Archive 1999

08 August 1999

Inside Africa

John Kariuki

LAST month, thousands of Kenyans living in Nairobi and surrounding districts thronged to the Bomas of Kenya, a stateowned cultural centre, to witness the first public display of Masai rites of passage.

For seven days, those who attended, many of them Kenyans of non-Masai origin, were able to watch the morans (young Masai men) conduct mock cattle raids and demonstrate how to kill a lion. Though the lions had to be imagined, real bulls were killed as part of the ceremonial closing event marking the completion of the morans' passage from boyhood to manhood.

There was a hitch on the final day of Masai week when two severely wounded bulls being slaughtered for the closing ceremony broke free and, blood gushing from their throats, fled to a short-lived freedom. They were later caught and committed to their intended purpose.

Had any of this occurred two years ago, the media would have reflected a flood of criticism, including that from sections of the Masai who view moranism as outdated. But the success of this event is viewed as part of the tide of cultural revival sweeping across the country, best expressed by Professor Sultan Somji, an ethnographer with the Museums of Kenya, who notes that in the past year Kenyans have become more aware of who they are.

Such changes have occurred in several areas of identity.

The Ogiek clans are in court to contest a planned eviction from their forest home, which, they claim, is their ancestral land. Recently, too, the natives of Mount Elgon, bordering Uganda to the west, who were previously referred to as the "Mount Elgon Masais" due to their striking resemblance to mainstream Masais, demanded their own identity. They now insist on being referred to as the Sabaots, while the natives of the tiny enclave of Mbita location in Kisumu, long referred to as part of the Luos tribe, now insist on being called the Suba.

But the more obvious evidence of this identity refinement is in people's names. In a country that is largely Christian, most Kenyans have Western baptismal names. Many younger Kenyans are now dropping their Western names in favour of their ancestral ones.

The new attitude has had a strong impact on religion as the younger generation criss-crossfrom one church to another in search of their own choices. Pentecostal pastor Joseph Oyugi says that until recently most young people belonged to the church of their parents, but not any more.

As cultural awareness rides high, so there is a new interest in learning local languages.

In the past, parents who wanted their children to learn their mother tongues sent them to their grandparents, but today, with urbanisation cutting off these rural roots, they are sending them to cultural centres.

At the Code-link cultural centre, which teaches a variety of Kenyan mother tongues, Kimani Mondo started the programme for foreign missionaries working in the rural areas, but he increasingly teaches indigenous Kenyans as well.

"Many of them are urbanbred, where Kiswahili is the main language, and never had the chance to learn their mother tongues. Others, born of intertribal marriages, missed out on one or other of their parents' languages," says Mondo.

The issue of names and language has been widely addressed by the newly revived Luo Council of Elders, which emphasises the restoration and protection of local culture.

Last month, Kenyans living in the US formed a Kenya Cultural Revival group, the chief duty of which is to promote cultural awareness among nationals living overseas. In a launch ceremony, the group honoured the writer Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, whose crusade for the advocacy of Kenyan cultural values has earned him admiration - and resentment.

His "sin" in the '70s was to set up the Kamiriithu Cultural Centre in Limuru, west of Nairobi, to promote community theatre. His detractors in the government saw the centre as a coverup for the chance to spread socialism among the peasantry. The centre was shut down and the author arrested. He spent 1977-78 in political detention. On his release he fled to the US.

His concept of community theatre has recently been on the revival trail. However, rather than pitching camp at a central point, it has taken the form of traditional drama groups performing all over the country.

The indigenous culture wave has not yet dented Kenyan TV. But as more stations enter the once government-controlled sector, the drive for more authentic Kenyan products is a phrase repeated in most station programming meetings. The new youth FM radio station is also changing to include a Kenyan flavour in its music.

Intriguingly, there has been no organised forum to fan the flames of this new cultural awareness - the word seems to have spread through the time-honoured method of the street. After decades of cultural intolerance, Kenyans finally seem to be growing used to one another's ways - and even embracing them.

Kariuki is a journalist for the Nation newspaper in Nairobi

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