Western wisdom

I spent this afternoon in Nairobi and, over pineapple milkshakes and fresh mango juice, found myself discussing the gradual erosion of Kenyan culture. Or, rather, the harmonisation of Kenyan culture into a single ethnically-blind national culture.

“People all dress in the same way these days,” said my companion, a Kenyan in his late-30s, hailng from the west of the country but living in Nairobi for almost 20 years. “Branded T-shirts, branded trainers.”

The implication was that, after the riots of 2007 and 2008, such assimilation of cultures must surely be a step in the right direction. Soon, the “Kibuku” or “Kalijin” label would be replaced by the “Kenyan” label – and then finally the country can say that it has become a nation state.

I am reading an excellent book about Kenya at the moment – It’s Our Turn to Eat by Michela Wrong – and, by happy coincidence, had just reached the very illuminating chapter about the “Sheng generation”.

This, as I understand things, is the modern Kenyan equivalent of Generation X, the babyboom generation in Europe and America that found new liberation when they came of age in the 1960s.

Wrong explains that sheng is a newly-evolving language, commonly spoken among the youth of Kenya. For the parents or the older generation, it is an ugly mish-mash of words borrowed from other langages. English, Swahili, French, Spanish. Some words invented.

But, for Wrong (and other libeal commentators), it represents a fresh opportunity to break from the past – a language that crosses not only the cultural divide between tribes, but also the class divide between rich and poor.

A positive development, certainly. But all of this got me thinking – to what extent should steps be taken to preserve the individuality of the Kenyan tribes? Certainly we don’t want a repetition of the 2007/2008 violence – but surely some individuality is no bad thing?

Anthropologists harp on constantly, particularly in Sudan, about the need for preservation of cultures.

And then I feel sometimes there is this tendency to regard Western society, with all its hideously visible consumerism, as the epitome of civilisation. Whereas it seems to me that it would be better to take a more holistic look at the different cultures, and see what are the best characteristics to borrow.

These are rambling thoughts at the moment, but I hope that they will eventually form an intelligibly-worded chapter in my book on international justice.

The connection being that, too often, the whole concept of international justice has been shaped by men that sailed the western seas in search of, well, mini-Kenyas to colonise.

Out of all the African countries I have so far encountered, the Kenyans seem to be the ones that love the English/Americans/Europeans the most. This may, indeed, be why the economy is now one of the strongest in Africa.

But I believe in harmony through diversity. Not harmonisation in defiance of diversity.

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One Response to “Western wisdom”

  1. CRY ME AN ONION Says:

    I know Michela Wrong. I read her book too. Too bad she cannot come back to Kenya.

    Cheers

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