WHICH CULTURE? WHICH VALUES?
As recently as the year 1958, the Reverend A Clive Irvine, MD, MA, was persuaded by “a request from a number of African friends in Kenya” to write How to Behave. It was subtitled Some Manners and Customs of Civilised People. He hoped that his African readers would “find the little book interesting and helpful and that it (would) give them confidence that they (knew) the right things to do.” Here is a sample of some of the advice given:
- Don’t yawn. It means you are bored or tired with what the person is saying or with what is going on. It is a kind of insult. If you can’t help it, cover your mouth with your hand as you do when coughing.
- Don’t snuffle either – it is an ugly and depressing noise. If you have a cold, give your nose a good blow.
- Don’t spit. No harm comes from swallowing the saliva in your throat. It is not polite to scratch yourself in public.
- Don’t talk about any organs of your body in the abdomen, e.g. stomach, intestines, bladder.
- Such subjects as pregnancy, immorality, passing urine and suchlike should not be mentioned by you in conversation. It is not rude to mention the organs above the abdomen such as the heart and the lungs.
- When you leave at the end of your visit, thank your host and hostess. After getting home, write a letter to your hostess, thanking her for her kindness to you and saying that you arrived home safely. This is often called a “bread and butter” letter.
- Don’t try to shake hands with everybody in a room when you say good bye. You may shake hands with your host and hostess and bow to the rest.
However, there is a strength that is to be derived from acknowledging this shortcoming. Kenyan society has become and is likely to remain a plural one. It is commonplace to note that its members now come from diverse peoples, with many different languages and beliefs. Therefore, there are several temptations to resist: the temptation to colour the country entirely black, and to encourage schisms either of the Kikuyus versus Luos versus Kalenjins variety or of the Kenyans versus Ugandans versus Somali variety.
Equally, there is a challenge we are facing: the challenge to reject with equal vigour certain ostensibly western behavioural imports, ranging from fattening hamburgers and excessive displays of affection in public and on the screen to an inordinate love of self as opposed to love of community, as well as certain supposedly traditional customs that have served their time. So, no tribal dancers? No dowry? No cripplingly expensive burial ceremonies? No female genital mutilation? We need to think. In the process Kenyan society will educate itself to appreciate more and more that not one but many cultures, such as a culture of responsibility, a culture of acceptance and inclusion, should be conscientiously championed in our schools and by our media. And as for values, those worthy of their name are invariably universal.