Years ago I led a vocal delegation (consisting of my sister and myself) to the reception of Hilton Hotel, Addis Ababa to log a protest in the strongest terms possible. The hotel’s crime was to fly the Kenyan flag upside down. We refused to leave until they sent someone to sort it out. I was 10, my sister 8.
A horizontal tricolour with three major strips of equal width coloured from top to bottom black, red and green and separated by narrow white strips, with a symmetrical shield and white spears superimposed centrally.
Description of the National Flag of Kenya
A few years later, in 1997, for the 2nd edition of the Safari Sevens, my brother Bantu and I walked the streets of Nairobi trying to buy a Kenyan flag which we intended to wave while cheering our national rugby 7s team. At every shop we inquired we were met with cold stares and sometimes fearful eyes. After a while it was whispered to us that ordinary Kenyans were not allowed to own a Kenyan flag. You couldn’t just buy one. You needed special permission. Permission from whom? Nobody knew, or they weren’t telling us. The only flags openly on display and on sale (usually by the metre) were unofficial flags, without the shield and spears that make the Kenyan flag so unique, or even worse with the spear and the shield replaced with a cockerel, the symbol of the then ruling party KANU.
We learnt that only source for official national flags was THE government. Remembering we had relatives working in the Ministry of Education we made our way there to ask if we could borrow a flag for the weekend. Unfortunately for us, all the flags were “upcountry”. Probably an inexactitude designed by our relative to protect us from our mad quest to own a flag of our country.
The day after drawing a blank at the Ministry we decided to walk down the legendary Biashara Street in Nairobi again in one last attempt to secure a flag. A shop owner (who probably couldn’t believe these two young men were still wandering the streets of Nairobi trying to buy a national flag for a rugby match in the middle of a General Election year) took us to the back of his shop and sold us a flag with a stern warning not to reveal to anyone where we had gotten it. Mission accomplished.
I am not very sure where my passion for our national flag and national anthem came from, throughout school I had the flag and anthem on the wall in the dorm room (leading to some unusual nicknames) and I am lucky enough to have a very progressive and accommodating wife who allows me to have a flag in our living room.
In the run up to the Kenya General Election of 2002 something magical happened. Kenyans liberated their flag. Suddenly Kenyan flags were everywhere. On t-shirts, on hats, on stickers, on bandanas, on bicycles, on matatus. It was beautiful to watch Kenyan citizens reclaim their flag from their government. The last frontier in this fight to liberate our flag is the question of who is “allowed” to fly the flag from their cars and at their homes (in my opinion, everyone).
This hijacking of national symbols by the government is a phenomenon that needs to be explored in depth.
What I find inexcusable and extremely irritating is not only the hijacking of the flag but the disrespectful way our national institutions deal with our national flag.
Let’s start at the top. The Presidency. Everybody at Statehouse, everybody who is involved with organising national events seem indoctrinated or perhaps just intoxicated with flag worship. They love the flag. The problem is they love the wrong flag. The flag they love is the Presidential Standard. Each Kenyan president is entitled to design and fly his or her own Presidential Standard. I see nothing wrong with that and indeed it can grow into a rich part of our country’s history. What is wrong is that the Presidential Standard is treated as more important than the national flag.
The picture above, released by the Kenya Presidential Strategic Communications Unit, shows President Uhuru Kenyatta speaking. You can clearly see the Presidential Standard (in the middle) is larger and given more prominence than the Kenya National Flag on the left. Correct flag protocol is that when the national flag is displayed with non-national flags the national flag should be at the centre and at the highest point of the group when a number of flags are grouped and displayed from staffs.
Sadly, some of the perpetrators of this downgrading of the national flag are the Kenya Defence Forces. The one body that you would expect would ensure the national flag is always treated with maximum respect as it is the flag they fight under. For example, during the Presidential Inauguration of 2013, Uhuru Kenyatta’s Presidential Standard was raised by KDF while the national anthem was playing. I was shocked to see that happen. Even as 12 year old scouts (8th Nakuru Scout Troop, Buffalo Patrol if you’re interested) it was drummed into us (as it was for many other primary school students across the country) that only the national flag is raised while the national anthem was played. That song is reserved for That flag. We learnt that the national flag should never touch the ground and we learnt the correct way to fold the flag. We learnt that you should always stop and stand at attention whenever the national anthem in being played.
At some presidential events the highest flagpole is reserved for the Presidential Standard not for the national flag. At some venues they will not allow you to fly the national flag from the highest flagpole even if the president is not expected! That flagpole remains empty if he does not attend. You can fly the national flag from any other flagpole, but not the “presidential” one.
This elevation of the Head of State above the country is probably inherited from the British where their monarchy is the ultimate reference point. This needs to change.
The most obvious example of the causal way in which the Kenya Defence Forces and indeed the Kenya Police treat our flag is seen in how they fly our flag on a daily basis. For most of January 2014 at Headquarters of the Kenya’s Department of Defence (DoD) in Hurlingham, Nairobi the national flag flying next to the main gate was dirty, tattered and torn almost in half.
— Daudi Were (@mentalacrobatic) January 17, 2014
Think about that. At the Headquarters of our military they see no problem in flying a dirty, tattered and torn national flag. The sad thing is all the other flags flying at DoD were in perfect condition. (It is illegal to take photos of the DoD headquarters otherwise I’d have documented that travesty). In Police Stations across the country this is also the case, dirty, tattered and torn national flags flying.
What is the problem? Is it a lack of procurement? Problems in the supply chain? Or is it not seen as a priority or even important?
Please note, this is not an attack on our current president. He inherited this lack of protocol/wrong protocol which places the president above the country. I hope that as Commander in Chief he fixes this. In no way would returning the national flag to its central place diminish his prestige, it would in fact elevate his position in office.
Symbols are important. National symbols, extremely important. Our National Flag is the most visible symbol of our country and it must be treated with respect. Kenya needs to revisit, perhaps rewrite and properly enforce flag protocol and flag etiquette.