BY JACOB OKETCH
As opposed to most books, the authorial voice in Happy Birthday presents a very rare form of rendition of a written work. It speaks to an infant as if the child is able to understand what it is being told.
In a sense, there is exaggeration of the child’s ability to grasp what it is being told by the father. A child, who is a few weeks old, in the real world, is not able to speak and there is no way of knowing if they understand what we tell them or not. The title also alludes to the fact that the author is optimistic about the young generation; their emergence could herald happier times.
This book is significant in several ways. Firstly, this is one of the few works that give a detailed historical account of the freedom struggle. Most Kenyans have barely read anything substantial about the freedom hero; Dedan Kimathi. Much of what we know about him is very scanty. History books have done Kimathi a disservice by glossing over what he did for the country. Happy Birthday examines Kimathi’s life from childhood to his demise. There is a detailed account of his progression as a freedom fighter. We get to know about his mobilization skills and his gift of the gab.
In the same breadth, the meticulous organization of the Mau Mau fighters is greatly accounted for. To the ordinary Kenyan, for instance, Mau Mau could have just been a rag tag militia that did not have any grounding. But through this book, we get to learn that Mau Mau was actually a very organized movement and had members all over the country. It was composed of several fighting units that were under a central command. We also get to know of the flawless chain of command that existed in the freedom struggle movement.
There is a sense in which the author reflects on the issue of religion where he seems to be casting aspersions on the many churches that have sprung up in Kenya in recent years. He seems to be suggesting that people whose interest is self-aggrandisement have perverted religion. It is not lost on readers that the issue of the emergence of numerous churches is bound to raise eyebrows because the public is alarmed at the fragmentation of the church into very many groupings. It may call for borrowing of lessons from our neighboring country Rwanda where the creation of more churches has been outlawed. In fact, Rwanda has proscribed several churches.
The author is very critical of the lack of initiative by African leaders. He decries the pathetic state of our innovation where most of the products that Africans use are sourced from the West. The black man and woman, he seems to suggest, have failed in coming up with products of their own and are fully dependent on the Western products. This argument is in some ways prejudicial given the fact that the dynamics of globalization mainly focuses on partnerships and a kind of exclusivity as advocated by the author may not hold currency. Be that as it may, the author’s call for the stretching of the African imagination is something that should be welcome by those who yearn for a Continent that is self-sufficient in all aspects.
The book mentions Prof Ngugi wa Thiongo, the legendary Kenyan writer who contributed immensely to the awakening of Kenyan people to agitate for total freedom. His incarceration during the Jomo Kenyatta’s regime and his subsequent exile is well documented. When the author mentions him with regard to a specific place in the author’s rural home, one is reminded of the Kamirithu Community Theatre that he set up in the same area. The Government brought it down as it was viewed as subversive.
The author, by addressing the child seems to suggest that there is hope in the young generation as far as leadership is concerned. He enumerates several questions that he intends to ask the son. The authorial voice seems to have faith in what the young generation will come up with. The wish by the authorial voice for his son to take over leadership is a kind of endorsement of the young people to bring transformational leadership. He however acknowledges that the leaders who have ruled the country up to the present moment have done their bit and deserve some sort of commendation.
Happy Birthday gives a detailed account of General Mathenge’s contribution to the freedom struggle. His exploits in the forest are well documented. His rivalry with Dedan Kimathi is also well brought out. There are many Kenyans who may not have any idea of who Gen Mathenge was. But a fairly recent occurrence can jolt our memories of this man. The NARC government goofed big time when there emerged an attempt to bring home a fellow who was deemed to be the freedom fighter from Ethiopia. It was a hugely embarrassing moment when it turned out that the fellow who was brought to Kenya was an Ethiopian farmer by the name Lemma Ayanu. It is this kind of missteps that raises questions as to whether we are committed to preserving the history of our freedom heroes. The disappearance of Mathenge is something that ought to be explained given that he had a huge number of people who accompanied him. How could they disappear without a trace?
The fact that the author is addressing a very young child represents an image of freshness. This book is very important for the young and innocent people who are beginning to make forays into the ocean of life. The author seems to have invested hope in the untainted section of the population who he believes can steer the country to greater heights. He cautions the young against the allures of the many ills bedeviling the youth. He is very diplomatic though, opting to fire questions at the child and not giving instructions of any kind.
Suffice it to say that this is a book that anybody who is curious about the history of the freedom struggle in Kenya ought to read. The details of how the war of freedom happened are priceless. Part of the challenge that we have is that we seem not to know how we ended up being free and we tend to take the freedom we enjoy today for granted as a result. The book is also very valuable to researchers of the historicity of the freedom struggle in Kenya.