How important is Kenya’s royal connection?

| July 21, 2012 - 21.10UTC
African Children's Choir

With the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations only recently on our screens, Juliet Njeri finds out what Kenyans think of their country’s ties with the royal family and the Commonwealth

2012 is Britain’s year in the global spotlight. From the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee to the summer Olympics, the world is watching and listening to London Calling. Kenya has close ties with Britain, not least due to our colourful shared history. My parent’s generation, in particular, seems to have a soft spot for the royal family and the Commonwealth.

However, these feelings of endearment seem to have faded with time. My generation is definitely not as enamoured with ‘Queen and country’. There is, however, still some attachment, as entrepreneur Agwingi Argwings-Kodhek explains: “We have great affinity to the Queen. The institution represents order, grandeur, stability and tradition. It represents everything that was good about old Kenya.”

But this is countered by growing ambivalence. As Edna Koskey, a consultant on electoral issues, bluntly puts it: “To me, they are just normal human beings who have no impact whatsoever on my daily life.”

A right royal year

Despite these mixed feelings, some people did take the time to watch the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June.

Phyllis Gikaara, an events coordinator in Nairobi, enjoyed the televised coverage, going so far as to say, “It makes me proud as a Kenyan that we are part of the royal family’s history.”

Businesswoman Carole Kutsushi concurs. “It is very significant that the Queen was in Kenya when she rose to the throne. The fact that her grandson also chose to propose in Kenya really puts the country on the world map. It puts the spotlight on Kenya as a great tourist destination, which is good for our economy.”

Both women have their favourite royals. Prince William is “very, very charming” and Prince Harry “is cute, in the army and doing his bit for God and Queen”.

Another fan of the Royals is Mendi Njonjo, who works in the development sector.

“Honestly, no one does pomp and circumstance like the Brits. They know how to throw a bash. The feel-good factor of folks like the royal family enjoying Kenya is major. It gives me the warm fuzzies!”

The Kenyan government marked the celebrations by sending a delegation to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pageant in London. Kenya’s stand was visited by the Queen herself – she was welcomed by traditional music and dancers, signalling her fond memories of the country.

Making a song and dance

Two remarkable Kenyan groups – the African Children’s Choir and the Kibera Slum Drummers – were centre-stage during the celebrations in London, forming part of a star-studded ensemble, which performed the official Diamond Jubilee song, Sing, written by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and Take That’s Gary Barlow.

The royal party was the most high-profile event the African Children’s Choir has taken part in. The team worked around the clock to design costumes, organise logistics and prepare the young singers for the historic performance held in front of Buckingham Palace.

“Everyone was very excited. It was such a privilege to represent our country,” says Julius, one of the members of the choir. “There were so many people, waving flags, I was a bit nervous. Not everyone gets to sing for the Queen.”

The children even got to meet Her Majesty. Viola recounts: “We had practiced how to greet the Queen, but we just smiled; everyone was very happy!”

The Kibera Slum Drummers were just as elated to be part of the events. “It will remain in our memories for the rest of our lives,” says Henry, the group’s leader. Back in Kenya, at the Treetops Hotel, where the Queen was staying when she learnt that she was to ascend the throne, a beacon was lit to commemorate the event. The ceremony was attended by tourists and other invited guests and presided over by the British High Commission and Kenya’s Ministry of Tourism.

On 6 and 8 June Kenyan Maasai, dressed in traditional shukas, presented commuters in London and Dublin with packages of Kenya’s world famous tea. Each packet included a note which read: “In 1952, a young lady arrived in Kenya as a princess and left as a queen… come start your story in Magical Kenya.”

Who cares anyway?

Away from the pomp and parties, most people I spoke to were quite dismissive of the Commonwealth and I got the feeling that most young Kenyans are ready to cut this particular cord.

“The Commonwealth is not relevant to us,” explains Mendi Njonjo who works in the development sector. “Celebrating a heritage based on the fact that we were former colonies just doesn’t sit right with me.”

Damaris Muga, an image consultant, admits that the last time she was interested in the Commonwealth was more than twenty years ago. “Despite the organisation’s mantra that all members are equal in status, we are not equal, and the British don’t regard us as equal.”

One of the few people I spoke to who appears more positive about the Commonwealth is Nora Caroline, a business executive.“I think it is still relevant as it makes us feel as though a ‘higher-power’ is watching us, and the common values shared by member countries, such as democracy and peace, are maintained,” she says.

Personally, the overriding feeling I get is one of detachment. It seems that the body is slowly losing its relevance. Perhaps it’s just that Kenya is simply ready to break with its colonial past and move forward. Mr Agwings-Kodhek puts it more strongly. “The Commonwealth is moribund,” he declares with finality.

Voice of the people
How a song united the Commonwealth
When Gary Barlow from boy band Take That teamed up with music maestro Andrew Lloyd Webber to produce the official song for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, they were advised by Prince Charles to steep themselves in the music of the Commonwealth. Barlow visited Australia, Jamaica and the Solomon Islands, recording vocals and soundtracks from dozens of musicians. But it was in Kenya that he struck gold with the African Children’s Choir (whose soloist, Lydia, opens and closes the song), the Kibera Slum Drummers and Ayub Ogada – an internationally renowned musician and singer who plays the nyatiti, a traditional stringed instrument, on the track. Sing debuted at number one in the UK album charts can be downloaded at www.jubileesing.com

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