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In 2017 Justice George Odunga of the High Court reinstated October 10 (what used to be Moi Day) as a public holiday and asserted that its continued omission from the calendar of public holidays was an illegality and a contravention of the Public Holidays Act. In 2019, the cabinet approved the renaming of Moi Day to Huduma Day, in keeping with former president Moi’s public appeal that the day should be a celebration of “service and volunteerism”.

The government, however, settled on renaming October 10 Utamaduni Day. In the government’s own words, Utamaduni Day enables Kenyans “to celebrate the rich cultural diversity of Kenya in a manner that promotes unity, national cohesion and economic progress of the country”. The decision by the government to set aside a day to celebrate our cultural diversity adds to the many efforts to inaugurate a tradition of celebrating our cultural diversity that stems from the more than 44 ethnic identities within our borders. We have witnessed different institutions and organizations run festivals that promote the appreciation of our cultural diversity.

This year’s Utamaduni Day fell on a Monday, perfectly gifting Kenyans a long weekend – which they genuinely love and celebrate. In fact, the joke goes that Kenyans tend to take any public holiday as a day of rest (from work?) rather than celebrating the actual significance of the public holiday in and of itself.

I want to believe there wasn’t a greater time for Kenyans to celebrate Utamaduni Day than this year. It is that post-election season when the country is politically divided and consequently the perceived division not only affects our political atmosphere but also our inter-cultural and social relations as citizens of this grand project called Kenya. The social media has enough evidence of these divisions.

But what really is Utamaduni Day?

But what really is Utamaduni Day and how ought we to celebrate it? In an article in Nation newspaper dated 9th October 2021 and titled Just what culture will we mark on Utamaduni Day?, Dr Tom Odhiambo of the University of Nairobi’s Literature Department observed that Utamaduni Day should have been “the day the government calls on all Kenyan ethnolinguistic and racial groups to converge in social centres and stadia and under trees, wherever they can, to perform their songs, poems, and dances; cook and eat their foods”. He also says that “What has been lacking for decades has been sustained government support for the arts and culture.” Dr Odhiambo’s observation is a fair indictment of past regimes that did not prioritize sustained and long-term investment in the culture sector.

From my conversation with Kenyan comic artist and caricaturist Paul “Maddo” Kelemba, I noted that he is concerned that as much as Utamaduni Day is a necessity in our calendar, its creation is based on an individual. He however agrees that every society on earth needs to hold onto its culture and inaugurating a day to commemorate our culture and heritage is a noble thing and even more noble is that “…in between this celebration, Kenyans should always promote their heritage”.

As Kenyans, we need to understand what culture is if we are to understand the importance of Utamaduni Day in our lives, and the need to redirect our collective energies to define how to celebrate it. The preamble of the 2010 Constitution underscores our pluricultural identity as a people. Article 11 declares that culture is the foundation of our nation and the cumulative civilization of the Kenyan people, and that among others, the State shall “promote all forms of national and cultural expression through literature, the arts, traditional celebrations [like Utamaduni Day], science, communication, information, mass media, publications, libraries and other cultural heritage.” The implementation of Article 10 on national values and principles of governance is dependent on the culture we build or harness as a people.

As Kenyans, we need to understand what culture is if we are to understand the importance of Utamaduni Day in our lives.

Veteran thespian and storyteller Aghan Odero affirms the view that a sound planning and organization around Utamaduni Day can enable us to have – as a people in our collectivity – a constant conscious interaction with our cultural “self and other” on who we really are as a people, what we aspire to, and the benefits this interaction bestows on our nationhood. In his own words, if properly conceived and planned, Utamaduni Day could afford us the imperative national critical focus, appreciation and reflection on our cultural heritage “as an essential vector in our people’s solid sense of development, consciousness and confidence in our own placement in time, space and responsibilities across generational continuum of existence”.

Culture as a tool for economic development

The benefits of celebrating our cultures cannot simply be limited to social and political relations but can influence economic development. In their book Culture Matters (2000), Samuel P. Huntington and Lawrence Harrison argue that Ghana and South Korea were closely comparable in early 1960s in terms of income per capita, structure of production and foreign aid. Several years later, their economic performance had diverged significantly. Their explanation for this is that while South Korea inculcated into its social and political space a progressive axiological ordering of society that inspired her people’s attitude towards work, education and discipline, Ghana did not. The same can be said of Kenya. In fact, the story of Kenya and the “Asian Tigers” must now be familiar to many Kenyans. In their illustration, the two scholars dismiss the common fallacy that culture is simply traditional beliefs, values and practices.

