Kenya Celebrates A Half-Century Of Freedom

kenyan woman

By Franklin Cross

Kenya is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of her independence from Great Britain. In Kenya it is called “Jamhuri Day” which is simply the Swahili term for it. It is certainly the most important national holiday in Kenya, and it formally marks the date of the country’s transformation from English colony to independent nation, with Jomo Kenyatta, Uhuru’s father, at the helm a half-century ago.

There are many living people who were present in Kenya in 1963 when the transition took place. It was a striking experience for them. The Americans who were here remember starkly the crushing shock of President Kennedy’s death on November 22, 1963, and the short transition to the happiness of the independence celebrations a short 20 days later. There simply wasn’t time to digest the tragedy and prepare for the huge party.

But then December 12th came, the British sent a royal duke to represent Queen Elizabeth (who in fact had become queen while vacationing in Kenya at Treetops Safari Lodge a decade earlier, learning while she was at Treetops that her father had succumbed to cancer).

The governor-general of Kenya back then, the very distinguished Sir Malcolm MacDonald, son of a famous prime minister of the UK, turned power over to Jomo Kenyatta, the new prime minister. Kenya became a republic the following year and Kenyatta was elected president of the new nation. Kenyatta served as leader for another fifteen years until his death in 1978, when he was almost 90 years old. He has become something of a quasi-deity in Kenya since then, though recently laws have been passed abolishing this cult of personality. Today, his portrait appears on all Kenyan currency, though I’m told that, too, is supposed to change because of a new law prohibiting the images of any individual on currency.

Today is a day of rejoicing in Nairobi. Because Jamhuri Day has such profound meaning for every Kenyan and has deeply affected how Kenyans live and are governed, every modern Kenyan celebrates Jamhuri Day, and the fiftieth anniversary in particular is a huge deal here. Today’s celebrations have included spectacular meals, joyous political pronouncements, parades, and of course a lot of dancing in the streets. The Queen sent Mark Simmons, Foreign Office Minister for Africa, to Nairobi to represent the British government.

Kenya has ties to Britain that go back to about 1850. Kenya was explored by Sir Richard Burton and others in the mid-19th century and slowly became more or less assimilated under the umbrella of British control.

Kenya Colony officially assumed the status of a territory of Great Britain in 1920. It took another 24 years before the first black African was admitted to the Kenya colonial legislature. Problems with colonial rule continued among the native Kenyans, who resented the land-grabs and dominance of the white settlers. These struggles reached a boiling point in the so-called “Mau-Mau” uprisings of the early 1950s, in the course of which the country was seized by what seems today to be modern terrorism. The British governor called it a “State of Emergency.”

Mau-Mau was the tipping point for the independence that came a decade later. African participation increased, Jomo Kenyatta became a Mandela-like figure. Educated in London and later a professor at the London School of Economics, he achieved enormous stature among blacks and whites alike. He wrote a number of popular books about his political struggles.

Kenya and the UK have maintained cordial, if at times strained, economic and social relations. There are about 30,000 expatriate Britons who, like myself, live here more or less full time. Another 185,000 English tourists come to Kenya for safaris and holidays every year, along with thousands more from America and Europe.

Kenya today has a population of about 45 million people, and of course has had its share of bad news this year, with a terrible terrorist attack in September in which 67 people were murdered by al-Shabaab, including six Britons. But Kenya is a strong country now, with much to celebrate, and let us hope an even stronger half-century lies ahead.

You can write to Franklin Cross at:

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