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Jamhuri Day: Building the (Kenyan) Nation

December 23, 2010

I had the pleasure of speaking at this year’s Jamhuri (Independence) Day celebrations for Kenyans across California.  The event was put together by the Harambee Foundation, which was “founded by Kenyan migrant residents in Northern California to create a cornerstone for the Kenyan community  that would serve  to bring about a sense of unity in times of emergencies and celebration alike.”

It was a tremendous honor to share the stage with the Consul-General Amb. Dr. Wenwa Akinyi Odinga Oranga, her Deputy Mrs. Jane Miano Mugweh and the Hon. Minister for Health Services Dr. Anyang’ Nyong’o.

My speech focused on Kenya’s need to transition from a state to a nation:

I made the contention that while A Nation is people who are believed to or deemed to share common customs, origins, and history, the term state refers to the set of governing and supportive institutions that have sovereignty over a definite territory and population.

In 1963 Kenya took on the instruments of statehood but the journey to nationhood is ongoing.

The colonial project deployed ‘divide and rule’ to construct Kenya’s ethnic groups as separate nations.  That colonial hangover lingers today and the challenge of the second republic is to build not just institutions but a public culture that can help us overcome our ethnic enclaves.

While the stipulations of the new constitution lay a legal framework upon which we can work on building the Kenyan nation, it is up to individual Kenyans to act and breath real life into the nation.

I offered concrete actions that Kenyans, particularly Kenyans in the diaspora, can take:

1. Stop talking crap.  How many times do we out in the diaspora participate in the besmirching of our country’s image by choosing to share only the negative?  From lies that help us get the coveted legal papers so we can stay abroad, to allowing ourselves to be deployed by dubious charities as examples of Africans who have escaped the hell hole that is the continent.

My point is not that we shouldn’t tell the truth about the challenges Kenya faces, but rather we should tell the whole truth.  We need to break beyond telling and reconfirming only the single story of Africa. We should also be talking about Ushahidi, Kencall, Akirachix, and all the other incredible innovations and businesses and growth happening in Kenya!

2. Expand your idea of ‘watu wetu’ (our people) to include Kenyans from beyond your ethnic community.  Part of building a nation is expanding our reach and hugging those who the colonial and post-colonial madness has taught us to hate.  There is precedent for expanding our circle, in most Kenyan communities the family unit is not the nuclear one but rather is constructed to include all manner of ‘strangers’ and ‘others’.  I argue that building the Kenyan nation calls for us to push our limits even further s as to include members of other ethnic communities as part of the circle of ‘watu wetu’.

3. The most efficient and effective way to expand the meaning of ‘watu wetu’ is to invest in young people.  Acknowledging the tremendous wealth transfer from the Diaspora to Kenya, and that much of the money goes to pay for loved ones’ school fees, I challenged the audience to move beyond paying school fees for a child within their family and extend that same generosity to a child from a different part of the country.  Take the time to travel out of your home community, go to a local high school and ask for a list of children who are on the verge of dropping out of school for lack of school fees.  Make a dent in that debt then walk away.  Its not about getting thanked. Its about having the privilege to give.

Building a nation is not about the grand actions, it is about the small selfless acts by individuals that accumulate and eventually change the way we relate to each other.

We need to invest in each other and in our collective future.  That is how to breath life into the nation and build on the promises of the new constitution.

Harambee Foundation Jamhuri Day Celebration

Saturday December 11, 2010


Welcome Guests onies

  • Edwin Okong’o, Master of Ceremonies
  • Kenyan National Anthem
  • Mr. Johnson Mbugua, Harambee Chairman.

Immigrant Rights Panel

  • Mr. Samuel Maina Ouya, Immigration attorney.
  • Adoubou Traore, African Advocacy Network.

The Second Republic: Explaining Kenya’s New Constitution

  • Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, University of San Francisco.
  • Amb. Dr. Wenwa Akinyi Odinga Oranga, Consul General, Kenyan Consulate, Los Angeles.
  • Hon. Dr. Anyang’ Nyong’o, Minister for Medical Services, Govt. of Kenya.

Closing Remarks Vote of Thanks

  • Professor Teresia Hinga, Santa Clara University.

Dance! Dance! Dance!

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 25, 2010 7:59 AM

    Valuable remarks, Wanjiru! I can’t tell you how often, as I try to recruit volunteers for my NGO’s visits to Tanzania, I run into Americans who are frightened, or frightened for their teenage children, to travel to Africa. But I intend no criticism of such people since my own first journey to Tanzania nearly four years ago made me apprehensive, as well. A blizzard of disturbing images of the Dark Continent—an unfashionable yet still decisive sobriquet—blocks the perception of its complex reality, and one surely must sympathize with anybody who chooses not to brave the storm. It makes sense that diaspora Kenyans and other Africans can play a crucial role in changing the disturbing images and in finding other ways to improve the reality, so I thank you for your comments.

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