Isn’t it the case that cultures are dynamic and often intermarry to bring forth new values? Some of these values can be said to be good while others could inhibit the development of a nation as witnessed in the case of Korea vs. Ghana. Dr Oriare Nyarwath of the University of Nairobi’s Department of Philosophy shares the same view when he notes that our culture is not only our past but also our present, and such celebrations (Utamaduni Day) must uphold our good values while at the same time confronting negative national cultures such as corruption, personalization of public institutions and tribalism. I’d argue that Utamaduni Day thus becomes a true moment for “national introspection” as to our journey as a nation. For us to achieve this, Aghan observes that we may have to acknowledge that cultural heritage for national advancement comprises creative economy programming and expressive cultural institutional infrastructural investment.

No real investment towards Utamaduni Day celebrations

Our celebration of Utamaduni Day must align with sound judgment of what culture actually is if we are to contribute to a positive national culture that must be as diverse as it is inclusive. This primarily is the responsibility of policymakers who must understand that culture can be institutionalized in the people and exploited as a tool for robust development. We must look into our policy environment because we’d need sound policies and regulations if we are to have a sustainable investment in our culture and heritage.

While there exists a national policy on culture (published in 2009) from which cultural events are drawn, there is need to establish regulations or at least develop implementation criteria – a sort of modus operandi – around Utamaduni Day. Further, as expected, the national policy on culture was an antecedent to the Culture Bill whose development began in 2014 (and discussions date back to 1979) and was led by the Department of Culture and industry stakeholders.

Our celebration of Utamaduni Day must align with sound judgment of what culture actually is if we are to contribute to a positive national culture that must be as diverse as it is inclusive.

The Culture Bill sought to provide a legal framework and mechanism for safeguarding and development of culture through the establishment of a Culture Council that would provide an institutional framework for the promotion of culture.

In the early days of the 12th Parliament, PEN Kenya (the Kenyan chapter of PEN International), led by the late Professor Chris Wanjala (may he rest well with our ancestors), the Books Café host on KBC English Service Khainga Okwemba, authors Tony Mochama, Jacob Okech, Moraa Gita, and myself, among others, held workshops to spur movement with the bill. Eight years from the start of the process, the bill hasn’t been tabled in parliament for debate yet the first bill under the 5th Schedule of the 2010 Constitution required to be enacted by parliament within five years of passing the constitution was the Culture Bill.

Khainga Okwemba observes that “It is rather unfortunate that many Kenyans have spent many years working on the enactment of the Culture Bill but have been frustrated by certain government institutions that undermined the Department of Culture’s effort yet the requirement is clearly embedded in our Constitution.” It is our hope that the 13th Parliament has individuals who appreciate culture enough to push for the enactment of the bill.

From this, it is clear the new government needs to put a lot more focus on improving the policy and legislative space and resource allocation (both human and fiscal) to help support various groupings so that Utamaduni Day can have greater meaning for the bearers of the various cultures and for our national culture.

If Utamaduni Day is to become a national celebration, it shouldn’t be a one-off event but rather a climax of celebrations of our rich cultural heritage (folktale, songs, legends, communal artefacts, etc.) as well as of modern expressions of culture (urban music, literature, art murals, fashion, etc.) from across the nation. An active engagement with the communities at the grassroots level – with the involvement of county governments – should culminate in a national Utamaduni Day celebration; for instance, October should be Utamaduni month, with the 10th as the main celebrations and an extension of the spirit to October 20th when we celebrate our heroes, who I believe are a product of our national culture.

A challenge to President Ruto’s government

In the recent organization of government, President William Ruto made the right move by bringing culture under the newly created Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Heritage, given the symbiotic relations between tourism and culture. The new government now needs to facilitate investment in culture and its emblematic institutions including the Kenya Cultural Centre, National Museums of Kenya, Bomas of Kenya, among others. The new government should further establish grassroots centres (à la bottoms up) to help inspire greater cultural conversations among wananchi and complement the national institutions.

The Culture Bill is a critical tool for legislation of culture and heritage. The nominated Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, Wildlife and Heritage, Ms Peninah Malonza – upon approval by Parliament – should work with the relevant institutions to expedite the adoption of the Bill. It would also be useful for the new CS to consolidate and review the sector’s existing policy and legal instruments to address industry needs for better implementation. The government can fast-track mainstreaming culture and heritage across key sectoral developmental frameworks including education, research, environment, infrastructure, industry and commerce, ICT, health, diplomacy, etc.

The Culture Bill is a critical tool for legislation of culture and heritage.

Through participatory mechanisms, the Ministry’s planning around culture and heritage ought to amplify the nexus between culture and economic development, and further link these plans to the Fourth Medium-Term Plan (2023-2027) that lays emphasis on sustained economic growth, empowerment of youth, women and persons living with disabilities, all of whom are critical players in the growth of culture. I believe Utamaduni Day deserves to be a truly national moment for all Kenyans.