Wednesday, 13 February 2013

This Park is our Park!

“My land is Kenya….from the islands to the sea. You’ll always stay with me, here in my heart….” so says the singer, Roger Whittaker, proudly extolling the virtues of Kenya and proclaiming from the rooftops how proud he is to belong. That particular Saturday, however, was one full of contradictions, and about the only thing that that those who had come out to attend the rally had in common, was the fact that they did not share the singer’s enthusiasm for belonging here.

At least they thought that a few things needed changing, but the powers-that-be were not listening, hence that day’s planned rally which was an attempt to get a hearing; but not only was the Moi State grossly ignoring the reformers’ rising voices, it had declared the planned gathering illegal, and had warned of dire consequences to whosoever would tread where eagles dare.

It was the last day of May 1997 and the eve of Madaraka Day, the day in 1963 when our country gained internal self government on her way to full independence six months later. It was a great irony that 34 years since those hopeful beginnings, Kenya remained a dictatorship presided over by an ageing autocrat who believed it was his divine right to rule and had resisted multipartyism till the last possible moment. Once pluralism had been allowed he had used all the means at his disposal to frustrate the opposition. He would also not let the people re-write their own constitution.

1997 was a year full of activity as civil society and democracy activists engaged the police in street battles in our push for a new constitution. Earlier that year in March, 600 delegates had gathered at the Limuru Conference Centre for the National Convention Assembly, which became a Citizens Movement to press for constitutional reforms. The launch of the NCA had been followed by several rallies planned by NCA which were predictably banned leading to ominous stand-offs with the police and running battles in the city.  

Back to May 31 1997, I could not help thinking what a land of contrasts Kenya was. On that cloudless Saturday morning, these contradictions began to show early. By the time I arrived on the grounds of St. Andrews Church, the pre-arranged venue from whence we were due to march to Uhuru Park, there was a funeral service going on while just outside the church, another party was busy preparing the ground for a wedding ceremony that was to follow on the heels of the funeral.

Outside the church, pro-reform activists had started gathering as early as eight o’clock, most of them still tired from having spent the night before at a fellow freedom struggler’s (some would say sufferer’s) pre-wedding party – after all doesn’t the Bible say that even in the last days, people will be marrying and getting married?

By 10.30 a.m. the parking lot was filled not just with vehicles of the mourners inside and those arriving for the wedding to follow; it was also fast filling with several familiar people who gathered around in small groups with determined faces discussing strategies on how to storm the Park, for the government had predictably declared our rally illegal the night before. I could see Rev. Timothy Njoya, who had become the icon of our struggle, in deep conversation with Prof. Kivutha Kibwana, then co-convenor of the NCA. From my vantage point, I couldn't really tell the exact subject of their conversation, but I was willing to bet they were not discussing plans of forming a Joint Stock Company!

A small group of university students who had been getting rather jittery, had now decided to calm everybody’s nerves by singing spontaneously composed freedom songs, “Poliiisi… we baki nyuma, mi naenda na haki. Poliisi… we baki nyuma mi naenda na haki! and “Polisi wenyewe wakisoma, polisi wenyewe wakisoma, risasi na bunduki zitakoma…”

The latest situation report from the Park where the eagles dare was not encouraging, at least not from the new Constitution’s point of view. We were reliably informed by our scouts that virtually the whole police force and paramilitary GSU were out in full colour smelling of war, in immaculate new uniforms and combat gear. At this stage, reformers were merely demanding minimum changes to the constitution to facilitate a fair general election due later that year, but the forces of tyranny had come out comprehensively armed to deal with this perceived threat to national security. Kenya, the land of contrasts!

Being a war zone, the Park was uninhabited by anyone but blood-thirsty hounds with helmets, guns, truncheons and teargas canisters; they had also invited the journalists to record proceedings (a Kenyan first since journalists usually became fair game for police in these events), but since no one else was allowed anywhere near the green, the pressmen and women were walking around in groups of twos and threes as if they were just enjoying a spot of mid-morning golf. But looks can be deceiving; at any rate the seeming tranquility on the faces of these brave folks was anything but an accurate indication of their thoughts, for they knew from past experience that they were surveying what in a few moments would resemble Mogadishu in 1992. This was just the clam before the storm.

Back at the church, there was an air of anticipation. For the last half hour we had been hearing sporadic cheers and jeers from crowds gathering as near the Park as they could safely get. The songs from the students had intensified in tempo. It was not quite clear why we were not making a move ourselves. At any rate, those shouting from afar sounded to me like the crowd was fast becoming like the biblical sheep without a shepherd since all the leadership was still gathered outside the church.

