Yesterday I happened to spot a rare sight on the streets of Perth; the picture of two young masaai girls on the cover of a West Australian newspaper. Underneath it was a story about a masaai man who apparently had ‘sold’ off his daughters (14 years of age) to stave off the effects of the drought. Luckily, cops rescued the girls from their ‘marital bliss’ and took them to a rescue centre. Father was hauled to the docks to face trial. It was a pat and dry story; just another day in Africa.
Well, it got me thinking about the role of our traditions and culture. Remember the old saying, ‘mwacha mila ni mtumwa’? It strikes me that the big bad wolf in this proverb is not the leaving of the culture itself but being enslaved. In short, being enslaved by a foreign culture is bad, being enslaved by your own culture is probably even worse.
And yet I feel we have become slaves of our traditions, many of which serve no particular purpose apart from giving us a fuzzy nostalgic feeling. Traditions are meant to support people and to regulate their lives in a given set of circumstances. If those circumstances change, then the logical thing to do is to change your traditions as well to fit the new reality.
But while our circumstances have changed considerably, we cling on to traditions. Take the masaai, perhaps the most rigid of these traditionalists. Why, in present day Kenya does their culture continue to prepare warriors for battles they will never fight? For cattle raids they will never undertake? How does circumcision fit in the current day of IDs and Driving licenses as proof of adulthood? In a Kenya of assertive and increasingly independent women, where does ‘Bride Price’ fit in? What role do tribes play in modern day Africa apart from being sources of division and a basis for the occasional genocide?
To wish for a return to the good old days is foolish. I sincerely wish the Europeans never set foot on our continent but they did and with that, Africa lost all her innocence. When Livingstone and Speke got off their boats on the African coast, they ruptured our collective hymens, and as Bruce Springsteen sings ‘they are gone, boys, and they aint coming back’. We may try cultural secondary virginity, but as the prefix suggest, it, it can only be an inferior version of the original.
To try and marry the old and the new is even sillier. New wine, said Jesus, is not put in old wine skins.
Africa’s solutions, I feel, lie in forging ahead and not looking backwards. We must dismantle the structures of the old and embrace the new ones. We must abandon ‘kikuyuhood’ and ‘dholuohood’ and embrace ‘Kenyanhood’ We must feel out language and expressions of a Kenyan culture and actively discourage the rest. These Kenyan cultures include matatus (never thought I would ever say this), our mbuzi choma and tusker, genge music, vitimbi and sheng/Swahili. Of course they have their roots in the old but they are entirely from a time when we see ourselves us a single nation and not 41 or so little nations that happen to share the same piece of real estate.
This would be a sub culture in the larger culture of mass production and consumption. Before, you say Mzungunized, remember that capitalism and commercialism comes with its own structures and if our goal is to industrialize, we cannot escape this. Europe and its offspring across the Atlantic lost their traditions as well to the juggernaut that is commercialism.
Hold it right there Martin! Are you suggesting that we abandon our culture, our heritage, the source of our beautiful diversity?
No, I am not. We cannot possibly lose something that we never had in the first place. Agikuyu had a culture, the Akamba had a culture and so on but Kenyans never had a culture. It’s that ‘Kenyan culture’ I suggest we need to encourage.
As for diversity, Kenya and Africa suffers from the bitter divisions that separate our people so what we need to be emphasising now is what we have in common, not our differences.