Why Kenyatta House deserves better treatment
By Belinda Mulindi
The (in)famous Kenyatta House in Lodwar, Turkana County is an important part of Kenya’s history, especially our struggle against British imperialism. This is where Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was detained with four of the Kapenguria Six in separate but identical houses in the same compound.
This is, no doubt, a heritage site, but one which has, sadly, been neglected, its rich history notwithstanding.
Turkana county boasts many achievements. First, it holds a connection with the country’s liberation from the colonial rule. Secondly, it is the home of Lake Turkana National Park inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997. Finally, Turkana has one of the longest living histories on earth, and recent fossil evidence unearthed at Koobi Fora has led to the lake being referred to as “The Cradle of Mankind”.
Tourism is entrenched in the country’s Vision 2030, which among other things, seeks to position the Lake Turkana Basin as the place for human origins internationally, while opening up the area for economic growth and lift local communities out of poverty. Given the massive contribution that tourism makes to Kenya’s GDP, all measures must be put in place to safeguard and expand the sector at whatever cost. If anything, a return on investment is almost guaranteed, let alone the benefits of preserving our history.
It is ironical that the government has neglected the Kenyatta House despite designating it as a national museum. No efforts should be spared in preserving a country’s history.
We should learn from South Africa, for instance, and the case of Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of the 27 years he was in jail. The island was elevated to a heritage site because the buildings on the island are a reminder of its sad history as well as the power of the human spirit, freedom and the victory of democracy over oppression.
At the island, there are daily guided tours by former prisoners who speak openly of their experiences living on the island. This is a genius move that allows visitors to interact firsthand with former detainees who have the valuable history. In marketing terms, it is perfect as it will draw the crowds.
Closer home, Lodwar residents have been pleading with the Tourism ministry to end the neglect of the Kenyatta House.
There are quick wins that the government can capitalise on as it awaits to embark on its renovation. For example, a visible signage that clearly identifies the house would come in handy. It may be impossible to get the former prisoners to guide visitors, but a pamphlet with such information can be issued to visitors.
Information boards, blown up pictures of the past prisoners can also be put up in the houses that will tell the real story. Fence the whole area, not just the house Mzee Kenyatta was detained in. They were called Kapenguria Six for a reason. The Turkana county government portal is a gateway for potential local and international tourists and should have information on the Kenyatta House.
The Tourism ministry should have a committee whose sole mandate is protection and promotion of heritage sites. National Museums of Kenya should also be held accountable as the Kenyatta House was marked as a national museum. A report on the renovation that was to begin back in 2017 should be issued to show progress.
Earlier this year, the historic Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, caught fire and the matter was treated as a national disaster. The incident shook all and sundry and even the private sector contributed cash towards its restoration. Why, you ask? As one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions, the Notre-Dame attracts almost 13 million visitors every year. Do the math.
Cultural sites are worth saving for their intrinsic value. They engender local pride. They bear witness to human achievements and the beauty and diversity of nature. Their financial value cannot be gainsaid.
—The writer is a communications specialist