, the message seem to be: “I was here, head of this country, at this point in time”. Often, they only play into people’s emotions of sympathy and empathy for a man also facing Â nationalised, Africanised personal challenge. At best, they tell of a presidency on trial.
But for future history, your current president’s photographs will be condemned in the same pit with the supreme court ruling of Willy Mutunga – because they serve no purpose other than the few moments that they awed the people.
The presidency, as I have argued in numerous instances, is a living institution. The presidency is perpetual so long as the state still exists as the highest form of human civilization. To add no worthwhile image to the presidency is to cheat history – and yes, such pathological lies smacks of propaganda!
Dikembe Disembe debates ethnic, academic and political issues in Kenya.