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We Have Come to Praise Caesar, Not To Bury Him: The St. Gabriel of the Archives

By Wambui Mwangi

I hope all of you are sitting down. Take deep calming breaths. I am in Nairobi right now and what I have to write about has left me quite breathless. It has been my wont to subject our government and its officers to the most critical appraisal I can muster, and unfortunately, I have been right and right and right. Most days I open the newspaper just to see what god with feet of clay is getting fired today!
 
As the saying goes, "tunajienjoy sana": seeing those who thought that not only were they above the law but were, indeed, the embodiment of the law, having their little bubble of illusion go “Pop!”
 
But now, I am about to shower a government employee with praise.

Never let it be said that I do not give credit where credit is due. I have not visited the Kenyan archives for some two years, for a series of reasons too long and frankly boring to subject you too. Further, the last time I spent a really extended research time in the archives was when I was doing the research for my dissertation, when I was there all day, every day for at least a year and a bit.
 
This, of course, was looooong ago. I hated it. It was like delving into a dustbin. There was crap everywhere, and truly, as soon as I walked into the building, whose outside looked like one of a not particularly salubrious establishment (those where you can hire rooms by the hour) and the inside looked like a recently vacated prison, my spirits plummeted. I felt dirty just walking in, and by the end of the day I was dirty.
 
Truly, I would probably have been better off, and less depressed if I had simply gone into growing potatoes. At the end of each day, my bath water was a colour that resembled mud and as for that inch-thick rim of yuckiness around the tub…….euggghhh, nuff said. It was rather horrible.


I know last year government buildings (to their undying shock) received a face lift by way of a new coat of paint. These buildings included the Kenya National Archives, and very pretty and respectable it looked too—from the outside. I didn’t get to go inside for my last trip. However, it appears that the changes to the outside are as nothing compared to the changes to the inside.
 
Approximately a year and a half ago, the archives went and got themselves a champion, in the form of the new director, Mr. L. I. Mwangi. (no relation—never even met him before this week.). Mr. Mwangi is the archives' very own defender, protector and promoter.

When I walked into the archives building on Monday, I was gobsmacked. I don’t believe I have ever used that word in a sentence before, but it seemed apt. I was stunned.
 
Right now, the first floor of the Kenyan National Archives is probably the most stunning exhibition of art open to the public in the whole of country—and (sotto voce) they haven’t finished yet!!!.
 
Although they are still doing renovations, so unless you are sneaky like me, you may not get in. But the renovations will be over soon.
 
Mr. Mwangi and Alan Donovan between them have unearthed the Murumbi Collection. This collection was no doubt languishing in some corner of the basement like a pile of used laundry. And they have put them up.
 
I think finally the spirit of Mr Murumbi is at rest. I do not gush, but I am gushing. Archives are important to me, in fact, they are how I do the work I get paid for, and this particular archive is, to me, the most important building in Nairobi.
 
To see that someone, finally, has recognized the importance of showing us different aspects of our past and the ways in which they may impact on the present, is well, it’s a tear-jerker. I admit it. I cried. In front of archive employees.
 
And I wasn’t even mortified, so there. At that point, my tears were the only way I had of acknowledging the work, the commitment and the vision that have gone into creating this tremendous work of beauty and splendour. So, I have come to praise Mr. L. I. Mwangi, who is forthwith on the very short list of heroic figures.

He is a lovely man. He is quiet, he is unassuming and he has given us back our pride and burnished it to its highest glow.
 
Please please, if you are in or are about to go to Nairobi, and if you have NOT been to the archives for at least two years, go and see what splendour has been created. You will be astounded. And perhaps you too, will cry.
 
Do not forget to thank the people who brought this about. I just wanted to say that, and dash off, because now I must go to the archives. A-skipping and a-humming I go to my ineffably gorgeous palace of Kenyan history.
 
Mwangi is an academic and writer. She blogs as madkenyanwoman
 

The Joy of Kenyan National Archives

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