By Margaretta wa Gacheru
“Less is known about East African slavery because it’s been seen as a tabu,” said senior curator at the Shimoni Slavery Museum and Heritage Site, Patrick Abungu.
“There has been denial on the part of many descendants of slaves, primarily because there’s a stigma associated with slavery.”
This is why the current exhibition at Alliance Francaise entitled “Silent Memories: the unbroken chains” is so important. It’s bound to clear the air and clarify what actually happened in East Africa with regard to slavery.
Presented on the occasion of the United Nations International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, the photo-text exhibition including an equally illuminating documentary film scripted and narrated by Abungu, was produced with support from Unesco, Alliance Francaise and the French Embassy to Kenya as well as the National Museums of Kenya.
The first stunning revelation that the Shimoni Museum’s lead researcher, Abungu, brings to light is that slavery has been endemic in the region for centuries.
“It wasn’t commercialised, however, until outside forces came to the Coast. After that, Africans were marched from as far as Malawi, Mozambique and Congo as well as from Uganda, and Kenya to Shimoni caves where they were held until dhows came to take them to the slave market in Zanzibar,” said Abungu who led the National Museums research team which has unearthed much of the information in the exhibition.
Using archival photographs and drawings together with maps of the various slave routes in the region and detailed texts, the exhibition offers an excellent overview of what slavery and the slave trade has meant both in the past and present.
In Abungu’s view, present day slavery is not so very different from the commercial slave trade that was abolished by the British in the mid-nineteenth century and specifically in Kenya in 1907, although the practice continued covertly until the mid-1940s.
Modern-day slavery may be called by different names, such as sex trafficking, child labour, child soldiers and even wage slavery, but these manifestations still deprive human beings of their liberty, said Abungu who includes indentured labour such as was found during the colonial era among the myriad forms of enslavement.
The continuity between past and present-day slavery is one reason why the title of the exhibition is “the unbroken chain”.
One peculiar problem that descendants of slaves have in Kenya today, and one that Abungu feels requires a government policy change, is the way that slave descendants harkening from outside of Kenya are classified as ‘aliens’ not Kenyans.
“The 42-tribe narrative means that in order to be classified as ‘Kenyan’, slave descendants whose ancestors were grabbed from outside the country have either to remain as aliens or change their identities to one of the 42 tribes,” he said.
In the exhibition, there are several such cases. One old woman by the name of Moshi was from Malawi, but in order to obtain a Kenyan ID, she had to identify herself as Giriama.
The injustice of this policy the Shimoni Slavery Museum curator said is especially unfair to descendants who’ve lived in Kenya for two or three generations.