It was clearly time for the games to begin

The air was pregnant with meaning; even the birds seemed to be singing, “The Constitution must be changed!!!” And the heavy air that earlier seemed to envelop our modest gathering seemed to have lifted; just as the casket had left the church and soon thereafter the somber mood had been replaced by celebration at the wedding ceremony now underway. One could not help but hope that this was a harbinger of things to come – constitutionally speaking, that is…

Just as the butterflies in the stomachs of some of us were threatening to fly out of our mouths altogether, the trumpet call to battle was sounded. Well, not quite a trumpet, for that would disturb the good folk inside the church who were just then busy promising to love and to hold, for better for worse, good Constitution or bad. And so we were just summoned by sign language to gather together and we were led in a short prayer by Rev. Njoya.

And the grand march to Uhuru Park began. To whom did this historic Park belong? To the gangsters in uniform, serving masters too afraid to hear what their people had to say, or to the people themselves? This was the question that had to be resolved shortly.

We marched out of the church compound, a handful of people in three short columns. In the front, marching side by side with Prof. Kibwana and Rev. Njoya, was Maina Kiai who, despite being of average height, towered over the rest of us in stature as he stood with the confidence of Kilimanjaro and moved forward with the determination of the Nile. He had seen and led enough marches in his day, you see. And on this day he was undoubtedly the star that inspired the march at that early stage; he and Rev. Njoya in his crimson cassock and leather-bound Bible, plus the bag hanging on his side containing bottles of water for quenching the fumes of teargas that would soon be tossed our way.

But if these two inspired us, it was the youthful singers in our midst that cheered us on and helped ease the tension as we marched forward for freedom. As soon as we were on Uhuru Highway marching alongside the fence of the Park whose ownership had yet to be resolved, thousands of people seemed to materialize from nowhere and soon we were a mass of humanity singing, chanting and marching determinedly to the Park.

“Nasikitika sana moyoni mwangu,” we grieved in mournful song. “Ni nani aliye muumba Moi?” We were telling God how sad we were that someone had created Moi, and wondering who had done the world such a disservice. “Si wewe Mwenyezi Mungu, si wewe Mwenyezi Mungu,” – it’s not you almighty God – “Muumba Moi ni shetani” – Moi’s creator is Satan. The song was not theologically accurate, but it expressed the deep angst we felt against the dictator who was standing in the way of our aspirations to get a new Constitution.

Marching ahead of the group, resplendent in his crimson cassock, was Rev. Njoya, leading God’s democratic forces for change. In front of him was a small army of photographers and videographers who had to perform the seemingly impossible task of doing a hundred metre dash backwards while clicking and whirling away to record the momentous events of this day so that they could convey how the ownership of the Park was resolved for the benefit of those who would be sitting in their living rooms eating their dinner. It reminded me of Henry Barlow’s poem, Building the Nation, for we too were building the nation different ways.

By now we had taken over Uhuru Highway; surely the motorists could indulge us these few minutes, after all we were going to discuss the Constitution, a very important document. But before this mother of all discussions could begin, the ownership of the Park needed to be resolved.

For the moment, those who temporarily occupied the Green all appeared ready to shoot – the policemen with their guns and batons, the pressmen with their cameras and notebooks. What about us? What would we shoot with? We the crusaders of a more just order? We had come armed with the sword of peace and were protected by the breastplate of truth. These have triumphed over many a gun and bullet throughout the history of humankind; they would not fail us this time.

Halfway between St. Andrews and the monument erected to mark ten years of Moi’s rule, our group led by Njoya suddenly took a sharp right turn and we were in the Park before you could say Katiba Mpya! This Park was our Park!! The swiftness with which we claimed the Park would have made any professional invading army green with envy.  Many of us actually could not believe that we were actually in the Park. We had gotten so used to being intimidated and beaten and tear gassed and driven out of Kamkunji grounds by sheer brute force that we had seriously come to doubt whether this Park would ever be our Park. Especially after the previous night’s ominous statement from the government.

The mass of humanity was now gathered around Rev. Njoya. He was hoisted shoulder high and was trying to say something through the small portable megaphone, but people were too busy loudly and cheerfully celebrating their storming of the Park and could not make out what he was saying.

