Kenya: Fury over Symbol

Article excerpt

Otieno Aluoka reports on Kenya's new KSh200 banknote that depicts three sad-looking cotton-pickers, which could remind African-Americans of the terrible old days of their enslaved forebears who suffered for nothing on America's cotton fields.

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As one of its main ideas to celebrate Kenya's 40 years of independence on 12 December, the government introduced a forty shillings coin featuring the portrait of the President Mwai Kibaki, and a new two-hundred shilling note emblazoned with, surprise surprise, a painting showing three tired slave-looking Africans picking cotton on a cloudy foothill.

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Two cotton bales are shown in the picture, one held by a woman and another by a man, probably to depict the gender-encompassing notion of a working nation. The decision to cast these features on the national currency must have involved no less than very senior state bureaucrats at the Central Bank of Kenya and the power brokers at the State house.

Perhaps the Kibaki government genuinely wants to reverse the economic marginalisation of regions like Nyanza province that had in the past been responsible for most of the country's cotton production. Kenya's cotton industry, however, collapsed more than two decades ago. In fact, today the country has no cotton production to write home about.

But, whatever election pledges the government might have given to cotton growers, the representation of the sad cotton pickers on the new KSh200 note is quite unfortunate, especially the connotations it carries across the seas to the descendants of Africans whose forebears were enslaved and made to suffer humiliation on the cotton fields of America.

"Cotton Negroes" at the back of currencies are nothing spectacular and the imagery today can only celebrate sweat, pain, bitterness and injustice; not sweetness, freedom and liberty.

The American Southern Confederate States including Virginia, Carolina and Georgia kept banknotes with cotton slave pickers for centuries to show that they were "working nations". …