Last Sunday, in church, we sang the national anthem at the end of the sermon. The pastor had just delivered this beautiful message about how Kenya belongs to God; how no matter what valleys we have gone through, God is the one who has lifted us up out of them. It was a message of love, peace and unity and we were all there nodding and feeling the patriotism rising within us. You know how in American movies whenever somebody is displaying a love for their country their flag suddenly appears behind that person and flutters dramatically in the background as patriotic-sounding music comes on? That was kind of what happened to us as towards the end of the service. And then the anthem.
We all stood at attention, looked straight ahead as though we were that guy who used to stand behind Moi with a face so stiff it could have cracked if he blinked (which he didn’t), and we belted it out like the Kapenguria Six and Dedan Kimathi were right there in the room with us. The first verse, at least.
As the second verse began, heads began shifting towards the left side of the building to look at the screen. People didn’t know the words. And I realized, because I also stumbled through some lines, that for most people in that room, the last time they sang the national anthem must have been years and years ago in high school…or primary school. It was kind of sad and kind of amusing.
Who sings the national anthem anymore?
I was taught the anthem in Class Two…or One, I forget. The whole thing. And the loyalty pledge. We sang it twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays during school assemblies, and it sometimes came in form of a question during exams. Our teachers were very clear- every Kenyan must know the national anthem. And we understood that even though we were seven years old, we were as Kenyan as the president and it was our responsibility to sing the national anthem with pride and confidence. Far be it from relevance that we didn’t know what the song meant. We knew it was our country’s song and it confirmed our Kenyanness and it didn’t matter that ‘heritage of splendor’ might as well have been a different language altogether. We mispronounced words, made up our own to replace the ones we didn’t know and I’m pretty sure we were off key half the time. But we knew it and we sang it because we were told that it represented who we are as a country. Later on, in early teenage, we would giggle at one another at the beginnings of the second and third verses because almost nobody knew which line went where. Even our teachers. Something about “let one and all arise’ and “let all with one accord” was just wildly confusing and people just sang whichever one they wanted, when they felt it fit, sometimes mixing up the words and singing things like “let one with all accord”. We didn’t think anything of it, really. It didn’t come in our exams anymore. So in all honesty, I wasn’t surprised when on Sunday, I heard the people around me mumble some parts of the anthem because somebody’s head was blocking their view of the screen. It appears the only people who sing the national anthem regularly enough to know it are kids in school. Is that an okay thing?
The thing is, the national anthem doesn’t mean much to us anymore. I mean, we haven’t cast it as far away as the loyalty pledge, which my parents cannot even recite past the first line, but it doesn’t play such an important role for us anymore. We sing the national anthem the way we say ‘The Grace’, as protocol, to get it out of the way. We sing it the way we sang it in Class Two-without meaning. Of course we agree that it is a beautiful song and we were all there beaming with pride on social media when the world recently realized what we knew all along. But that’s about it. It’s a beautiful song and it belongs to us, and that’s it. This was especially true in high school when, as music students, we swooned over the harmonies of the anthem and would sing it just to hear how good it sounded. But truthfully, we enjoyed our school song more (Moigeans in the house?), so the anthem was never overly special anyway.
Thinking about our national anthem, especially around a time when we were celebrating Mashujaa day, had me thinking about what it means to be a Kenyan, what it means to be a Kenyan in my generation-a generation that didn’t watch VOK, wasn’t there during the coup, and can’t remember the bomb blast because we weren’t even in nursery school yet.
And in a nutshell, being Kenyan, for me, means being proud one moment and falling into despair the next.
It means turning away from street children with a mixture of guilt, fear, and annoyance because as a human who recognizes that every person should have basic needs you know you should help, but as a Nairobian who has heard of and seen street children throwing feces at motorists and yanking women’s handbags, you know better. It is thinking how lovely the superhighway looks at night as I go home from school, then taking two hours to get to school in the morning because roads are too congested, traffic lights don’t work (and even if they do, if there are no traffic cops, ain’t nobody got time for them), and it seems that overlapping is a skill taught in driving school, and matatu drivers went all the way to PhD level. It means being distrustful of every man I see inside a matatu because when I pay my fare I’m apparently also paying for a potential opportunity to get stripped, raped, drugged, pickpocketed, or insulted at the very least, just because I didn’t give some guy my phone number. And while we’re on the topic, guys, if a girl is reading a book or has her earphones in or is scrolling on her phone or is just staring out the window, and she gives you one word answers and a look of irritation, for the love of God leave her alone. Your attention is unwanted; it won’t kill you to take a hint. And all that stuff you keep telling yourself about ‘mwanaume ni effort’, honestly not all efforts pay off and you don’t always get what you want-that’s just how life works so just deal with it, okay?
Being Kenyan means getting into a Kawangware matatu, sitting at the front and realizing that out of all the Kawangware matatus I have ever boarded, that one is the first that has a working speedometer. It means seeing an employee being lauded for a simple act of kindness and feeling warmth and pride because there are still good people out there, then realizing that we are so far gone that we are at the place where we become heroes for simply being human. It means refusing to watch news because I can’t sleep after hearing stories of road accidents every day. It is thinking about cancer and hearing of people who lose loved ones because they couldn’t afford treatment, couldn’t fight against a system that ignored them because they didn’t know someone in a government office. It is shameful how late I realized that cancer doesn’t target only the rich. It is going to school in the morning and seeing kids walking to school with torn, filthy bags, worn out shoes, uncombed hair, and knowing that they don’t even have a shot at KCPE against their age mates in Makini and such other schools. It is hearing that some foreign woman patented the nyatiti. Reading the Saturday Magazine and seeing people my age doing great things and getting motivated to get off my ass and do something too. It is seeing my friends, people I went to school with, talking on social media about things that matter, fighting misogyny, fighting racism, taking a stand against the tribalism that is so deeply embedded within older generations, lifting each other up and daring to dream, to challenge the status quo, speaking out against corruption… not just posting selfies. It is taking a deeper look into the literature scene in the country and finding that Kenyans do read. Enjoying the shade frequently dished out by Kenyans on Twitter…thinking how hilarious we are as a people. Seeing my classmates struggle to finish school so that they can get out, hand the degree to their parents and then start doing what they wanted to do in the first place.
Proud one moment, in despair the next.
Maybe the reason we neglected the national anthem is because we are no longer sure of what it means to be what we are. Are we proud? Are we angry? Are we resigned and jaded? Are we hopeful? We could be all these things or none of them. But, over fifty years are gone now since they were written, and we are no longer in Class Two…shouldn’t the words, ‘Service be our earnest endeavor, and our homeland of Kenya, heritage of splendor, firm may we stand to defend’ mean something more now?