“Let us pray…,” Njoya was struggling to be heard, but only a few people could hear him. I turned to him and asked him to use the only prayer that all Kenyans knew by heart and could say without prompting. And soon the Park, our Park, reverberated with thousands of voices singing that eternal prayer for our country, “Ee Mungu nguvu yetu…”

We sang the national anthem not once, but three times in Kiswahili. For many, it seemed like the first time they had actually thought of the national anthem as a prayer and as a clarion call for our dignity as a nation, and they sang it with much relish and emotion. 

Soon thereafter, we moved to higher ground where we were joined by our elected leaders among them Mwai Kibaki who was the official leader of the opposition, Martin Shikuku, Kiraitu Murungi, Kennedy Kiliku and James Orengo. We were in ecstasy. The Park had been reclaimed. Our leaders were here. We could now go ahead and change the Constitution!

Soon, the proverbial long arm of the law made its presence felt as the heavily armed policemen approached the gathering and took position obviously preparing to attack. They formed a single file parallel to Nyerere Road fence. They were just a few metres from the gathered crowd. As the organizers were busy trying to seat the crowds down so that the rally could begin, some of us confronted the police reminding them that this Park was our Park and that they were welcome to join us to discuss the constitution but could not disrupt our peaceful meeting.

The police were in no mood to listen or reason. They ordered us to disperse. I persuade a number of young people to join me in forming a human shield between the police and the people in order to defend democracy against tyranny. Together, we moved to within one metre of the police line and knelt them, the barrel of a gun within a few feet of my face. In so doing, we were making the point that we were unarmed and wanted to force the police to make the choice of beating peaceful protesters on their knees and worsening their already bad record, or to change their tactics and let the people proceed with their meeting.

But I did not have my troops in the army of kneeling activists long, for as soon as the meeting got underway, they got excited and abandoned the ranks and rejoined the bigger group. I was left on my knees alone, facing the police, right against might!

Behind me, I could hear Rev. Njoya start to say the opening prayers of the rally. Meanwhile the armed, uninvited and for now unseen (our eyes being closed in prayer) guests took ten paces backwards, and I sensed that there was going to be some nasty goings-on in this Park, our Park!

Before you could say ‘Kenya Tuitakayo’, all hell broke loose. It began with the police rapping their rungus against their new plastic shields emblazoned boldly with the word POLICE at the front – which was probably a good thing since their behavior was not altogether police-like; and without that word, one might have mistaken them for something other than whom they claimed to be. They continued to raise their voices at random to create panic among the crusaders for change.

Suddenly, the uninvited – and now very seen – guests charged towards the crowd, hitting them indiscriminately and tossing tear gas at us. I was among the first to taste their wrath. Still on my knees closest to the charging, marauding goons, I was kicked on the chest and clubbed squarely on my left shin. I was certain that I would never walk again. But fortunately, in such situations, things can greatly exaggerate themselves.

I remember Mwai Kibaki, who had never been on the battlefield before, choking and in tears looking completely lost. We gave him some water because we thought he would collapse and as he recovered, he said memorably in Kikuyu, “Kai ikoragwo i nduru atia? Uguo niguo muiguaga? Kweri mukiri omiriria.” (You mean it stings this much? Is this the way it always is? In that case you people are brave!)

The people were violently driven from their Park. All but two handfuls, one comprising activists from civil society, and the other of opposition politicians. Journalists continued milling about taking our photos and statements, and we all liberally condemned the government for this latest act of cowardice.

Our group included Maina Kiai, Prof. Kibwana, Rev. Njoya and Kamanda Mucheke. Soon after we washed our eyes of the fumes of violence and could see and breathe again, and when we had had our fill of condemning the government so that those who would be sipping their drinks and watching the evening news could know what we were demanding, we settled to singing freedom songs such as ‘We shall overcome some day’ and ‘Oh freedom.’

Prof. Kibwana read to us one of his poems, Kwani mimi si mtu?, and Rev. Njoya encouraged us with some words from the Sermon on the Mount: 

Blessed are you when people persecute you and say all manner of evil about you for my sake; for there is great reward for you.

As I reflected on the meaning of what had taken place there that day, I lifted up my eyes to the sky. A dark cloud was descending on the Park, our Park, still surrounded by the forces of tyranny. But we were still in the Park where we were warned the evening before of dire consequences if we dared come. Only a small group of determined crusaders remained; but we were here!

Soon others would come…. the whole city, the whole country. And the scene outside the church earlier that day would repeat itself; our funeral dirge would become a wedding song as we celebrate the true meaning of freedom, and sing with thunderous jubilation, ‘This land is our land…’

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