By Rose Nyambura Maina and Daisy Okoti with Ogova Ondego
Published October 4, 2015
From Kenya to South Africa and from Rumania to Iraq and Syria, it appears people not only loathe monuments but are doing everything in their power to raze these structures that were created to commemorate persons or events considered important to society.
Following the retirement in 2002 of President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi of Kenya whose regime was accused of gross violation of human rights, a group called Release Political Prisoners tried to destroy the Nyayo Monument that is situated in Nairobi’s Central Park. They argued that that was the only way for the East African country to be healed from the wounds of injustice and torture besides wiping away any traces of ‘Nyayo-ism’, as the administration of arap Moi was known.
South Africans, on their part, vandalised the Paul Kruger Statue that is located in Church Square in the country’s political capital, Pretoria whose name is also being changed to Tshwane in April 2015. The vandals threatened to demolish the structure, saying that it represents the racist rule of Kruger who was the president of the then white-supremacist South African Republic from1888 to 1900.
The same month, South African philistines defaced the Mahatma Gandhi monument in downtown Johannesburg with white paint arguing it reminded them of Gandhi’s racist sentiments against black South Africans even as he campaigned for the rights of his own Indians in the southern African country. They considered Gandhi’s statue a reminder of his betrayal of the South African blacks.
Also targeted by South Africans was the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a British imperialist who nursed the idea of the British running the affairs of the entire African continent from Cape Town in the south to Cairo n the north and all the other places in between; the structure had to pulled down because as agitated students of University of Cape Town, where it was located, said it represented white supremacy, racism and misogyny.
In 2003, the statue of President Saddam Hussein, who had been toppled by a US-led force, was pulled down from its place in Baghdad by a U.S M88 recovery vehicle as a group of Iraqis ululated to symbolise the end of a much hated regime.
The world is currently outraged over the destruction of monuments by Islamist fighters in Syria’s Palmyra town. Two ancient Muslim shrines, several monuments, temples and other historical buildings believed to be associated with a divisive past were also destroyed in June 2015.
But while the world is still confused over the place of monuments in modern society, there are calls in Kenya for several colonial monuments to be returned to their rightful places in Nairobi. They include those of settler Lord Delamere’s and King George V’s.
The British, whose colonial government waged a bloody war against MAU MAU fighters in Kenya between 1952 and 1956, have funded a MAU MAU monument that was unveiled in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park in September 2015.
While the MAU MAU struggle is a painful part ofKenya’s history, especially for those who were involved directly, the monument nevertheless was constructed as a gateway to the healing process and reconciliation between Kenya and Britain.
This further raises the question of the significance of monuments in society: are they to be razed as symbols of hatred and death or should they be preserved as treasures of national heritage?
These structures carry scientific and historical importance as they provide researchers a glimpse into the past. From them, we get to understand who we are, were we came from and where we are going. They preserve our history for future generations.
Monuments teach us about what happened before we were born and promote respect for those who lived in different times, societies and cultures.
We may have faced a painful past. Rather than heal our wounds, monuments may seem to add salt to our wounds. But destroying them would only falsify but not change history.
UNESCO, the specialised cultural agency of the United Nations that administers the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage that was adopted on November 16, 1972, calls for the preservation of monuments.
Settling scores with others over monuments does not alter the part of history we want so much forgotten as it remains etched somewhere in the memory and not learning from it and moving forward possesses the greater risk of repeating a historical mistake which could pose even greater risk for the future generations. Perhaps it is to guard against such danger that there are calls in Nairobi for colonial monuments to be preserved while the British have built a commemorative monument to the MAU MAU.