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Old Glory: Why our heritage sites empty

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By WILLIAM RUTHI
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The Tom Mboya square in Nairobi is a magnet for a motley crowd every day of the week.

Photographers call out passers-by, urging them to pose for a keepsake picture by the Mboya monument.

Itinerant preachers are a common fixture here on most afternoons, their target the many people who sit on the low wall next to the monument.

At the centre, the Tom Mboya statue looms tall, towering above the daily theatre. Now and then, someone stops to look at the statue, perhaps to mull Mboya’s place in the country’s history.

Across from the monument, about 50 metres away, is the Kenya National Archives (KNA), sitting in its own glory; standing out in its Indian vernacular architecture. It is a grand building, and like most buildings of historical importance, has a lonesome face to it.

It is not cold or forbidding, but there isn’t a flurry of feet walking up the steps leading to the door.

But traffic was markedly different when the KNA held the Kenya National Archives and Documentation International Archives week, an exhibition that ran from June 3 to 7.

Hundreds of people milled in the tent pitched outside the archives to view rare pictures depicting the country’s history, formerly classified documents and other general-interest items.

The halls of the archives, usually hollow in the working week, rang with the sound of footsteps.

“It is apparent many people are not aware of what the Archives offers,” said Darmi Kadida, a records officer at the KNA.

“Someone asked me how much we charge at the gate, and was shocked when I told him (Sh50 for Kenyan citizens, Sh200 for foreigners). He thought it was much more than that.”

Historians and noted anthropologists have over the years decried the lack of interest in the country’s history among the general population.

One of the goals the week-long exhibition hoped to achieve was to try and pique the interest of Kenyans in their country’s history; to offer an invite to the general population.

Like the Archives, many other depositories of history around the country are not living up to their capacity and potential.

The Nyeri branch of the National Museums of Kenya sits in the midst of history.

Within the well-groomed lawns behind Ruring’u Stadium, outside Nyeri Town, is the Mau Mau Veterans office; and across the road, down by a scattering of trees, is a spot of land where in 1952 hundreds of men and women gathered to declare war on British rule – an event that birthed the Mau Mau militant uprising.

A stone obelisk commemorates the momentous occasion and its aftermath.

The halls of the museums and the spacious picture gallery carry precious items, from homemade guns used by Mau Mau fighters to a haunting register of those in the old Nyeri district killed by the British, as well as traditional work tools.

The walls in the gallery showcase pictures marking important moments in Kenya’s history.

But, you wouldn’t know any of that unless you were actively looking. There isn’t any signage announcing the presence of the museum.

This would explain the spare entries in the guest log — about four visitors a day most weekdays, though there is no entry charge for visitors.

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Kelvin Mwangi remembers discovering the Nyeri Museums while a student at Dedan Kimathi University in Nyeri.

“A friend had told me about the collection, the place,” he says. “I was surprised; I had no idea.”

In 2014, Murang’a Governor Mwangi wa Iria announced an ambitious plan to rehabilitate the Mukurwe wa Nyagathanga shrine, the alleged origin of the Gikuyu people, at Gaturi in Murang’a.

Once a thriving tourist site in the 90s, the shrine had fallen on hard times, neglected by the defunct Murang’a town council and abandoned by the National Museums of Kenya, under whose mandate heritage sites fall.

The pledge by the county leadership appears to have been written in the wind.

The website of the Murang’a County government breezily announces the Mukurwe shrine as a top tourist consideration.

The boilerplate-styled description reads in part: “This is the ancestral home of Gikuyu and Mumbi … and as such, rich cultural and spiritual heritage imaginations are told making it a pilgrimage destination.”

In 2017, the Nation carried a story about the state of the Mukurwe shrine. At the time, the local community had taken charge of the site, including gate collection.

Shortly after the story was published, an official from the National Museums of Kenya, wrote, saying that the institution had noted the concern.

A recent visit to the shrine revealed that little has changed. In the sloping weed-festooned compound sit 10 huts — they represent the daughters of Gikuyu and Mumbi.

They are squalid, the only sign of life the messages scrawled on the walls in charcoal and chalk by past visitors.

Margaret Mukami is one of the community women who works as a tour guide, and is also a part of a dance troupe that provides entertainment at a fee.

When she talks about the shrine, her eyes sparkle. She wishes things were better, that the place received more attention. The gate charge for adults is Sh100.

Revival? It is the day before the Archives exhibition week closes and the tent is full. A young man moves in the crowd, pointing out the pictures.

He is slightly tippled but coherent, and he knows a good deal about the people staring from the walls. He is a volunteer guide, he explains.

He has been to the Archives before and loved it and thinks that everyone should go. It is not always this busy, he says.

Outside in the afternoon sun, Tom Mboya’s statue stands, as always. But as the young volunteer said, it is not always the same, not today.

Seen from a certain angle so that Mboya’s likeness looks out dead into the door of the Archives building, Mboya seems to ask the people sitting around and those at the statue to go discover history.

With the sweep of his outstretched hand, he appears to summon everyone: if you walk into the door you might just find something.

He could be speaking to the collective in all the places rich in history that are empty.





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