Anthems and flags are symbols that hem in allegiance among communities that subscribe to a common cause or a set of shared goals. While an anthem is a musical composition that extols the values, heritage and the driving spirit of a society, a flag is an insignia meant to express commitment to mutual interests and pursuits. Simply put, anthems and flags are emblems that affirm a kindred affinity among a group of people in pursuit of a common set of aspirations.
Anthems and flags are also instruments of unification. They are couched to breathe life and purpose to the soul of a community bound by a common cause.
Before we venture any further into the nitty-gritty of the origins and social significance of anthems and flags, let us interrogate where the two trace their origins.
The anthem is essentially a 19th century phenomenon with historical roots in Europe. The earliest national anthem—the Wilhelmus—traces its origins to the Netherlands. Though written during the Dutch Revolution of 1568 to 1572, the song became the official national anthem in 1932.
Melodies of most anthems easily agree to marching or hymnal routines. That is how many of anthems are delights of structured ensembles, especially brass bands. Anthems are usually translated into multiple versions depending on the language map of a given nation or jurisdiction they serve.
The Swiss Psalm, Switzerland’s national anthem, for instance, is available in four languages – French, German, Italian and Romansh. The four versions cater for Switzerland’s four official languages. Meanwhile and closer home, the case of South Africa’s national anthem is distinctly peculiar. In a single composition, five of South Africa’s eleven national languages fuse into a national ensign designed to celebrate the country’s homogeneity.
Back home, Kenya’s national anthem is available officially in both Kiswahili and English. The East African Community anthem, routinely intoned soon after national anthems of the respective member states is rendered in Kiswahili, a common denominator across the region.
Meanwhile, the African Union’s anthem has six renditions in Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Swahili. The six versions are in recognition of the continent’s most dominant languages.
Still on anthems, very few national canticles are works of world-renowned composers aside from German’s Das Lied de Deutschen, a composition by Joseph Haydn and Austria’s Land der Berge, Land am Strome, credited to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
In hindsight, most national anthems are inspired by circumstances organic to user jurisdictions. Most hardly exude exoticism, perhaps to imbue in them an enduringly universal appeal. And this for a good reason! How else can anthems become ubiquitous capital on a regional or national scale?
Kenya’s national anthem got its impetus from a Pokomo lullaby reworked by five musically gifted individuals—Graham Hyslop, Ugandan-born George Senoga-Zake, Thomas Kalume, Peter Kibukosya and Washington Omondi—at the turn of independence. The Pokomo, a southeastern Bantu community whose population stood at 112,075 in 2019 is part of Kenya’s nearly 50 communities that collectively command a population of about 50 million to date.
The outset of independence was marked by high expectations and Kenyans were eager to savour the fruit of freedom after decades of colonial domination. This spirit informed the hope and aspirations expressed in our national anthem.
Essentially, Kenya’s national anthem is a prayer framed as a wish list. It is a statement of acknowledgement of what we hold dear as a people, what our worth as a country holds as well as a proclamation of our shared hopes. It is also a communiqué of our common purpose as Kenyans.
Though not as common as it was years back, Kenya’s national anthem was part of a package served alongside a National Pledge, itself a recital particularly popular among Boy Scouts and Girl Guides;
I pledge my loyalty to the President and Nation of Kenya,
My readiness and duty to defend the flag of our Republic.
My devotion to the words of our national anthem.
My life and strength in the task our nation’s building.
In the living spirit embodied in our
national motto – Harambee!
Anthems appeal to patriotic sensibilities that communicate a people’s identity, desires and pride. This is demonstrable in the words of our national anthem.
Kenya National Anthem
O God of all creation,
Bless this our land and nation.
Justice be our shield and defender,
May we dwell in unity,
Peace and liberty.
Plenty be found within our borders.
Let one and all arise
With hearts both strong and true.
Service be our earnest endeavour,
And our Homeland of Kenya,
Heritage of splendour,
Firm may we stand to defend.
