Are Kenyans Embarrassed By Their Own Culture?

In the wake of Lisa Gaitho’s blog post which caused quite a stir, with what many termed as a bashing of Kenyan culture with an insinuation of Nigerian culture being superior, I decided to take a look at the whole issue from a different angle. My post is not necessarily a response to Lisa, since I do not know her personally and what motivates her thought process. Let it not be taken as a direct jab at a fellow blogger as I believe in this Internet space, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, whether they are agreeable to everyone or not.

Anyways, I’m more concerned with what the post intentionally or unintentionally, brought to the fore. And the question is, are we Kenyans embarrassed by our own culture? Or rather, do we even feel like we have a Kenyan culture in the first place?

Looking at other African nations, we can be tempted to quickly make a conclusion as Kenyans, that we may indeed be lacking in a cultural identity. The first thing that first comes to a Kenyan mind is the fact that many African nations have a cultural dress. Just next door in Uganda, we have the gomez. In Ethiopia, we have the Abeba and Habesha traditional dresses complete with a hairstyle synonymous with Ethiopian women. In Rwanda, there is the mushanana for the Rwandese women. Further afield in West Africa, Ankara rules the region. South Africa has the colorful beads and traditional skirts complete with a traditional cap.

When you come to Kenya, what is mostly identified by foreigners as the Kenyan dress is the Maasai attire. And as we Kenyans know, the Maasai do not really represent the whole country as a whole, seeing that we comprise of 43 different ethnic groups. But since the Maasais are notably the only Kenyan tribe, that has wisely held onto most of their cultural way of life and have been greatly marketed overseas as a result, they are the ones inevitably accorded the Kenyan identity symbol.

Unfortunately, for the younger generation which has grown up in an era of modernization, we may not even have an idea of what our individual, ethnic, cultural dress actually looked like. Reason being that with the coming of missionaries, many tribes in Kenya ditched their cultural dress to embrace the White man’s dress and education in a move toward civilization. So really, the whole idea of lacking in a present day cultural dress goes way back to the pre-colonial era, where to be educated and clothed in modern clothes symbolized being civilized.

The Kenyan flag. Google Images

The missionaries brought us Education and Christianity which was and is a good thing, do not get me wrong. However, our cultural identity got lost in the process and it didn’t help matters that Kenya is not predominantly made up of one ethnic group or just two or three. With the mishmash of 42 now 43 different tribes with their own individual cultural dresses, it would have been difficult really, to embrace just one particular cultural dress that would have incorporated all the ethnic groups  as one. Could be the reason why an attempt a couple of years back to come up with a Kenyan dress seemingly, flopped.

When it comes to food, I see many Kenyans complaining about our bland culinary choices. To be honest, I’m one of those Kenyans who feel like we could have at least tried to be a little more creative with our food choices. However, the Coastal people are touted to have the most tasty choices of food. And it is part of their culture. So when you hear of biryani, mahamri, pilau, chapati, spicy sauces and the likes, think of Mombasa, Kenya.

I must admit it kind of makes the rest of  the Kenyans a little envious that while we are busy mashing potatoes, maize, beans and pumpkin leaves into a dish, the Coastal residents are pounding  a combination of spices together, to create a wonderful aroma and taste for their dishes. Ugali, the Kenyan staple is simply one of those uninspiring dishes that Kenyans had no choice but to embrace due to how economical the dish was. However, the economical nature of Ugali as a dish and especially this year, is up for debate with the soaring prices of maize flour and the scarcity of it.

As for how we treat our elders, it all depends on how a Kenyan individual was raised. Many Kenyans grew up in homes where to be disrespectful to an elder warranted a thorough beating. However, with all this urbanization business, it is not entirely uncommon to have working parents who have absolutely no time to spare for their growing children and may not even realize, when their children are picking up bad habits and manners. There is simply no time for effective disciplining of children since more parents are working more hours than in the past.

That said, I do not feel like it is wise for a Kenyan to simply feel embarrassed for being of the same nationality or to feel inadequate, when compared to other African nations. We do have rich urban cultures that are quite alluring to non-Kenyans. A notable one being the matatu culture of pimping rides with graffiti. Nowhere in the world will you find a public service vehicle decorated with as much art as we decorate our matatus here. This even surpasses the  cultural dressing and the likes. It is uniquely Kenyan.

I also feel like we haven’t really lost touch with our culture since there are some cultural practices that Kenyans still follow.  Many of my peers have held traditional weddings before church weddings. Many of my peers have named their children after family members. Many of us possess traditional second names. Many of us still take our kin back to our ancestral lands for burial and perform all these burial rites. If that isn’t cultural enough for some Kenyans, then I do not understand what culture means to them as individuals.



