The statue of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, or any other statue can be on the Kenyan currency. Yes! It is expressly stated in the Constitution – ‘May bear images that depict or symbolise Kenya or any aspect of Kenya’.
The drafters of that section, failed to consult anthropologists on symbolism and its connection with cultural meaning. Symbols may be objects (such as statues), colours (like Rastafarian colours), figures (such as those on bathroom doors), sounds (such as ululations) and gestures (like showing the middle finger).
Symbols are taken for granted in day to day life, until they are used for national or international purposes, out of context, in unconventional ways or are affected by social movements or changing social political ideologies.
A few years back Kenyan businesses had to be forced to stop abusing the international symbol of protection — the Red Cross and Red Crescent as they were flashed all over both licenced and unlicensed chemists and clinics. Kenyans were also unaffected by the statue of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta at KICC until it was proposed on the new currency.
There are several ways that symbols are acquired in society. There are those that are created by history. Symbols representing the first president of a country are common the world over. The Washington obelisk is in memory of the first President of United States of America, George Washington. The statue of Jomo Kenyatta outside the building bearing his name, is one such historical symbol.
The statue is not a portrait in the artistic meaning of the word – it is a symbol. What it symbolises can only be proved or disproved by historical events and or emerging socio-political movements that inspire change. Academic research can also provide contrary information on the statue. Not even the recent revelation of the phallic inspiration of the building has replaced the symbol of the founding father.
And not to say that those who do not want this statue on the new currency do not make a valid point; they probably do. But trying to create historical distortions of a symbol of the first president, is one way of how not to create, produce, consume or contest heritage.
Memorials are created and erected by the community that wants to remember a certain historical event or personality. To contest these memories can only be done through strong social movements that start by proving or discrediting the symbol many times supported by historical events themselves or research.
At the University of Cape Town a statue of Cecil Rhodes, installed in 1934 during the white supremacist apartheid system was removed in 2017, as a symbol of the falling of the racism at the University. Rhodes played a leading role in creating Rhodesia, todays Zambia and Zimbabwe as part of imperial Britain. His estate is the benefactor of the Rhodes scholarship.
Other symbols are derived from culture. Cultural symbols can only be understood in the context of the culture that created them, otherwise they may have a completely different meaning, often losing their unique significance. Whirl logs, a Native American symbol, was used in healing ceremonies. But the same symbol or terribly similar was the swastika used by the Nazi, giving it completely different meanings in another cultural context.
Other symbols are acquired through experience. A Policeman’s uniform and badge are symbols of law enforcement and authority. A law breaker will view this with trepidation, while an ordinary citizen should feel safe and assured by the presence of this symbols.
Symbols can represent abstract or real ideas. Under the current Constitution public participation has created the possibility of contesting the symbols that represent Kenya’s history and historical events.
Contestations are not easy, because objects are simply material culture, but when they function as symbols, their meaning often unconsciously remains unchallenged. A gold band, even in Kenya is a symbol of marriage. But that is not part of our culture or any of our traditions, nor is it part of Christian or Islamic traditions, yet it is commonly accepted.
When symbols are part of popular beliefs whose origin no one cares to remember, but nonetheless use with abandon, even social movements would have a difficult time dislodging their symbolic value.
It would be unfair not to point out that one of the biggest criticism on symbols is that their meaning overlook the significance of associated emotions!