By Dikembe Disembe
What sin did Jaramogi Oginga Odinga commit which makes him stand or sit somewhere in the capital of the Republic? How can we atone for it? Which god should we ask for forgiveness?
Today, Nairobi County Assembly will among other things discuss the naming of streets within the city county. When the debate comes up, I would wish someone conscious of the history of our country will go back to the single question which disturbs every student of public history especially with regard to public spaces.
Where is Jaramogi Oginga Odinga in Nairobi? Not a road, not even a lane. To ask for a statue, like that of Kenyatta, or Kimathi, or Mboya will be to ask for trouble. But why the determination, half a century later, to keep one of the greatest sons of the soil away from public consciousness?
There are roads and streets in the streets of Nairobi that carry the names of people whose contribution to both pre-independence and post-independence struggle are blurred and cannot be conjectured that easily. The central business district of Nairobi has streets connecting one family member to another; a wife to the husband through the son.
There are names of other places, including Monrovia, Elgeyo Marakwet, Ugunja, etc dotting the city’s streets, roads, highways and avenues. There is even a road named after Mogadishu.
It was journalistÂ David Lamb who first effusively captured how political elites in post-independent Africa twisted the histories of their countries by overly immortalising one group of public figures while at the same time erasing the contribution of others from public memory – effectively sending them to museums of cognitive oblivion.
In observing Central African Republic (now completely destroyed by murderous rebels seeking economic emancipation) on the occasion of the coronation of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a ruthless and bloody megalomaniac obsessed with Napoleon Bonaparte exploits, as ”Emperor” (a title he upgraded from his already bloated egoistic designation as ”President for Life”), Lamb noted, â€œBokassa entered the Bokasa Sports Stadium which was next to Bokassa University on Bokassa Avenue a stone throw from The Bokassa Statue.â€
The extravagance of the auspicious occasion sent the country straight into bankruptcy!
A repeat of this, laced in its own shameless humour, happened here. In 2013, Â a parliamentary reporter, observing President Uhuru Kenyatta’s diary, wrote:
â€œIn April this year, Uhuru Kenyatta addressed parliament, where Jomo Kenyatta was buried, opposite the Kenyatta International Conference Center, a stone throw from the Kenyatta statue (at KICC), meters away from Kenyatta Avenue which is next to mama ngina kenyatta street and exactly one kilometer to the Jomo Kenyatta Memorial library. Thereafter, Mr Kenyattaâ€™s motorcade headed to Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) after a brief stopover at Kenyatta University where he gave away several thousand shilling notes bearing Kenyattaâ€™s picture before proceeding…â€
Wafula Buke, a long-suffering detainee under Moi regime, agrees with Lamb when it comes to immortalization. He questions the wisdom of having Kenyatta’s grave right inside parliament, in addition to the many roads, highways, universities, airports, public beaches and resting parks already named after the President.
To him, it is a ‘historical anomaly’, something akin to rigging the public’s understanding of the past.
“Are these acts of generosity from Kenyans to deserving historical personalities or desperate attempts to fill moral voids and build cultism?” Buke asks.
“Historical events and their protagonists leave impact on later generations in ways that call on us to exercise maximum care on what and how we immortalize historical occurrences. That Jomo Kenyatta was buried in Parliament when two of its members, Martin Shikuku and Jean Marie Seroney were in detention on his orders demystifies the lie that he deserved parliamentary space for burial. It will be recalled that the late Martin Shikuku after release from detention led a campaign to get the remains of Kenyatta transferred to Gatudu without success. As parliament continues extending constructions towards Kenyattaâ€™s grave, one canâ€™t resist reflecting on the value of Shikukuâ€™s campaign for the transfer of Kenyattaâ€™s remains to a ‘fitting site’…”
It is with this background that the debate by Nairobi County Assembly members, the law making body of the city county of of Nairobi, will have to dig deep into the history leading to the capital city having to everyday live with Â names of places and people less significant, or insignificant at allÂ in the struggle against colonialism, struggle after colonialism and the continuing struggle to define the place of Kenya in the democratic family of nations.
For me, the political question at the heart of the city’s public nomenclature is unanswered so long as Jaramogi Oginga Odinga is neither standing nor sitting in some busy corner of the city.