Renaming Streets is a Visible Cultural Tool, We Must Safeguard it.

Last Friday a Kileleshwa upmarket road with a nondescript name (Dik Dik) was renamed to Francis Atwoli.

By Richard Kitheka

The renaming of roads can be contentious, pitting the proponents against those supporting the status quo. However, if done right, it can have a positive cultural outcome and highlight moments, people, leaders, heroes, or events that help us recognize and reflect culture, history, heritage, and the geographical landscape.

A good renaming adds value to any city’s identity by solidifying the information in our mental matrix by elevating the conversation around a name. Coherent and appropriate branding of roads is therefore essential to help users identify locations for managing emergencies, delivering goods and services as well as embalming cultural heritage, and recognizing heroes and heroines.

Last Friday a Kileleshwa upmarket road with a nondescript name (Dik Dik) was renamed to Francis Atwoli. The candor and rancor surrounding this renaming is a point for reflection on the duality of society in its roles as both curator and critique of heroes and heroines during different time spheres.

Street renaming is as old as the hills A historical perspective on street names reveals different and potentially competing master storyboards. Our famous Kenyatta Avenue, Muindi Mbingu, and Kimathi Streets are examples that reflecting the ebb and flow of socio-political reality and the emergence of Nairobi from a colonial sheath. Kenyatta Avenue, originally Sixty Avenue was renamed as Lord Delamere Avenue in 1932 following the death of Lord Delamere. Decades later it received yet another do-over and became Kenyatta Avenue. Hardinge Street became Kimathi Street after Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi, a feted Mau Mau freedom warrior. Ronald Ngala was Duke Street and so on.

All these name changes reflect the heritage, local values, history, culture, and philosophy fit to preserve and restore our pride of place as a nation by extolling those we value and respect.

Many Western countries have praxis to guide the glacial renaming of streets. For instance: Use of the definitive article ‘the’ is not acceptable for sole use as a road name, road types are not to be used in the formation of a road name, neither is the use of numerals or words like ‘Upper’, ‘lower’, ‘little’, ‘old’ or ‘new’ and cardinal directions north, south, east, and west are not to be used solely in naming. Destination-to-destination names are not acceptable, for example, you cannot have a signpost reading Mombasa! Furthermore, the naming of a road after an estate, which is solely commercial in nature, is not permitted yet, a quick tour of Nairobi will reveal commercial estates with street names.

The fact that our roads have poor naming is telling of our level of nomenclature.

For instance that one can say they are on Mombasa road to convey being at Cabanas, Nairobi or even being in Kibarani (480kms away) in Mombasa city yet both are telling the truth. This is a Byzantine problem. This write-up focuses itself on the actual naming process of the roads.

After the Heroes Act of 2014, Kenya began purifying its house by relooking at how it honors its heritage and in particular its heroes. In 2017, the country was rocked after a scandal where a set of contested awardees won Head of State Commendations- among them the now-famous Kamotho Martin aka 'Githeri Man'

Efforts to bring sanity to the country’s national honors board mean that copies of the State Investiture booklets on citations of past recipients of the national awards should be available for scrutiny when and as needed.

The reasons for various recipients being honored is also a necessary record. The Government Printer and the National Honours Advisory Committee have in the past gone on record, saying they did not keep copies of the State Investiture booklet of the national awards, raising serious questions on who is the custodian of the national awards.

National celebrations such as Madaraka Day or Mashujaa Day are boutique events elegantly designed for the President to confers orders, decorations, and medals on various outstanding individuals, both Kenyans, and foreigners.

The presidential awards are meant for men and women of proven integrity, whose roles and contribution to the country, and society in general, have been adjudged exemplary, profound, pre-eminent, and inspiring. Those awarded often demonstrate excellence in service to the country and to the society in economic, scientific, social, political, or economic spheres through a display of exceptional brilliance, courage, commitment, and valor in their abilities.

For street naming, the categorization of heroes mandate falls under The National Heroes Council as well as a function of the city’s county leadership.

The council led by Ambassador Yvonne Khamati- Yahya manages heroism as a whole. The role of the able council is to help Kenyans gain a deeper appreciation of our heroes through a set of pillared roles namely: selection of heroes, a criterion for identifying, selecting, and honoring heroes. 14 coherent categories were identified.

This creates a sense of national pride and mobilizes the country to adopt a heroism agenda and culture. This then feeds and satisfies the hearts and minds of Kenyan citizens with inspiration in all spheres of life be it politics, business, sports, arts, entrepreneurship or philanthropy. It is also meant to ensure heroism supports national development and modern agenda.

The renaming of Dik Dik Road in honor of Francis Atwoli would then appear to fall under the architecture of one of these spheres.

However, it is not clear if the council acted out its role or the full spectrum of roles assigned it or, even, if the council was consulted.

Among its many roles, acting with integrity, the council is meant to mobilize stakeholders to ensure high involvement and enduring citizen support for our heroes and heroines. It must be inclusive in its selection and diverse in its processes to format an encouraging picture and harmonious culture.

Sentiment analysis reveals that the drama in honoring Atwoli with a road has been illustrative of a process unnecessarily shortchanged. The very fact that it had to summon resources (CCTV) to secure the signpost against marauding activists is proof of a process gone awry with a catalytic impact and embarrassment on the person of Francis Atwoli.

This is needless in the path to embalming and engraving a national hero in the psyche and minds of Kenyans now and in the future.

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