Last week, the country lost a great patriot, one, however, whom most Kenyans had probably never heard of. My grandmother, Eunice Nyawira, passed away in her hospital bed after a long illness. Born at the dawn of the colonial era, she lived to see Kenya gain her independence and the subsequent betrayal of their hopes. She is part of a generation that is dying out and with them goes a great deal of history, not just of our family, but also of the nation they leave behind.
These are the ordinary people whose passing goes unlamented for the most part in a country that reserves its adulation for its politicians. I did know a great deal about my cucu and I took her presence for granted, assuming she would always be there to tell her story. It is something I will regret for the rest of my life.
The current hagiographic memorialization of Kenneth Matiba and the angst over the fate of electoral commissioners just makes this loss seem even more severe. History has always been presented as the tale of a few powerful men and Kenyan history in particular revolves around the fates of Big Men like Matiba. In this telling, the experiences and acts of a humble peasant woman in a nondescript corner of what is now Nyeri county hardly seem to merit more than a few lines in the obituary pages.
However, it is on the backs of people such as Cucu Nyawira that this country was built. It is their numerous small acts of resistance – such as when she confronted colonial officials in Nyeri to get my late mum admitted into Ngandu Girls, or when she organized food for Mau Mau fighters, for which she was briefly arrested and detained – that provided the podium on which the Big Men stood. An illiterate woman who bore and educated 10 kids, who organized her community to build schools, to create better housing as well as water storage is exactly the sort of everyday Kenyan we should honor and celebrate daily.
There are millions of unsung heroes and heroines like her across our land. Ordinary Kenyans who did and continue to do extraordinary things. They are the rocks upon which families, communities and nations are founded. Their stories deserve to be collected and shared, their lives celebrated. They are a valuable store of history and with each loss of one of their number, that store is irredeemably diminished. While they are still with us, we should have a nationwide project to collect and document their stories and their lives. And not just the elderly generation, but all of Kenya’s generations. Rather than Kenyan history being the story of its Big Men, we should make it the story of all its people.
I imagine this being a collective and collaborate effort. No one person or even one organisation could do it. The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission took years to interview 40,000 Kenyans. To build a database of the stories of millions would simply be overwhelming. However, we do have the internet and the unlimited resources that it provides. If we could get Kenyans to contribute their own stories and those of their relatives and friends, then we could begin to assemble a massive popular archive.
And the stories needn’t be solely about superhuman exploits. In fact, the most important contributions would be the tales of everyday living and survival that would shine a light on who the Kenyans are and how they experienced history. I, for example, remember Cucu Nyawira’s delight upon learning that Egypt, where, according to the Bible, Jesus’ family had fled to to escape persecution, was actually in Africa. Also her patient skepticism when informed that people had walked on the moon. She also told me of granaries Kikuyus used to set aside aside after the harvest specifically for the poor and the disabled, challenging the idea that charity is a thing we learnt from the West.
It would undoubtedly be an extremely ambitious undertaking but one that I believe would be worth every effort. “In my culture, when the elderly die natural deaths we throw a big party and sing and dance and trade stories about the life they lived and the lives they touched,” tweeted political analyst and author, Nanjala Nyabola, recently. Nothing would be a more fitting tribute to Eunice Nyawira and the unseen millions like her to whom Kenya owes everything.