It’s a particular pleasure to read a book that is well written and interesting in its own right, but prompts thinking about issues closer to home ― to Kenya.
I recently finished The Promise of Canada: 150 Years―People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country. A distinguished writer of historical books for the non-specialist, Charlotte Gray has herself made significant contributions to Canadians’ sense of themselves and their country, through earlier books, and now this 2016 one.
Gray chooses to concentrate on individuals rather than events, and not on the biggest and the political names with the most obvious impacts. Not that they could be nonentities, of course; some were definitely large characters, and all strong characters. And each had at least one big idea, about what Canada was, is, or might be.
THE IDEAS AND THE PEOPLE
The artist, Emily Carr, did not paint subjects emulating European scenes. She evoked what was there, and indeed what had been there before white people came – people who did not want to recognize that they had come to somewhere that had a history and people before them. She acknowledged the existence, the art and the culture of indigenous peoples. And she painted the landscape as it was. She did it in a modern (at the time) style. By the way, you can see many of her paintings at https://www.wikiart.org/en/emily-carr.
The academic, Harold Innis, studied in great detail the geography and the economic development of Canada, including the fascinating connections between European fashion, beavers, westward expansion in Canada, and even why it remained British, not becoming part of the United States.
And the novelist, Margaret Atwood, still writing, not only contributes to a sense of Canadianness by her own writing, but studied the phenomenon of Canadian literature, making people aware that there was such a thing.
There were, of course, political ideas. A founding one was Canadian federalism ― if different parts, including French Canadians, were to unite as one country, they could not all be subject to one government responsible for everything. They needed autonomy. If Quebec had not been able to use its own language, protect its own identity, and make its own decisions on many things, Canada would not have held together. Indeed, it would not have got together.
The idea that a government had a responsibility to take care of its people has become an important part of Canada’s self-image. The main architect of, first, the Saskatchewan provincial welfare system, eventually emulated nationally, was Tommy Douglas, provincial premier.
A greater awareness of the existence and rights of indigenous Canadians (though still imperfect) is owed in part to the First Nation politician Elijah Harper. And a greater respect for the rights of everyone owed to the country’s adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Gray does not focus on its political mover godfather, Pierre Trudeau, but on the first woman Supreme Court Judge, a passionate supporter of human rights, on and off the bench.
Even the famous Royal Canadian Mounted Police was an idea and an institution that shaped a sense of nationhood. And the same was true ― though not a focus of Gray’s book ― of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
SHAPING A NATION
This made me think about who, and what ideas, shape a nation. Fighting (and preferably winning) wars against ‘foreign enemies’ is one, but not to be planned for – and hopefully to be avoided. Artists, novelists and poets, academics and other thinkers are prominent in this book. Clearly engineers and architects (think Eiffel Tower), composers, and performers have identified, or even added to, nations’ ideas of themselves. Comedians and cartoonists, playwrights and filmmakers reflect, and to some extent create, national characteristics and peculiarities. Even food and crafts play their part.
In the modern world, it is perhaps both easier and more difficult. But in a globalised, post-book world, ideas can spread, but are far more ephemeral, and less thoughtfully generated. People may know more about the rest of the world than about their own countries.
HOW ABOUT KENYA?
Independence should have been a nation-creating process, not a moment. The chance was lost in the looting and grabbing and ethnocentricity that began all too soon. It was lost in Sessional Paper 10 of 1965 that focussed development in the centre of Kenya, excluding its periphery. It was lost in the ‘Shifta War’ and the Wagalla massacre.
Kenya was born from a railway. Not built for Kenya’s benefit, but still a unifying factor. But it was allowed to die, perhaps so that it could be replaced by a project promising great looting chances to some, and the unifying potential of which is yet to be realised. Even LAPSSET could have unifying impacts, but with destructive ones for some communities.
Can a deeply unequal society (like Kenya) ever develop a sense of being “us”? If people cannot read, or take no pleasure in reading, and cannot afford so much as a newspaper, how does the written word stand any chance of contributing to the promise of Kenya? How can education unite a nation when people who can afford it buy themselves out of the national system?
Probably one needs a long period of hindsight to judge what has shaped a country. In retrospect will Wangari Maathai, our first Nobel Prize winner, who showed that individuals can stand up to power and sometimes win, that power is not necessarily right, and environment is crucial, prove to have been important? How about Willy Mutunga, with a vision of justice for all, or creatives like Ngugi wa Thingo’o. Juliani and Sebastian Kiarie who ‘tell it like it is’ – or was? Maybe even one of Uhuru’s Big Four?
Politicians and government do have a role, and can also stand in the way. We have a national theatre building, but very little national theatre as such. We have no national art gallery. We have very few public libraries. But do people use them to expand their minds or just to do schoolwork? Does schoolwork expand their minds? If the new curriculum focus is on English, mathematics and science (and grudgingly Kiswahili), under-playing history and economics, for example, how can it increase a sense of Kenyanness? Our nascent film industry will not help build Kenya, if films are allowed to be shown overseas only.
We need more university and other research that speaks to the Kenyan situation.
KENYA’S BIG IDEA
As we mark the 8th anniversary of the Constitution, we are reminded that this is one Big National Idea. It is astonishing how many people in Kenya are aware of the Constitution. Very many have little idea of its contents, though many have a general sense that somehow it is being ignored or positively violated.
Those who made the Constitution ― and they were many (much of the nation, indeed) ― and those who now do apply it, particularly the judges, are among those who have contributed to its promise for Kenya.
The bedrock of the Constitution is perhaps a pair of big ideas: The sovereignty of the people, and the dignity of all the people.
It enshrines, in some way, all the ideas that Charlotte Gray discusses that are of a political nature: A union of people with a variety of cultural and linguistic traditions, a society with communities with different lifestyles that have been pushed to the sidelines, such as pastoralists and forest peoples, and a Bill of Rights that requires respect for all, freedom to disagree, to make one’s own choices and contribute to society in the way one can best do.
It mirrors Kenya. But it also reflects back a vision of the future. A vision in which the people, including their government, have a responsibility to protect everyone, not just with an army but through health, education, water, and housing, and protection from violence. And a vision of government that is effective, responsive, accountable and inclusive.
If reference to the Constitution is not to become empty rhetoric, we all have a responsibility to make it more than an Idea, but a reality.