Kenya National Achieves

The Kenya National Achieves building in Nairobi. 

| Salaton Njau | Nation Media Group

Mr President, why is our national archive still in insecure ‘River Road’?

What you need to know:

  • Archives are hard to preserve because they are delicate and some documents are brittle.
  • Having the national archives next to matatu terminus is dangerous and reckless.


Mr President, just before independence, the British carted away tonnes of documents from Kenya – while those that they couldn’t carry, and those they didn’t burn, were left in the basement of old Jogoo House. Others were scattered across various government registries or abandoned to the vagaries of nature.

Luckily, most survived, but much had been lost or remains hidden in private archives. Today, what we salvaged is housed at the Kenya National Archives. But that is only part of the story.

For the past 56 years since the Kenya National Archives was established, the monumental silence of its place in our national history is only broken by its neglect. Today, it is the only government department left on that side of Nairobi – a street away from River Road. Outside, if you have been there, hawkers, lunch time preachers, matatus hooting, and idlers add to the discomfort of doing research. It also adds to its insecurity; and that is worrying. It is good to have those random horrifying thoughts on what would happen if this building – which is left unattended at night- is targeted by terrorists.

A national archive is the soul of a country’s written history. Most archives, and due to terror threats, are secured like forts because they are seats of national memory. Perhaps due to oversight, the Critical Infrastructure Protection Unit (CIPU) that protects and safeguards national government infrastructure and vital installations is not posted here. An archive is not a place to deploy one or two policemen – and assume you have secured the facility. Nay.

Last week, during a panel discussion organised by the African Studies Association, professors Robert Maxon, Mickie Mwanzia Koster (University of Texas in Tyler) and Michael Kithinji (University of Central Arkansas) voiced similar concerns about the location of the national archives, its future, and its security. Such worries, and from historians who use the archives, should be taken seriously. I am writing this for the record.

And to understand this neglect, one has to look at Kenya National Library Services Maktaba complex, and the National Museums of Kenya which is housed in an ultra-modern facility. But why the archives remain underfunded and neglected is pure ignorance of its place, and it is time the Ministry of National Heritage and the Treasury rethink the future of archives in Kenya.

Archivists tell some horror stories and their nightmare is always on how to protect rare primary documents – the only original copies available – from a burst pipe, fires, and in some countries, floods and volcano eruptions. During my many visits to the search room, I have been fascinated looking at the original scribbled notes by the likes of Jomo Kenyatta, Mbiyu Koinange and Tom Mboya, during Cabinet meetings and a critical look at them can tell you about the nature of discussions.

When the Kenya National Archives was started, its main function was stated as “to enable the present and future generations of our people to trace the story of the nation in all its human complexity and detail.”

That dream is as important today, as it was 56 years ago.

Archives are hard to preserve because they are delicate and some of the documents are so brittle that they require professional handling.

Before Crown Paints applied a coat of paint on that building, the Kenya National Archives was an eyesore and while it remains the signature building of this country’s past – it used to be the headquarters of National Bank of India – it is also a reflection of how we respect our history and those who shaped it.

It was in October 1965 that the Public Archives Bill was first tabled in Parliament by Dr Munyua Waiyaki, then an assistant minister in the Vice-President’s Office. Whether the spirit in which that Bill was discussed still exists today is not clear from its funding. According to Dr Waiyaki, “the Public Archives…(was to) make it possible for us to demonstrate in concrete terms, not only that we have a history but also that we have a colourful history which we have every intention of recording, preserving and passing on to our children.”

It is interesting that when the Kenya National Archives was established, it was put under the ministry of Natural Resources for some curious reason. While, perhaps, it was as precious as the natural resources, the archives is a seat of knowledge and was in an odd ministry for several years. It was then moved to the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs before it being moved to Home Affairs.

One has to look at the Hansard to understand the passion with which MPs debated the setting up of a national archive – and which was also confused with preservation of other sites of memory.

What Parliament was being told was that the Public Archives was the centre of our national memory as preserved in “letters of correspondence exchanged by major or minor personalities, and reports and other documents issued periodically in the normal course of events”.

“Our task, therefore, is to select carefully those records of administration or historical significance and to preserve them…we have no intentions of approaching this task in the lukewarm and haphazard manner of past administrations,” said Dr Waiyaki.

The early intention, and Dr Waiyaki stressed this point, was to get valuable documents and papers held by private individuals and “which have been exported from the country on the quiet.” The worry, then, was that the country will lose part of its national memory if those documents disappeared. Years later, we have not been able to retrieve documents that were sent to Kew Archives in England despite Dr Waiyaki’s promise that “steps must be taken to recover all official documents which, one way or another have passed out of government custody.”

At the time, it is the records in private hands that seemed to worry MPs as they discussed this Bill. As then Gichugu MP Kimamu Gichoya put it, “Not very many people today will be in a position to relate exactly what really took place during the Emergency. So many things did take place, and we have now records in the hands of individuals and on what happened. For instance, Fenner Brockway (a British MP) had so many petitions sent by the people of Kenya ... if these letters could be brought back to us, they would be of historic importance…it has been stated that we should forget the past (but) for goodness’ sake, we cannot forget history.”

“These petitions to the Colonial Office, letters to individuals to intervene in a particular situation, letters from detainees to the British Members of Parliament are documents that can give us an idea as to what Kenya ought to be because the past and the present, in one way or another, reflect the future,” said Mr Gichoya, capturing the essence of archiving documents.

Mr Jeremiah Nyagah was the first minister in charge of the archives and he used to regard them as vital. “Without these carefully guarded leaves of paper, without those reels of jealously protected microfilms, who will be ingenious enough to know how to pass the story on to posterity?” asked Nyagah in 1969.

Mr Nyagah lamented how the colonial administration “destroyed” a lot of useful records on Kenya or “sold them” to other countries.

The buying of the Joe Murumbi Archives, artefacts, books and papers, that he had collected would supplement what was in the government registries. Recently, I narrated the fate of the plot that was owned by the National Archives in Muthaiga and which was grabbed by President Moi’s son and the Commissioner of Lands. (One day, they will have to return this three-acre plot to the people of Kenya!)

By 1969, it had been found that there was a loophole in the Public Archives Act and that traditional and cultural objects were still being exported out of Kenya.

By 1979, the Archive was not spared from the mismanagement wave that started in government departments. In 1983, the House Public Accounts Committee lamented that during the 1979/80 financial year, the Kenya National Archives was being mismanaged and that money was being spent without following the proper tender. “The money on the Kenya National Archives was mismanaged ... there was even police investigations and finally, it was found that it was not possible to trace who was actually responsible for the losses,” said Mashengu wa Mwachofi, then PAC chairperson.

Coupled with neglect and lack of funds, the National Archives building turned into a sorry state – like an abandoned structure. In 1994, my former history classmate Mohammed Shidiye asked the minister for Home Affairs and National Heritage about the plans to expand the Kenya National Archives and spruce it up.

He got a classic answer: “My ministry has already contracted a firm of architectural consultants to plan and design an appropriate building for Kenya National Archives, which they have done and provided the necessary plans. As soon as land is allocated and funds are available, the building will be put up,” said the minister, Mr Mohammed Galgalo.

Some 27 years later, those architectural plans are still at the ministry and the land has never been found. Instead, the archives land was grabbed.

And there are two things that President Kenyatta can do. Now that his government is building some facilities in Langata’s Uhuru Gardens, he should find a corner for the Kenya National Archives to sit.

In this age, having a national archive next to a busy matatu terminus is not only dangerous but reckless. Maybe it has never been brought to the President’s attention. Now, I have.

[email protected] @johnkamau1

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