Who would admit to being without a culture and without values? Both “culture” and “values” belong to that select family of words, like “love” and “friendship” which are universally embraced and endorsed but which have decidedly different meanings for different people. So much so that it is perhaps better to abandon attempts at defining them in favour of cataloguing the association of ideas that they are likely to evoke.
John Sibi-Okumu
Consider the following cherished manifestations of culture and values in the Kenyan context: Traditional dancers, replete with colobus monkey skins, throbbing drums and strident whistle, on hand to welcome visiting heads of state. Long drawn-out negotiations on the payment of dowry for a bride-to-be. Gatherings of friends and family to raise funds to transport the dead body and bus-loads of mourners to “Nyalgunga” or “home squared,” code names in the national parlance for “the place of origin.” More contentiously, perhaps, is the continuing attachment to polygamy and to circumcision ceremonies, for both boys and girls, which, in the case of girls, lead all too often to fatal medical complications. All these lingering practices have one thing in common. They recall, as some would have it, a golden age BWC, “Before the Whiteman Came.” An age when our essential nature as Africans and our perceptions of right social conduct were unsullied by the nefarious influence of the western world. A world which, by and large, considered the African way of life worthy of change, to put it mildly.

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.
The Reverend Irvine has been quoted at some length not to condemn him; he was doubtless a well-meaning man of his time. His advice simply serves to highlight the state of what can be termed “cultural schizophrenia” in which we as Kenyans find ourselves at this point in our history. Past and present are so at odds with each other that we are somewhat confused, prey indeed to a mentality characterised by inconsistent or contradictory elements.

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.

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