08 August 1999
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outdated.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
"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
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
Kariuki is a journalist for the
Nation newspaper in Nairobi
Link : http://www.suntimes.co.za/1999/08/08/insight/in03.htm