Getting Ours

Michael Onsando
25 July ,2017

“How can you lay claim to something that isn’t yours?” the question is posed to me with a whimsical smile. The conversation began with a question about the kiondo, how it ended up with a Japanese patent from 1984. There are many ways that the colonial conquest disrupted already existing ways of living, but perhaps ideas of ownership are the most pervasive.

One way that shows just how these ideas of ownership caught us flatfooted is the Maasai cattle grazing in the city. Slowly muscled off their own land, the Maasai were coming off a history of communal land. Especially, being a pastoralist community, their ideas of territory saw it as a place that is passed through. And it is not the Maasai that had communal land. Many communities were working with similar ideas. Recognition of this history led to the Community Land Act – trying to find ways to enact this idea of collective ownership. On the treaties that rendered the Maasai landless, Rose Tolony writes:

First, current analyses of African social formations reaffirm that indiqenous values and institutions still provide the only meaningful framework for the organisation of economic and spiritual livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa. A sense of community prevailed from which developed an elaborate system of reciprocal duties and oblioations arnonq the family members. This is manifest in the concept of ubuntu -umuntu naumuniu naebentu a dominant value in a South African traditional culture. This concept encapsulates communality and the inter-dependence of the members of a community.

This system did not just apply to land.

Knowledge was also shared. A communal resource. The kiondo was a bag made by the Kikuyu women. It had no single designer, no single creator. And in this way it was available to be taken. Taken, not shared – these things show the different definitions of this thing ‘ownership’ and how it works.

Even as I write this there are several steps in motions towards trying to reexamine this. Last year the president assented the Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Cultural Expressions Act, it covers documentation, recognition of these forms of knowledge, licensing use, protection from exploitation and more. And although it has been cited as having several loopholes, it represents a crucial first step towards legitimizing these forms of knowledge.

Culture embodies those moral, ethical and aesthetic values, the set of spiritual eyeglasses, through which they come to view themselves and their place in the universe. Values are the basis of a people’s identity, their sense of particularity as members of the human race. All this is carried by language. Language as culture is the collective memory bank of a peoples experience in history. Culture is almost indistinguishable from the language that makes possible its genesis, growth, banking, articulation and indeed its transmission from one generation to the next.

Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Decolonising the Mind

To draw from the above passage one begins to think about how we look at culture as a way of seeing. An archive of a history of lived experiences and lessons passed on. And if culture is a way of seeing then how the “wrong” culture can lead to a form of blindness – or at the very least partial sight (do the things you see matter if they sit outside the scope of what is in front of you?)

The hardest part of this all is the sifting. What matters? What doesn’t? What is necessary? What is not? On what (or whose) terms do we define this necessity?

I ask this as we go into an election and we are bombarded with messages of peace – underlying these messages of peace are ideas of triblessness. How does this Kenya that is rapidly working towards erasing this diversity still protect these forms of knowledge? How do we acknowledge and work with the vastly different roots and still form a way of exisiting? At the end of the day this means that a lot will be lost( a lot has already) but even amidst what remains, how do we organize this data?

Does it work to find a place for these histories in an (already corrupted) present – or to begin to reimagine what the present should look like? Or maybe the creation of the space for traditional forms of knowledge will be the wedge that forces us to critically analyse our present frames.

I turn to Berlant:

“The image of the good life is too dear; something has to be sacrificed. The attempt to associate democracy with austerity – a state of liquidity being dried out, the way wine dries out a tongue – is fundamentally anti-democratic. The demand for the people’s austerity hides processes of the uneven distribution of risk and vulnerability.”

Affect and the Politics of Austerity

The Berlin conference was a response to the dwindling market following the rise of local production in the USA, who in turn globalized their market to create a thriving economy. I’d argue that the creating of a strong economic society demands a strong consumer society and availability of subsidized labour – both of which Kenya has been steadily supplying to the world. But now, in the absence of places left to subsume we find ourselves in the position where we might need to begin to rethink what this thing stability means, and shift our focus. What’s more, we have years of data from more “advanced” societies to draw from to show us what works, what doesn’t – and what might work but not here.

Of course writing this is not to dismiss that there are aspects of the culture that distance is allowing us to grow wiser about (misogyny comes to mind). But right now I’m more interested in focusing on the knowledges that we gain from, like maize nixtamalisation. How do we build a future where we try to think about ownership, community? However it is, placing ‘advanced’ societies as a model and chasing after them will not allow us to achieve different results. Even as we think about protecting this knowledge from the world – which is important because it must be protected now, in the interim as the future is still being decided – how do we make room for more? Then again, this is also the same country that is building a coal plant in 2017, perhaps more might be too high an ask.


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