Kenyan politicians, you keep using that word [culture], I don’t think it means what you think it means

Here is the Standard reporting on the proposed amendments to the Marriage Bill:

The Bill passed through its second reading in the House Wednesday, even as controversy raged over how much say women should have on their husbands’ choice to get them co-wives [?!!!???!?!??!?!?!?!?].

Although the Bill has wide ranging provisions touching on marriage, the clause on polygamy has assumed a life of its own, with debate in the House and in the public zeroing in on the controversial clause. During debate last week, the chairman of the National Assembly’s Legal Affairs Committee Mr Samuel Chepkonga said they had considered an array of opinions before the decision to introduce the amendment that may see the controversial clause deleted when the Bill comes before the Committee of the Whole House.

Predictably, the reaction during debate was sharp and immediate, with mostly male MPs supporting the amendment, terming the consent clause “impractical and unrealistic” in the context of African culture [emphasis mine].

To which I say:



the strange…

For some time now I have been following the absurd story of witchdoctors and ‘traditional’ healers in Tanzania who apparently kill people with albinism with the belief that their body parts can be used for medicinal purposes. No, this is not something that used to happen in the 18th century. It is happening now, in 2009. France 24 ran a story on this a few weeks ago. The BBC is reporting that the Tanzanian government has finally decided to do something about the killings – perhaps because of the increased international attention. But their solution is almost as strange as the killings themselves.

They are asking villagers to have a referendum-like affair in which they will ‘vote’ indicating who they suspect to be linked to the murder of albinos. Now I am no anthropologist or sociologist but what kind of law enforcement is this? First of all, the government should be ashamed that it did not sniff this out early enough. This is also a sign of a total failure of social education in Tanzania. These witchdoctors and ‘traditional’ healers, anthropologists and socialists will love this, ought to be required to get licenses and should be constantly monitored by the government to guarantee best practice – if that is ever possible (In my world they should be completely outlawed). No country in the 21st century should be tolerating such crazy things. And about the killers, they are common criminals who should be arrested and treated as such by law enforcement.

This story also raises the question of culture and tradition in Africa. As I have stated here before, I am no fan of blind traditionalism – a la Negritude. I think that for far too long we have continued to conflate culture and tradition with poverty and ignorance. Having witchdoctors is not traditional. Witchdoctors do the things they do because they do not have laboratories or the knowledge to package their herbs in more efficiently delivered capsules. They are not necessarily alternatives to hospitals as some apologists would have us believe.

And there is absolutely nothing fun about living a ‘traditional life’ as is often described by anthropologists. The “original affluent society”, as they call it, had a life-spun of 30 years and had a reciprocity-based economy that could only support a few dozen people. This will not work in a 40 million man society. Let us stop pretending, there are a lot of traditional practices all across the continent that belong in the dustbin of history. If we continue to bury our heads in the sand, occasionally the volcano will boil over and embarrassing stories like the Tanzania albino story will make it to the headlines of major news sources.

A critique of african culture

“A way of life which made it possible for our ancestors to be subjugated by a handful of Europeans cannot be described as totally glorious.”  Professor Peter Bodunrin

I am no Western apologist. I am a proud son of the soil (as Wahome Mutahi of the Whispers fame used to say) and a believer in the fundamentals of African socio-economic organization – a way of organizing society in which I am because we are. But I am no blanket African apologist either. And that is why I particularly like the candor of Bodurin. I am sick and tired of hearing Afrocentric thinkers prattle about how the life of the Afircan is serene. How it is untouched by modern greed and desires for material wealth. How it still embodies the true spirit of humanity.

I am tired because this kind of talk reminds me of Rousseau’s critique of arts and sciences in his first discourse – in which he talks about “uncivilized” peoples being noble savages and portraying this as the true nature of man that we should all aspire to. This is bull. It is bull because when you go hungry. When you cannot read or write. When your children die of simple treatable illnesses. When your entire life is lived in a dystopia that has lasted generations. You are not noble, savage or not. You are subordinate to nature and all its mysteries.

A little reality check will establish that there is almost nothing noble about the life of the African at this point in history. We are the laughing-stock of the world. Images of starving children and scary deranged men in war zones are what define us to the rest of the world. It therefore disturbs me quite a bit when I hear our leaders talk about “African culture” and the need to preserve it.

What culture is it that these men are talking about? Is it the culture that keeps millions upon millions hungry and illiterate? Is it the culture that allows them to marry five wives and oppress them as they so wish? Is it the culture that makes us apathetic politically and allows them to steal from us? If this is the culture they are talking about and that they want us to preserve then I am against it. I am against it because it burdens us with a docile and meek morality that is blindly accepting of hierarchy and ideologically impoverished authoritarianism.

I am no sociologist but I know that there is something fundamentally wrong with how we have come to organize our societies in the post-European-contact era. All our social institutions have come to be either European or in reaction to Europe. I say that it is time we went back to true Africanness. True Africanness means caring for one another. It means providing for the hungry and only indulging in excesses after everyone has what they need to live a decent life. It means an appreciation of nature in a way that only Eastern traditions come close. It means being passionate about life and its blessings – I believe it is Senghor who said that Africans are a people of passion and not reason. I want to go further and say that we are a people who are passionate about all that we do (including our use of reason).

The African is alive. We are not like the Westerner who is chained by “norms” or the Easterner who blindly denies his humanity as he strives for higher rewards. We are alive! We embrace humanity with vigor and rhythm. We are as diverse as diverse can get. And we care for one another – valuing human life like no other human society does. (Do not let the wars delude you. I am yet to meet a people who have as much a reverence for human life as does the African. This is one of the foundations of African Philosphy – that life is cyclical, the living, the dead and the unborn all participate and so all life is revered. Just look at African burial ceremonies and mourning rituals if you are in doubt.)

It is time we returned to the fundamentals. We should be careful not to confuse true African culture with practices that came out of poverty or contact with Europe and in some instances Arabia. When we return to these fundamentals, we will find that African culture is not at all incompatible with modernity. We can stop being nomads when it is not economical to do so. We can stop having a thousand children per household. We can stop wife-inheritance. We can stop wife-beating. We can stop female genital mutilation and all evils against our mothers and sisters. All these practices are not African. They are human, and temporal. We should see them as habits from an era gone by. And we can change them.

What makes us African is in our social relations. Not in the environment or our economic condition. We will only return to that greatness when we restructure our social organizations and carefully remove all foreign practices that have tainted the Spirit of Africa.