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Kenyans, it is finally time to become a nation

I listened to a rendition of our national anthem at a school Christmas production the other day. The anthem was played, unusually, using piano and violin – and it was utterly enchanting. I am not ashamed to state here in print that it brought a tear or two to my eye. And why not, when deep-rooted emotions of belonging and oneness are stirred?

The performance made me reflect: why doesn’t this happen more often? Why don’t we in Kenya feel this deep stirring, this common spirit, this feeling of unity and inter-connectedness, this powerful glue of togetherness?

Let’s face it: we are only a ‘pretend-nation.’ We have borders and passports and a flag, yes – but we have yet to become a nation. And the blame for this should be placed squarely at our leadership over the decades. We have yet to encounter true nationalist leaders – people whose sole mission is to unite the nation and the collective and drive it forward. Instead, we have had to settle for a procession of ethnic chieftains whose primary identity has been around their own tribes and families.

We the people also carry the blame. We engage enthusiastically in making pretend-noises about national unity, when all we are really preoccupied with is a much narrower set of enclaves: religions, clans, communities, families.

When David Rudisha runs past that finish line to break the world record and take the medal, what do we feel? Do we dismiss him, saying that fellow from that tribe has nothing to do with me? Do we think this is good for ‘his’ people but not for ‘ours’? No, we all jump for joy and share in the triumph of a Kenyan and Kenya. Don’t we?

So why is it we can’t maintain that emotion at all times, in all our interactions? For once the emotion of the moment is done, we slink back to our little caves and think smaller thoughts and become smaller people preoccupied with smaller things. We revert to what we really are: a collection of ghettoes that has never really understood nationhood. We look to our tribes, our religions, our places of birth, our social classes to give us our primary identities.

If a country as diverse as the United States can develop a pronounced national spirit, what stops us? Look at the unity of purpose shown by the Germans and the Japanese to understand the power of collective fervour and mission.

Kenya is at a great economic moment. Many factors have come together – a new constitution, a youthful population, a favourable location, a burgeoning hinterland, mobile connectivity – to produce a moment we cannot afford to waste. But waste it we will if keep thinking small. We have to think nation, region and continent now – not village and estate. This is not a time for little minds.

This land of great beauty needs to stand for something bigger than tribes and skin-colours and religious cocoons. We have to sing our anthems with fervour and support our champions with gusting emotion. We have to each give as well as take from our motherland. We have to participate fully in the big issues of our country.

Most importantly, we have to place a new set of demands on our leaders. We have to chase those who encourage hatred of our fellow Kenyans out of our villages and towns. We have to stipulate that we want big thinkers to lead us – those who can understand this new, always-on, globalized world and who can forge out a competitive position for Kenya in the new order.

Seriously, people, we have finally to become a nation of patriots led by big hearts and minds. The time for petty politics and self-centred leaders is gone.

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