Ideas & Debate

Kenya urgently needs law on street-naming

Francis Atwoli Road

Francis Atwoli (centre) at the unveiling of Francis Atwoli Road. PHOTO | COURTESY

Apart from the drama surrounding her controversial nomination and subsequent appointment as Nairobi Deputy Governor, perhaps the most newsworthy official action taken by Ann Kananu Mwenda since assuming office as “acting” Nairobi Governor has been the equally confounding renaming of Dik Dik Road in Kileleshwa, Nairobi, to Francis Atwoli Road.

For the benefit of our readers in Antarctica, Francis Atwoli is the ebullient trade unionist and maverick secretary-general of the ubiquitous Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) in Kenya.

The acting governor’s unilateral decision to honour the trade unionist with a road name, almost like a personal birthday gift, appears to have drawn the instant ire of many Kenyans if the raving and ranting on social media is anything to go by.

It would appear that some Kenyans were so irked by the idea of Francis Atwoli Road that they uprooted the signpost within 24 hours of its erection.

The drama, however, heightened a notch higher when the signpost was re-installed on the same day. It took no less a personage than Mr Atwoli himself to announce that the signpost had not only been re-installed but CCTV cameras had also been deployed to guard it.

Geography lesson

Granted, there is nothing particularly grandiose about naming a city road after a small wild animal especially if the name is in English instead of Kiswahili.

A jaunt around some of Nairobi’s residential areas such as Kileleshwa provides a free geography lesson on the names of Kenya’s small rural townships — Othaya, Siaya, Mugoiri, Vihiga, Makueni, Migwani, Mwingi, among others.

Other street/road names are just bland and hopelessly devoid of imagination such as Kenya Road, Njia Lane and Shilingi Road. There is even Panya Lane somewhere in Nairobi!

On the upside, we also have appropriately named streets and roads which have immense historical significance such as Kenyatta Avenue, Tom Mboya Street, Ronald Ngala Street, Prof Wangari Mathai Road, Haile Selassie Avenue, Nyerere Road, Waiyaki Way, Muindi Mbingu Street, James Gichuru Road, to name but a few.

The unfolding Francis Atwoli Road saga invites us to reflect on the manner in which we name the streets and roads in our urban areas.

In more enlightened countries, street and road names are treated as a national resource, given as a badge of honour to preserve the memory of national or local community heroes whose lives are worthy of emulation by society in general and the young generation in particular. Those countries have clear laws and policies which define the eligibility criteria and prescribe the process of naming such monuments.

In contrast, a cursory look at the names of most of our roads reveals a haphazard and unimaginative exercise conducted in an opaque style based on the whims of the city or town mandarins in power without any pretence at public participation or consideration of the value of the resource.

That is probably how we ended up with names like Cotton Avenue, Hendred Road, Kayahwe Road and Wood Avenue while we have no single lane named after Paul Tergat, Tegla Loroupe, Catherine Ndereba, Nelson Mandela, Barrack Obama or Kofi Annan.

In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare posed the quintessential question, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name smells as sweet.”

In the world of property and commerce, however, this aphorism may not hold. While it may not be empirically quantifiable what the name of a road or street does to the economic value and social prestige of a neighbourhood, it is equally arguable that certain names can potentially lower the value of a property, dilute the pride of residents in their area or discourage potential buyers from buying a home in an area which is weighed down by an obnoxious or controversial name.

The letter and spirit of the 2010 Constitution envisage public participation in all matters that affect an individual. It is not fun to wake up one morning to find that your cherished and prestigiously-named neighbourhood has suddenly acquired a new address — Mathogothanio Road — without any prior consultation with or concurrence of the residents.

Perhaps the best gift that the Francis Atwoli Road saga can bequeath to the country is the fast-tracking of the draft National Address Systems Policy developed in 2017 and an expeditious enactment of appropriate legislation to regulate the proper use of this valuable national resource.