Let’s protect our heritage – or forever remain mental slaves

Culture is important to all of us. It is also so important to Kajiado Governor Joseph ole Lenku that he decided to form a task force to inform and give direction to our cultural heritage and history. I am extremely grateful and privileged to have been entrusted to chair this important task force.

Culture is what makes a person. It is the totality of a person’s identity, customs, norms, beliefs, history, language, and heritage — everything about a person. It is culture that defines customary food preferences, what makes appropriate behaviour, what is proscribed and slated as anti-social behaviour, how we bring up children, and how we relate to the environment to manage and expropriate it sustainably. It is culture that gives us direction in defining work roles for men, women, the youth and children within the family.

The way we create wealth through work, and the manner in which we redistribute it to younger generations as they grow, is all culturally defined. The way we communicate with each other and relate internally and externally is all informed by culture. In short, culture is everything since it defines our very existence as people with distinct and separate identities. It is culture that separates human beings from animals. This is why it is indeed true that a person without culture is a slave.

As one travels, you learn to appreciate small aspects of your own culture. When I left Kenya for the first time in 1977 to go abroad, I was delighted to venture out into the real big world out there. But no sooner had I arrived than I realized that people just pass each other without exchanging greetings. Do they not see each other? Do they not like each other? Are they afraid of each other? or is it that they simply do not care about each other? I was puzzled. What I was going through was a culture shock, because where I come from people always greeted each other, even in the streets of Nairobi in those years! I do really prefer to greet and be greeted — it gives me a sense of belonging and of appreciation, of identity. It is a reaction based on cultural upbringing. We grew up always greeting everyone you met as an appropriate norm. I do not remember whether I was ever told to greet people or whether I just learnt it from observation.

Today, we constantly have to remind our children to greet everyone. Then the flip side is, “never talk to strangers”, which must have emerged from a particular reality at the historical moment of an area, region, or country.  As you observe how other people interact, you automatically compare and contrast with your own. Sometimes, one appreciates some aspects of other cultures that are not present in one’s own. But no matter how desirable they may be, you cannot subsume them to be yours. Of course, colonization has created ideological pressures that make colonized peoples abandon their own cultures, since these were dubbed “primitive” and “backward” in favour of the culture of the colonizer.

In the case of less-numerous indigenous communities, this pressure continued during the post-colonial period. Important rituals may be banned, often from a lack of understanding of what they may portend. Involvement with the church also creates similar results from a spiritual perspective. This could result in total confusion among communities about what is acceptable and what is not as they try to conform to mainstream ideas of behaviour as well as habits of popular culture. It is a painful process, especially since culture is always changing, and given the right information people are capable of deliberating to weed out the negative and retain positive aspects of their cultures.

As a child, I enjoyed listening to stories, riddles, and participating in children’s games. So, when I was at the university, during my spare time I used to tell children’s stories on radio for a programme called Family Magazine. Then when oral literature was introduced at the university, and texts were required, the stories I had collected for the radio programme formed the basis for my book, Oral Literature of the Maasai. It makes a simple statement that, while we appreciate other peoples’ compositions, we also have our own very rich heritage.

In fact, as children with little knowledge of the English language, the English poems taught to us were completely incomprehensive to us. For instance, while “Baa baa black sheep” had quite simple words, the essence of the poem had no meaning to us. At times, we got the words completely wrong and mangled the whole composition. An example is words of the poem: “The sun is shining to welcome the day, eahoo…” where everyone made up words that are close to words in our own language. It ended up going something like this: “Ole shani shani olkatade, iyiehoo …”Quite hilarious and completely nonsensical.

So my book, and similar ones from other communities, is just an affirmation that we do have similar literary compositions that we can easily relate to. All we need is to be able to understand Maa, the language of the Maasai. The same is still true today as it was then. We have to constantly make the point that we, too, have our own beautiful compositions, poetry art forms, games, clothing, etc., that are of equivalent value. So, despite being brainwashed by colonization, religious persuasion, and globalization to abandon our own in favour of Western or neighbours’ ideas and cultural forms, we must never forget our own. Otherwise, we would be invariably despising our own.

Whenever possible, I like to wear our Maasai outfits, which coincidentally also seem to be admired by many outside our land as a co-opted, unacknowledged “national dress”. In fact, I highly recommend it as our county dress. Either way, I would state that I would not want us to abandon all aspects of our culture in favour of other peoples’ cultures, lest we become their slaves. Granted, there are serious aspects of our culture that need to be discarded, e.g. female circumcision and child brides, but we do not need to throw out the baby with the bath water. All cultures have negative aspects that need to be discarded or changed as the rest remains and is improved. This, in itself, demonstrates the dynamic aspect of culture — it is always changing, and in fact it does not survive unless it changes.

Now that we have a new constitution (it is no longer that new), we have an opportunity to sit together and decide what we need to consciously throw away and why, and what we need to keep and why. Once we have made that decision, we can then design strategies on how to implement those decisions. We have an extremely rich culture that has important elements that can offer important lessons and values to modern society.

Dr Naomi Kipurry is the chair of the Kajiado Taskforce on Cultural Heritage. She is also the author of Oral Literature of the Maasai.

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