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 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.