I bought my first Kenyan flag in Washington DC. A friend from Singapore had a car and two Belgian exchange students and I piled in and traveled from Pittsburgh to DC and Manhattan over a weekend. We were a strange group, assembled by the coincidence of being international students. It was my first semester in the U.S., and, like many international students away from my country for the first time, I was trying to figure out how I felt about Kenya.
It was not homesickness I felt, certainly nothing like what orientation guides to the U.S. had promised. I already knew how to nod and shrug, and and laughed at the orientation guides that carefully explained U.S. body language. I had been in boarding school, so this was not my first time away from home. Instead, it was being surrounded by the U.S. that got to me. The first-year dorm was full of very young people away from home for the first time. They were very excited about drinking and having sex and playing loud music and being away from parental supervision. Few of them listened to R&B as I did, and I believe the song on loud replay—on a CD player—was “Blister in the Sun.” The food was bland, with lots of cheese and bacon and assorted bottled dressings to make it seem not so bland.
In the face of all of this, I wanted something whose meanings I knew.
I knew the Kenyan flag. Black was for the Africans oppressed by colonial laws. Red was for the blood spilt to fight for freedom. Green was for the land stolen from us, the land on which we would build our dreams. The white lines in between represented peace. I had memorized this in Standard 4, and it was part of my bones. Even when the tyrant Moi forced us to wave flimsy paper and wood flags to celebrate him, I knew the flag was bigger than him.
Many international students had flags in their rooms. We used them to start conversations with each other and with curious U.S. students. We used them to anchor ourselves in spaces that felt suffocating, where the accents we knew were far too rare and the flavors we enjoyed scarce.
The flag I bought did not survive long, barely a year. I might have given it away. I suspect I threw it away after a few months. It had served whatever limited purpose I needed it to serve.
In August 2001, I moved to the rural Midwest for graduate school, and less than a month into school, the politics of the flag returned forcefully. After September 11, flags sprouted all over. In the more progressive parts of town, I might encounter one flag in a block of five houses. But in the more conservative sections, flags waved from multiple windows in single-owner houses: the massive flag by the front door; flag decals on upstairs windows; flag-shaped plant markers; flag-scented candles.
Another surround. A different one. A more dangerous one.
Rumors circulated that students from Pakistan and India and Saudi Arabia and Iran faced harassment. Trips to grocery stores and public spaces in general were fraught for them. The office responsible for international students emailed us that it was “very concerned” about our safety; if we faced any incidents, we should “report” them.
I recall the sensation of walking from home to school—about a 20-minute walk—encountering rows and rows of flags. How menacing they felt, how forbidding.
But if you paid attention, you also noticed international students wearing flag lapel pins and buttons, attempts to signal that we were benign, friendly. U.S. flags fluttered from apartments and houses occupied by international students. We are safe, they shouted.
In summer 2002, a friend and I returned to Pittsburgh over July 4. Caught by nostalgia, I wandered downtown to Point State Park, to watch the fireworks display. I hate the sound and the smell of fireworks, but their reflection over the river is pretty. Walking back to the hotel from the park, I noticed a group of international students—we are easily identifiable—holding and waving U.S. flags. Perhaps they simply wanted to feel part of the celebration; perhaps they carried those flags to proclaim they were safe. Unlike those bad people who had come to damage the U.S. posing as students, these were good people, proper students.
Black is for the people. Red is for the blood. Green is for the land. White is for peace.
Several decades after I first learned how to read the flag in this way, I wonder if it’s more accurate to name the thin, white lines that separate the colors as the violence of colonialism. White cuts into Black to produce Red. White cuts into Green to produce Red. White names the still-intact colonial systems: the Penal Code, created to punish poor Africans; the colonial administrative structures, including the division into Executive, Judiciary, and Legislature; the police force, established to punish poor and unruly Africans; the education system, designed to fracture collectivity while rewarding a token few.
Perhaps white, on this flag, represents the impossibility of peace, the gap created by colonialism and its enduring institutions. Perhaps it simply names violence and the promise that every encounter with it produces a river of blood.
Kenya’s flag was officially adopted on 12 December 1963. According to Wikipedia,
The Colony of Kenya and the Protectorate of Kenya each came to an end on 12 December 1963 with independence being conferred on all of Kenya. The United Kingdom ceded sovereignty over the Colony of Kenya. The Sultan of Zanzibar agreed that simultaneous with independence for the Colony of Kenya, the Sultan would cease to have sovereignty over the Protectorate of Kenya so that all of Kenya would be one sovereign, independent state.
Wikipedia tells a nice story.
By contrast, the official United Kingdom legislation granting Kenya independence, Kenya Independence Act, 1963, tells a story of abandonment:
On and after 12th December 1963 (in this Act referred to as “the appointed day”) Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom shall have no responsibility for the government of Kenya or any part thereof.
It is a remarkably terse statement. Nothing in the 9 clauses and 2 schedules comprising the act mentions land, violence, freedom, or race. Nothing mentions forced labor or segregation. Nothing mentions Kenyans pressed into service during both world wars. Nothing mentions the settler families enriched by their stay in Kenya. Nothing mentions the resources extracted from Kenya. Nothing mentions the ethnic rivalries stoked and fed by the colonial government. In fact, Kenya, a name imposed by the British in 1920 onto a territory they had created, has no history worth mentioning.
Per Kenya’s Public Holidays Act (Revised 2012), 12 December is “Independence Day.” Per Kenya’s 2010 Constitution, 12 December is “Jamhuri Day.” This is not simply a matter of translation, English to Kiswahili. Instead, the persistence of “Independence Day,” clearly modeled on the 1963 UK legislation, speaks to how Kenya continues to live in the shadow of the broken empire that created it.
Disillusioned Kenyans speak of “uhuru ya bendera”: independence was proclaimed and all we got was this lousy symbol. I have never seen Kenyan flags hanging in doorways or from apartment windows. Those of us who grew up under the tyrant Moi associate them with forced performances of patriotism.
Kenyans celebrate the flag when our athletes win international events. We cheer when Kenyans cross the finish line and drape themselves in the flag: winners abroad, they represent the best of us. Often, they win despite state neglect and abuse. Often, they win even though their official uniforms have been stolen and the state has not provided transport and accommodation costs. They drape themselves in the flag to celebrate a Kenya that exists as a fantasy. And for the moments they drape themselves in the flag, we share the fantasy that the flag represents freedom and success.
My mother loves Jamhuri Day. She was 18 in 1963. She was there when the Kenyan flag was raised for the first time. In 1952, her father was arrested by the British and the family home demolished. She was a teenager the next time she saw him. Because she lived under colonialism and witnessed and experienced its brutalities, she celebrates Jamhuri Day.
But perhaps because I grew up under a dictator, I have only understood Jamhuri Day as a series of sycophantic performances. Eager dancers would line up dressed in sisal skirts to feed the dictator’s ego. He would inspect the military troops and speechify about nothing. During his 24-year rule, the flag continued to signify land alienation, torture, and death.
Perhaps when I bought that first flag in Washington DC, I wanted to see if I could imbue it with different meanings, claim it for a version of Kenya I could celebrate. Perhaps I hoped it would carry the excitement with which my mother greets Jamhuri day. Perhaps I hoped that in the U.S., away from the dictator’s incessant propaganda, I could find a version of Kenya worth loving. Perhaps losing that flag was a confession that I had failed.