Try non-elitist approaches like sports to achieve national unity
The March 9 handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and his erstwhile archrival, opposition chief Raila Odinga, was meant to be a nationhealing event aimed at solving the perennial problem of high-octane politics and related violence.
But that is only if we take it as we have been told. We can assume that the two are out to create a national “super-family” to solve ethnic enmity, which has become a permanent stain on our politics.
However, we should not forget that this is not the first “handshake”; failed notable handshake-like pacts include (Jomo) Kenyatta I(jaramogi Oginga) Odinga I, Odinga II-MOI and Kibaki-odinga II.
The principle has not worked as it is seen in some quarters as elitist and only uniting by excluding part of the citizenry. The Uhuru-raila truce is already causing jitters in the Rift Valley.
We need to create national unity through routine activities of ordinary people — the “everyday nationhood” — such as sports and pride in our game parks, universities, schools, music and even food, to make us realise our sameness.
To use a real-life analogy, national unity through routine activities is like courtship while the Uhuru-raila handshake unity is similar to an arranged marriage.
Routine activities that unite ordinary people are what Michael Billig, a British political scientist, calls banal nationalism — the concealed efforts to build national unity that is in contrast with elitist approaches such as the handshakes.
Take the case of sports. Support of national sports events has been known to bring people together and provide joy and pride in the nation. Yet we don’t use this tool for national cohesion despite our being a powerhouse in sports.
It is cricket for Indians, ice hockey for Canadians, skating for the Dutch, cycling for the French, field hockey for Pakistanis and baseball for Americans. Patriotism in these countries is silently created by their national sports.
Ethnic animosity arises because each group is proud of its own ethnic leaders with equal hatred for those from other ethnic groups.
But that is not the case in sports: We are all proud of our nation’s sports champions.
Sports can, therefore, be used to forge national unity by producing and activating national stories of ‘Kenyanness’. Pride in success of our athletes activates patriotic feelings, making us to realise that we are the same.
Kenyans are in constant search of what can make them proud of their country, but the majority of political institutions have very little to be proud of. Going by regular comments in social media, it seems Kenyans are not proud of even the leaders they elected, but hold sports teams and personalities in high esteem.
We need to make sports everpresent: Invest more in the national teams, reward our players better, build more stadiums, encourage broadcasting of local sports, teach sports in school and adopt other sports-for-all strategies.
These quotidian activities are in contrast to passionate efforts such as the much-touted handshake.
DAVID KATIAMBO, Nairobi.
Kenyan fans cheer Harambee Starlets during their 2018 Africa Women’s Cup of Nations qualifying match at Kenyatta Stadium, Machakos, on April 5.