Kenya28Feb: Power of the Symbolic

On the morning of 12 December 1963, Kisoi Munyao, like many of his fellow countrymen and women, had things to do. Getting ready for independence was hard work and Munyao along with many other Kenyans had been busy preparing for this day, which had finally come.

For Munyao, however, while the day was about celebration, it was also a day for very hard work. While the rest of the country prepared for its Jamhuri party he prepared to complete the final ascent up Mount Kenya so that he could plant the new flag of his newly independent country on the highest peak of its land.

Kisoi Munyao, it seems, understood the importance of symbolic gestures. Did raising the Kenyan flag on Mount Kenya make Kenya any more independent than if he hadn’t bothered? Probably not! If he had not raised the flag on Mount Kenya would Kenya have been any less independent? Probably not! Does this mean that his actions have no value? In my book, his actions are extremely valuable for a variety of reasons.

By raising the flag of the new republic of Kenya on Mount Kenya on the day of independence Munyao was proclaiming ownership of Kenya for Kenyans. He was laying down a marker, he was claiming the land, as it seems. A symbolic gesture, yes, but one with power.

In February last year together with some friends we launched Kenya28Feb. The idea was simple, at 1pm EAT on the 28th of February we would urge as many Kenyans as we could to congregate and sing all three stanzas of our National Anthem. It did not matter where you were, who you were, what you were doing, for those 3 minutes, stop, sing the national anthem and then continue with your day.

Why did we do this and why do we think it is a good idea? We felt that as Kenyans we spend too much time discussing what divides us rather than what unites us. We spend a lot of time highlighting our differences rather than sharing what brings us together. We wanted a participatory positive action, one that any Kenyan could take part in equally, regardless of socio economic status, tribe, location, race, gender, and age. Beyond participation we wanted an action that demonstrated as a country there is more that unites us than divides us. We wanted a positive action that demonstrated ownership. For far to long the symbols of our country have been inaccessible to ordinary Kenyans. I remember being shocked as a teenager to find out that I am not allowed to fly the national flag on a flagpole outside our house. I was equally shocked to learn then that only senior government officials are allowed to fly the national flag on their cars. Our 2nd president in his intellectual insecurities took our national pledge and turned it into a joke. As Kenyans it is very important that we reclaim these symbols as a step in helping us create and establish our identity as a country.

So did Kenya28Feb in 2011 work? More than we imagined! Supermarkets countrywide turned off their tills, played the National Anthem over their PA systems as shoppers and staff stood together and sang, TV and radio stations interrupted their normal programming and played the National Anthem, Kenyans gathered at places of worship, at bus stops, in parks, in schools, in offices, in shopping malls, at roadsides, in technology labs, in government offices and sang. Kenyans in the Diaspora woke up early, went to bed late so they could sing at 1PM EAT. And perhaps even more important all these actions started a debate on what our identity as Kenyans really is and what counts as effective action.

This year we ask you again to partner with us to Sing and Unite! On the 28th of February 2012 at 1pm EAT get together with at least one other Kenyan and sing all three stanzas of our national anthem, in Kiswahili or in English as a demonstration of unity. 1pm, 1 nation, 1 people, 1 anthem, united in 1 prayer for 1 Kenya.

Inevitably some will find the whole idea of a symbolic gesture distasteful. They will say that instead of singing the anthem you should write a strategic plan on how to repair our crumbling roads, that perhaps you should go out and plant trees instead, or maybe they’ll tell you to stop wasting time singing and instead draw a plan to feed and house IDPs. These are all worthy causes, without a doubt. Yet it is ridiculous to say that celebrating Kenya for 3 minutes stops us from working on those causes. As Kenyans we should be constantly engaged in our communities, constantly working to provide solutions to the problems we see around us in our society. My friends who initiated Kenya28Feb are good examples of this, in media, in film, in design, in the arts, in music, in civic society, in technology, in sports, in our companies, in our NGOs, in our foundations, we are constantly engaged with our community and I know most of you are too. So when someone tells you that you should use your time to build the country instead of singing the National Anthem tell them that you are already building the country and singing in an extension of that and then invite them to join you on the 28th!

For those who tell you that symbolic gestures are never important, remind them of Kisoi Munyao, walking up that mountain while the rest of the country partied. Remind them how he demonstrated his love and ownership for his newly independent country in a symbolic gesture. Then invite them to take ownership of our anthem and our nation together with you.

For more information check out 28feb.co.ke

28 February 2012. 1 pm, 1 nation, 1 people, 1 anthem, united in 1 prayer for 1 Kenya. Sing and Unite!

Edit 1: I misspelt Munyao – Thanks Shiko for catching that.

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  1. […] rallied Kenyans to sing our National Anthem collectively. I have written before on the power of the symbolic collective singing of our anthem and on some of the reasons different groups of people sang today. Today I’d like to share my […]

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