We Need More Positive African Stories

I’m becoming addicted to watching  CNN. Nowadays, American politics, the war in Syria (as if that’s not depressing enough) and small bits of pieces of News from Europe dominate the channel. A couple of nights back, I was watching the African Voices segment on it and it was refreshing to see Africa painted in a positive light.

There was this Rwandese guy who is a designer and designs really cool, African print bowties among other items of clothing. We saw him drive to the market to buy vitenges(African print material/African batik fabric), visit the barber shop to trim his Patrice Lumumba inspired look and go for a morning walk. And I was happy that the world was seeing a different side of Africa. Not the usual depressing news of war, starvation, terrorist attacks,  political coups, poverty, retrogressive cultures, illetracy and what nots.

Internet Sources

Internet Sources

That’s not all Africa is made up of. The negatives and unprogressive life. I know by now that the Middle East is starting to get pretty tired of all that negative reporting of the continent. The African continent equally got so tired of it a long time ago, that an African would not hesitate telling off a foreigner, who still views the continent through the misguided lense of the Western media. And I think CNN is starting to move away from the stereotypes and depressing stories of Africa. Kudos to them!

There is alot about Africa that the world needs to know. It really irritates me when I encounter individuals on Facebook groups, who still think that Africa is lagging behind in the 20th century, when the rest of the world is so 21st century. You need to open up your eyes to what this continent has to offer, other than what you have over time believed is the real thing.

A lot of foreign news reporters will mostly visit the marginalized areas of Africa or the slum areas or conflict areas and do stories about those. Their intentions may indeed be pure as they would like to bring these issues to the world’s attention. However, most of the time, these kinds of stories only serve to mislead the recipients, who may lack the zeal to dig deeper about the African way of life.

Africa is a progressive continent. There are developed urban areas, improved infrastructure, up to date technologies, learned individuals, talented individuals, exposed individuals. It’s not all about animals and living on trees wearing nothing but a flap of skin to preserve our modesty. As a matter of fact, I believe some of the well dressed individuals come from Africa.

Courtesy of Google Images

Courtesy of Google Images

What many people from the West may not know is that aside from the Maasai culture in Kenya, there are more than 10 other different cultures from the 43 different Kenyan tribes.

For the longest time possible, Western media really concentrated on the Maasai community. And with good reason, don’t get me wrong! This is one of the communities in Kenya and Tanzania that has upheld most of its original cultural practices pre-colonial times. It is a rich culture that tends to fascinate the West and people not from the two countries.

However, it would surprise many that other communities in Kenya despite the Western influence in their way of life, still carry out their respective cultural practices to date. Take this personal encounter, for example. I’m sometimes a storyteller, so bear with me on this.

A friend of a friend was getting married sometime in 2013. So as is synonymous with my country, we do a traditional wedding first before the White church wedding that is Western influenced.

Internet Sources

Internet Sources

I happened to tag along. Now in her community, the girls have to be covered from head to toe in two pieces of a lesso (wrapper) for the hubby-to-be to identify who his wife-to-be is. In our midst, there were two girls who had the same skin tone and similar looking feet.

One was of course the lady getting married. And we had this hilarious moment, advising her to tie a colored band on one of her toes and alert her fiance about it via text, before we came out so that he doesn’t get confused and fined, for picking the wrong girl.

So the older women covered us up, all girls about the same height in the lessos and we were guided outside where the ceremony was taking place. Believe it or not, the hubby-to-be seemed a little confused and nearly chose the girl with feet that resembled his wife-to-be, despite the colored band he had been alerted to earlier missing on the girl’s toes.

I mean, these are some of the cultural practices from other communities in Africa, that the Western media can do stories on other than the usual. Just to show how over time the African culture has blended in with the Western culture.

If you thought illetracy ruled the African continent, you should take a look at the highly talented graduates, from many of our universities. People who come out of campus not with a job mentality but a vision to be self employed and despite whatever financial constraints they may face, strive to achieve their goals. And many times, if they are committed enough to their dream, their efforts pay off.

We do appreciate the genuine curiosity of foreigners who would love to truly know about our continent. But just don’t lump me in the athletics team in campus overseas, just because you assume being a Kenyan, I can automatically run. Not all of us Kenyans have the ability to do long distance running and that’s because we are equipped and talented differently. We possess a diversity.

