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  • Reenacting Heritage at Bomas of Kenya:Dancing the Postcolony
  • Susanne Franco (bio)

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For Samuel P. K.

This article deals with the representation of Kenya national identity through dance.1 It analyses the reenactment of a series of ethnic dances at Bomas of Kenya (the term Boma means homestead in Swahili), a cultural center located just outside Nairobi and part of the network of National Museums of Kenya, the body corporate responsible for managing all state-owned museums, sites, and monuments. Bomas offers a walking itinerary through a series of traditional villages, with each featuring the architecture of a particular ethnic group, and a show based on a multi-ethnic repertoire of dances (Gikuyu, Samburu, Maasai, Luo, Luhya, etc.), daily staged in a large auditorium (see Photo 1). In the past, Bomas, which is now presented as the “official custodian of Kenya’s tangible and intangible heritage,”2 was also defined as Cultural Village Museum,3 and described in turn as a “national ethnographic park” (Bruner 1994, 451) and a “government museum of the performing arts” (Bruner 2001, 884; 2005, 77). For many Kenyans, Bomas is also (if not mainly) the place associated with the new constitution drafted in 2003 during the National Constitutional Conference—one of the most delicate moments in Kenya’s political life, a moment that was followed by extreme ethnic antagonism and political violence. More recently, Bomas was again a focal point of national politics when it was chosen as the vote counting center of the contested 2013 elections. These varying associations with Bomas are symptomatic of the transformations the Museum of 2013 has undergone since its inception, as well as of the different perspectives adopted by visitors and scholars toward its institutional and cultural role.

This article also explores some of the tensions that exist between state-led national heritage management and alternative visions of Kenya’s cultural legacy and its historical past. The comparison between the representation of the ethnic dances staged at Bomas and Cut Off My Tongue (2009), a [End Page 5] show by Kenyan writer and performer Sitawa Namwalie (Betty Wamalwa Muragori), highlights the implications that different approaches to concepts, such as identity, embodiment, and memory, could have for a meaningful political future (Namwalie 2009).4 Namwalie’s book and show are centered on a collection of poems about life in Kenya, which discuss political critique, tradition, and genealogy. They were a response to the post-election violence in 2007 and 2008, which left an estimated 1, 300 people dead and 650, 000 persons displaced. This violence traumatized Kenyans’ collective identity, leading people to reflect upon their past and its influence on the present.

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Photo 1.

Auditorium of Bomas of Kenya.

Copyright: Susanne Franco

I start with an overview of the social and political situation of Kenya and of its contested historical narratives; in the second section, I illustrate the cultural project of Bomas, and discuss the relationship between ethnic dances and national identity in the creation of its repertoire; in the third section, I analyze Bomas’s role in the larger framework of Kenya’s investment into heritage politics, as opposed to its marginalization of historical investigation; in the last section, I analyze the archival strategies deployed by Bomas in the light of recent theoretical perspectives offered by dance and performance studies. Throughout the article, I use Namwalie’s Cut Off My Tongue as a piece that dialectically highlights the dynamics and contradictions of Bomas’s operations.5

Histories and Memories of Kenya

The repertoire of ethnic dances staged at the Bomas, which presents a harmonious coexistence of different cultural traditions under the auspices of the nation, belies the profound divisions that continue to trouble Kenya fifty years after its independence in 1963. Like most African states, Kenya was a colonial invention—an arbitrary territorial segmentation that includes a wide diversity of peoples, languages, and cultures. Jomo Kenyatta, the founding father and the first President of the Republic of Kenya in 1964, promoted an ideal of national unity expressed by the official motto Harambee...


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pp. 3-22
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