Monuments and their historical importance

The War Memorial Monument along Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • While Kenya was still a British colony at the time, historians argue that Kenyans were forced to take part in a war that they had nothing to do with.
  • Humans have practised iconoclasm from as early as 1250BC, when monuments and statues were torn down for either religious or political reasons.

"If you fight for your country, even if you die, your sons will remember your name,” reads the last part of the inscription on the War Memorial Monument along Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi.

This monument and its three statues commemorate “the native African troops who fought; to the carriers who were the hands and feet of the army and to all other men who served and died for their king and country” during World War One between 1914 and 1918.

Ironically, though, the names and designations of the three were conveniently omitted, making the structure the subject of historical controversy since its design in 1924 by British sculptor James Alexander Stevenson.

Opposite the monument stands a 15ft obelisk, with the words: “To Our Glorious Dead”. This too is for the memory of the casualties of war. The figures 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 depict the beginning and end of World War One and Two, where thousands of East Africans perished.

While Kenya was still a British colony at the time, historians argue that Kenyans were forced to take part in a war that they had nothing to do with.

From the controversial to the generally accepted and some outright offensive, Kenya has no shortage of statues and monuments. These dot the country’s landscape, immortalising figures such as politician Tom Mboya and environmentalist Wangari Mathai, who helped shape Kenya’s political and sociocultural trajectory during different eras.

Upon attaining Independence in 1963, the statues of imperial figures such as Lord Delamere and monarchs King George V (erected in 1945) and King George VI (erected in 1957) were quickly pulled down to avoid offending the sensibilities of the Kenyan people.

Queen Victoria of England

Until 2015 when the figurine of Queen Victoria of England was pulled down, it had watched over Jevanjee Gardens for more than 109 years since its unveiling in 1906 by the Duke and Duchess of Connaught.

Interestingly, while some of these colonial spectacles have graced Nairobi for decades, nearly 60 years after independence, statues of national heroes such as Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi were not erected until 13 years ago.

According to Prof Paul Zeleza, a historian and Vice Chancellor of the United States International University (USIU-Africa), this belated recognition stems from the lack of a "nationalistic consensus" on the liberation struggle in post-Independence Kenya. He notes that the actors, players and dynamics of the freedom struggle in Kenya are all disputed.

"The role of the Mau Mau movement, for instance, in the decolonisation of the country is contested. There’s also serious contestation around the contribution of different ethnic groups and regions in the decolonisation process,” Prof Zeleza argues.

Prof Zeleza explains that key players in a country, namely the state, often create public imagination, and in so doing, dictate which statues and monuments are constructed.

But just what’s in a statue? How much significance does it hold? In what ways does it define a society? Does its destruction imply anything?

Professor Zeleza says that whoever erects a statue or monument, when they construct it, why and where it’s placed determines how it defines the society. He notes that it’s by no accident that statues are placed along avenues, outside public institutions and other areas of public engagement.

‘‘They are placed there so that they can continue to enforce a certain socioeconomic and political order and to celebrate the individuals who upheld such ideas,’’ Prof Zeleza explains.

"Often, they’re a reminder of who has power in that society and who doesn’t," he adds.

Prof Zeleza argues that by demolishing monuments and statues, the American society is re-examining its past, noting that there’s a dynamic relationship between a society’s past, present and future.

Public memory

"Monuments and statues are part of the public memory. There’s often serious contestation about the individuals, institutions and realities surrounding the creation of such structures."

Having them perpetuates the legacy of "an unsavoury past", he notes. It also undervalues populations that may have been undermined, dehumanised and oppressed by the figures represented by the edifices, and their ideologies.

"Pulling them down is a powerful statement of rebuke against imperialism, for instance, and a call for inclusivity," he observes.

As a historian, Prof Zeleza says he is not surprised by events around the world where statues have been toppled. He, however, insists that Africans cannot be excited by the fight against racial subjugation elsewhere in the world while following these events merely as observers “as though this isn’t part of our own history”.

He says colonial monuments and statues in Africa should be removed, placed in museums, contexualised and captioned.

While knocking down statues is an important part of any liberation struggle, Prof Zeleza emphasises that legacies of oppression are much broader and deeper. “In most societies, the historical text, for instance, had excluded the voice and experiences of women and, therefore, the gender impact in the realities of these societies," he says.

Called iconoclasm

He adds: "Removing the statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, for example, doesn’t end white supremacy and racism in South Africa."

But is destruction of statues and monuments, called iconoclasm, a new phenomenon? Hardly, notes American historian Erin Thomson, who is also professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Humans have practised iconoclasm from as early as 1250BC, when monuments and statues were torn down for either religious or political reasons.

The Hebrew Bible narrates that when the Israelites were preparing to enter the Promised Land of Canaan, God instructed them to "destroy all engraved stones, destroy all molded images, and demolish all high places" of the indigenous Canaanites.

Much later, in 400BC, King Asa of Judah ordered the destruction of idols, including ‘the disgusting idol of the goddess Asherah", in Judah, Benjamin and in the captured town of Ephraim, according to the book of 2nd Chronicles.

Throughout human civilisation, from Egypt to Athens and Rome, Christian zealots have toppled statues for religious, and sometimes materialistic, reasons in what is called "Christian vandalism".

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