Being from the African continent and proudly so, I would advice anyone seeking to do an African story to intergrate himself or herself with the African society. Visit the developed areas, watch how the African carries his/her day to day activities and trust me, despite what we may face as a 3rd world continent, you are going to get beautiful, positive stories to tell the world about us.

Dearest Immaculee


Every year, Rwanda commemorates the Rwandan Genocide. One such person who equally does the same is a courageous African woman, Immaculee Ilibagiza. I know that her first name is supposed to have an accent on top of one of the ‘e’s, but I couldn’t for the life of me, manage to get the correct French version of her name from the computer I was using to type this. So kindly bear with me.

Anyways, I first encountered the name Immaculee Ilibagiza while poring over the Internet as is my habit. For some reason, I was interested in finding out a little bit more about the Rwandan genocide, where an estimated 800,000 Tutsis lost their lives at the hands of the Hutu Interahamwe(militia). Having shared a class in campus with quite a number of Rwandese students, I know for a fact that these people chose to rise up from the ashes and therefore do not, at any time, identify with tribe.

Probably something that we Kenyans need to seriously emulate.

The issue of having someone you have just met identify himself/herself by the tribe he/she comes from, needs to seriously go. And I say this with a lot of passion since judging from my quite unique second name, Likiza, I have encountered numerous people in the past who kept on insisting that I tell them from which tribe that name belonged. Well, for the still curious ones, it is a Swahili name. And if you check on the back pages of the Kamusi (Swahili dictionary), you are sure to find it, same way I did.

And so as I stumbled upon real life stories of survivors of the Rwandan genocide, I got acquainted with Immaculee. For a while, I seemed to have forgotten about her until quite recently, when I happened to watch her for a brief second on TV being interviewed by TV Anchor, Victoria Rubadiri. I then knew that I had to do a post about her.

Born in 1972, Immaculee Ilibagiza was in college and home for the holidays, when the killings began. Her father, a devout catholic, asked her to run to a pastor’s house, a distance away and beg him to hide her. The pastor was a Hutu but a friend of the family and by the grace of God, he accepted to hide Immaculee together with 6 other women in a tiny bathroom, that was rarely used in a hidden part of his house. About 3 feet by 4 feet in size. For 91 days, Immaculee together with her female companions stayed hidden in the bathroom while taking turns in stretching and standing.

When it became too cramped, they moved to a larger room but it was a highly unsafe move since the Interahamwe hunted day and night for Tutsis to butcher to death. Immaculee, sadly, lost most of her family in the genocide: both of her parents and 2 brothers. Only she and a brother who had been away studying in Senegal at the time while oblivious to the going ons in Rwanda survived.

Immaculee therefore credits her survival of the genocide, to prayer and a set of rosary beads gifted to her by her father prior to going into hiding at the pastor’s house. During that whole period she hid, cramped in the tiny bathroom, she spent most of her time praying the rosary fervently.

After the ordeal, Immaculee got once more lucky and landed a job with the UN. In 1998, she immigrated to the US. Friends and co-workers would later urge her to transform her story into a manuscript. This led to the publishing of her first book in March 2006, Left to tell; Discovering God amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.

It should be noted that Immaculee chose to forgive the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide who equally killed most of her family members. Indeed a highly courageous thing to do. She has since continued to preach forgiveness, peace as well as the power of praying the rosary. As a result of her humanitarian efforts, Immaculee has won numerous accolades.

Having not been on the ground to experience the genocide, I can’t quite say that I totally understand the magnitude of it. I can only try my level best to empathize with what the survivors of the horror went through from their stories. Am however deeply awed by the courage of this woman Immaculee. To be able to have such a profound faith in God in times of deep trouble one can only imagine, is indeed something that deserves to be admired.

Her story speaks out to all the survivors, male/female, of whatever wars they have had to encounter and experience in their respective nations. That when it seems like everybody around you has lost that humane part, there is still that one person that you can put your faith and trust in. And that person is God. Her story equally shows us that not all the Hutus participated in the massacre of the Tutsis. There were still those Hutus that you could depend on.

It shows us that we do not have to turn our backs on a neighbor and friend in need, just because of political tensions in our country, which dictate that certain tribes are our enemies and others our friends.

If I were to go on and on about all the inspirations and wake up calls we get from this particular woman’s story, I would probably stretch this post more further than intended. And so to cut this short, I believe that Immaculee is a perfect example of an overcomer of war and adversity, who did not use the usual weapons to kill and maim, but rather the powerful unseen weapon of forgiveness and faith.