Let all with one accord
In common bond united,
Build this our nation together,
And the glory of Kenya,
The fruit of our labour
Fill every heart with thanksgiving.
Perhaps an indication of the place God occupies in the list of Kenya’s priorities, the opening line of our national anthem seeks blessings upon the land from above. Justice, unity, peace, liberty and abundance follow as our top quests in that order. The second stanza of Kenya’s national anthem calls on every citizen to pull together in serving the nation in order to safeguard our national honour. The last stanza underlines the place of unity of purpose in working towards a more prosperous nation for which we stand to reap benefits that we will be thankful in the fullness of time.
Turning now to flags. Besides being predominantly oblong cloth pennants, usually held in place by staffs or halyards, flags—historically—are also symbols of shared kinship and devotion to a common cause.
Flags evolved from military standards. Their origin is traced to Egypt of 3,000 years ago. Flags were also used by the Roman Empire as logotypes of local armies. Roman armies had various standards among them the Signum, the Aquila and the Vexillum. It is from the Vexillum that the term vexillology—the study of flags—is derived. Back then, the loss of a standard was a scandalous affair, particularly so the Aquila. That should tell us something about the significance of flags and standards as badges of national identity, sovereignty and pride, then as now.
Some of the earliest vestiges of expressions of patriotism relating to the use of flags manifested in decorations on spears and cultural identity symbols meant to tell apart one group from another. This happened mostly in war related adventures.
With time, the use of flags was preferred for announcing presence or claiming sovereignty. Previously, erecting sculptures and other war-bound symbols was in vogue but not after flags took over. By using flags, explorers and colonialists signaled intended dominance over targeted territories. That is precisely why the lowering of the Union Jack and subsequent hoisting of the Kenyan flag on December 12th 1963 at Uhuru Gardens remains such a symbolic event in the history of Kenya.
Neil Armstrong was the first person to land on the moon in 1969. To mark that breakthrough, Armstrong erected the American flag on the moon’s surface to the pride of his motherland. Similarly, when Kenya attained independence on December 12th 1962, one Kisoi Munyao erected our flag atop Batian peak to celebrate the newfound freedom.
There are standard symbols used on flags to communicate the same meaning across the globe. The sun, for instance, stands for unity and vigour. For using the sun in its flag Japan is sometimes referred to as the “land of the rising sun”. The moon—mostly captured as a crescent—in the company of stars is a symbol of divinity especially to Muslims. Other common symbols that feature on flags include stars, representing energy, the cross for faith and wholesomeness and the square to convey balance.
A cursory survey will reveal that red and white are the commonest colours on world flags. Most flags go for primary colours and particularly blue, red and green. A few, however, feature yellow or a range of secondary colours. Gold, considered the colour of kings or also the colour of the sun features in some flags too.
Flags carry meaning through the choice of symbols or colours that appear on them. Some flags don the sun, the moon or stars while others use symbols such as the cross. Kenya’s flag has a shield and spears in the middle. The shield and spears are trophies of triumph over colonial domination just as they are accessories that signify the need for vigilance in protecting our sovereignty and territorial integrity. The colour red on Kenya’s flag is a reminder of the blood that was shed during Kenya’s liberation struggle, green is the colour of the landscape, white denotes peace and honour while black is archetypical of our skin colour.
At the turn of independence, some of Kenya African National Union officials wanted the party’s flag to become the national flag. However, the late Thomas Mboya championed the quest to have a flag that would represent wider interests beyond KANU. That is how the flag of Kenya got its distinctive colours and symbols.
In retrospect, Kenya’s anthem and flag are the most visible symbols of our nationhood. They exemplify the best of our shared ancestry, beliefs and ways of life. They remind us of where we have come from as they embolden us to approach the future with optimism and courage. It would be tragic to lose the import and meaning of our anthem and flag because that would then mean getting detached from our national soul.