The pre-colonial history of Kenya and the greater Eastern Africa is replete with fascinating chapters that are barely known by the people of the region. Discussions on the region’s past events tends to be largely restricted to the period since the arrival of the white man and the period predating this is seen as one long, blank chapter of which we don’t know much about.
The durability of the white man’s written account of history has naturally outlasted the African tradition of oral history. It didn’t help that colonialists deliberately and successfully pushed a narrative of ‘nothingness’ that portrayed African past as a dark place where nothing of note took place. That our education system was set up by the same colonialists perpetuated the discarding of African historical narratives. Independent governments in Kenya took over from where colonialists left and kept a tight control on the country’s historical narrative so as to further their divide and rule tactics that would forestall popular dissent against their poor governance.
This extended era of great upheaval and overbearing government control has broken the chain of oral history that had been passed down generations for centuries. African society has been engulfed with collective amnesia of their past. Our conceptualization of local history is thus limited to the most recent fraction of our past that was marked by great social upheaval. This sadly goes some way in explaining the relatively low levels of patriotism and historical pride among Kenyans.
The situation hasn’t been all gloomy though. One way in which our pre-colonial history has been preserved and shared is through creative arts. Despite the guardianship of the state, artistes have gone about their business and ignored government attempts at controlling narratives.
This independence of thought has been best exhibited by none other than legendary rapper Kamaa whose Kalamashaka discography is one big middle finger to official narratives of Kenya society and history. The veteran rapper made a timely return to the music scene on Kenya’s 55th independence anniversary with a hard-hitting track that paints a glorious picture of life in pre-colonial Kenya.
The collaboration with Kaa La Moto, a Mombasa-based rapper, traces the shared history of the duos Kikuyu and Mijikenda heritage from the days of Shungwaya to date. The title of the track (Kenda) is Swahili for the number 9 which is the number of clan divisions in each of the two communities. The number 9 is also bears symbolic meaning in numerous African communities.
The nostalgic track highlights great chapters in pre-colonial Kenyan history and attempts to stir pride in our collective past. It showcases the similarities in our culture and the collective strength in our diverse and shared history. Kenda also pays homage to our heroes and heroines who are feted for their bravery. The track traces the beginning of our problems to the arrival of foreigners and offers a withering critique of global religion that supplanted African traditional belief through a mixture of trickery, coercion and violence.
In offering an alternative to the conventional version of Kenyan history that is limited in scope, Kamaa and Kaa La Moto tackle themes like the political and social organization of pre-colonial Kenyan societies and the rich cultural practices and traditions they took part in. They also highlight the economic prosperity of pre-colonial Kenya, social interaction among different communities and the positive existence devoid of foreign dominion. The video offers visuals of cultural practices and daily activities in the Mijikenda community.
Over some soulful boom-bap production laced with melodic Mijikenda chants, the duo take turns to drop some witty punchlines and rhymes that reek of nostalgia and regret yet full of pride. Some standout bars include:
Isipokuwa siasa, wangelijua Kaya Bombo/Kaya Fungo/Tukienda kuomba mvua Kaya Dzombo/Kungekuwa na jira tungewazika kisa gongo/kisa hongo/tunaenda Saudia kuosha vyombo
Kenda muihuru kutana na Mijikenda/Vile Wahenga walisema Wapemba hujuana kwa vilemba/remember not to forget walikuja na bibilia na ndenga/
Karibisha mwarabu, karibisha mzungu/kisha mwisho was siku akadai hatujui Mungu/licha ya mgeni kumpokea kama ndugu/kwisha kujitongea Ubuntu ukaonekana uzuzu/daktari wetu wa voodoo kaitwa kufuru/
Siku hizi watoto mnatishia mnamjua sana Rihanna/kuliko historia iliotokea kule Galana
The historical references in the track offer guide posts for anyone interested in delving into Kenya’s pre-colonial history. As Kenyans, looking back to our past can demystify the nature of relations between communities and showcase an alternative existence where communities shared a similar history and co-existed peacefully. We can do away with political patronage of inter-communal relations and defy attempts at dividing us by understanding each other better and as a result, treating each other better.
In a world where African culture and history is fetishized by the Western world and African cultural artefacts are displayed in Western museums devoid of the human and historical context, artistic expressions like music give us a voice to reclaim our past and build communal self-pride. Africans can take control of framing and disseminating our historical narrative and tell our story as we experience(d) it. A story of violence, loss, pain and great social upheaval but also a story of strength, dignity, unity, rich culture, a shared past and a common destiny.
KAMAA & KAA LA MOTO – KENDA https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rP0-XCHDI0E