It’s time to decolonise Kinyaa

Kenyan flags

A hawker sells Kenyan flags in Eldoret town, Uasin Gishu County during Jamhuri Day celebrations at Central Primary School grounds on December 12, 2019.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • We all live in a world in which many things are fake, or artificial. This includes many countries, including Kenya.
  • Kenya is both artificial and fake. It’s artificial because the British and other Europeans made it up.

Kenyans, if I can even call them that, are in love with virtually all things European. Let’s see – the English language, the Christian religion, European names often under the guise of Christianity, dress, hair and Western European education. The list is endless. It’s a twisted love affair of the cultural subservience of the enslaved to the enslaver. This mimicry, or proclivity for worshipping things European, is now part of Africa’s zeitgeist. Most Africans don’t even question it anymore. They have fully submitted to Eurocentricity. Today, I want to address an important question about Kenya’s intellectual surrender to Europe and the West. Should the country called Kenya continue to use that name? What’s Kenya’s etymology, and why cling to it?

We all live in a world in which many things are fake, or artificial. This includes many countries, including Kenya. That’s right – Kenya is both artificial and fake. It’s artificial because the British and other Europeans made it up. They did so because they could. It’s fake because as a state, it lives on the largesse of the West. Kenya is actually a state-let, not a real state. When Kenya confronts problems – which is almost always – it looks outwards, not inwards, for help. We go begging, bowl in hand. For most of Kenya’s life, the US and Europe were our default benefactors. Today, China has joined that league of paymasters. Only fake states look externally, not internally, for help.

I insist we’ve succumbed to the West because of the Original Sin of conception. That original sin includes the name “Kenya”. Naming is a stamp of ownership. That’s why you name your dog, or cat. Some people even name inanimate things like their cars. 

We name our children because they are of us, and at some level “belong” to us, although we don’t own them. But they are our charges until they become adults. That’s why naming is an act of power and authority. He, or she, who names another has power and authority over that which is named. Does Europe, or the West, still have power and authority over us? If so, why? Are we still in bondage?

Do Kenyans know why their country is called Kenya, or the Republic of Kenya? European history says German missionary Johann Ludwig Krapf, who’s described by the West as an “explorer”, coined the earliest version of the name Kenya. 

In 1844, this early German Christian imperialist was in the company of the infamous Akamba long-distance human trafficker-trader Chief Kivoi when he inquired about the name of the mountain peak ahead. 

Chief Kivoi told him the name of the mountain was Kĩ-Nyaa or Kĩĩma-Kĩĩnyaa in Kikamba because of the ostrich-like snowcap. The Agikuyu called it Kĩrĩma Kĩrĩnyaga and the Embu Kirenyaa. Mr Krapf wrote down Kenia and Kegnia. An 1882 map by Scottish geologist Joseph Thompsons named the mountain Mt Kenia.

East African Protectorate

Europeans accepted versions of the names Kenia, or Kenya as the name of the mountain. In the earlier colonial period, the country was called the East African Protectorate, not Kenia, or Kenya. It was only in 1920 that the country was officially named the Colony of Kenya. I don’t know why Kenyans didn’t change this name in 1964 at independence. If we are to stick with the name of the mountain as the name of the country, then it behoves us to at least be authentic. Kenya is what the white man called the country. Europeans named us to demonstrate their power and authority over us. The least we can do is call Kenya the “Republic of Kinyaa”. 

I know some knucklehead will argue that Kenya is already a brand and ask “what’s in a name anyway?” States and countries change their names all the time to more fully reflect who they are, or to reject imposed colonial branding. Czechoslovakia recently became the two different states – Slovakia and the Czech. 

A half of Sudan broke away and became South Sudan, a very unoriginal name. Tanganyika joined with Zanzibar to become Tanzania. The Kingdom of Kongo became Belgian Congo, Republic of Congo-Leopoldville, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zaire, Congo-Kinshasa, and Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC. If we don’t like Kenya, we can make up our own name that’s uniquely ours. Perhaps this will begin our national renaissance. 

This debate, or lack of it, reminds me why pro-colonialist Western interests and their local elites insist Myanmar is still Burma, the British name for the country. I get the outrage and the illegitimacy of the genocidal and brutal military junta that rules Myanmar. Some think calling the country Myanmar legitimises the junta. That’s silly. 

We can reject the junta, as we do, but still accept that Myanmar is the country’s historic name, not the fake English-inspired Burma. It’s not up to the West to impose names on countries and insist they remain so. For us, I urge we start by mentally liberating ourselves by dumping “Kenya”. Let’s decolonise “Kinyaa”.

Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School. He’s chair of KHRC. @makaumutua