Whither Culture?

Michael Onsando
8 January ,2019

“Lamu elders are now worried that the county’s cultural heritage and traditions could get extinct if urgent measures are not put in place to preserve them.

Lamu Council of Elders Chairman Shariff Kambaa told the Nation on Sunday that there has been continued proliferation of western cultures into Lamu in recent days, a move which has in turn resulted to various traditions getting lost.”

Rusinga Festival Rowers
Photograph by Magunga Jakaruoth

The things we preserve remind us of who we are. Whether it be a simple flavour in a meal to a song to entire elaborate rituals and ceremonies it is the things that we hold on to that give us a sense of identity. And it is in the way they hold onto us – a heavy tongue, a bad habit, a lens – that we are identified.

The problem is that the most important things often need the gentlest approach. One cannot be forced to treasure a thing (if anything, this might be the most counterproductive thing you could try). This becomes particularly complicated in multicultural spaces, multicultural house holds. And even harder with the all-imposing western narrative that has dominated most areas of our life.

I never learned how to speak my mothertongue. I don’t have a reason. Both my parents speak the same language and I could have easily picked up bits and pieces here and there. But America got to me first. I was more caught up in what the Hardy Boys hard to say than in anything that sounded like ebitabu. To date I listen more fluently than I speak. My words come out in bits and stutters as if my tongue is putting together old parts of a broken engine.

Tug of war at the Rusinga Festival
Photograph by Magunga Jakaruoth

We value the things that we believe will give us value. I will remember this recipe – it will feed me. I will remember this song – it will comfort me. In the places where the things that we have carried overlap we call culture. A tune whispered by common ancestors as they gathered around a fire years ago. And when we discard things their value is questioned and made apparent.

The materials from Gikuyu, Kikamba, Dholuo and Ekegusii come in handy in the development of language activities, which include listening, speaking, pre-reading and pre-writing which, according to the new curriculum framework, are to be carried out in the language of the catchment area.”

It was not really cool to speak your mothertongue where I went to school. Or even to speak like you had been influenced by the village tongue. The heavy tongue was not only punished in class but on the playground as well. The diet was strictly western – the idea of a school serving ugali only came to me in high school. Even as a reader my search naturally took me to English greats like Poe and Kipling long before I had even heard of Achebe or Thiong’o. And, when I did, they were presented as not holding as much weight. As being just another and not “a great.”

“Except today it is fashionable to scream

of pride and beauty as though it were not known that

‘slaves and dead people have no beauty’ “

Maybe it’s fear, maybe it’s a new generation coming into itself. But the battle against cultural domination has been intensified. We see more women being encouraged to find their beauty within. We see musicians wading through our musical archives to create a sound that we can own. We see videos of Uzoamaka Aduma refusing to compromise her Igbo name for the white tongue and we celebrate.

It’s becoming cool to embrace your Africanness.

But how do you embrace something you never cultivated? How do you return to an Africanness you never actually owned?

Dancer at the Rusinga Festival
Photograph by Magunga Jakaruoth.

We give ourselves reasons to remember. And we make them beautiful that they may stay with us for as long as they can. We bring them back into the syllabus and we hold festivals. We cook and we tell sing songs. We speak of our heroes like the heroes they are and we make room for a future where we won’t need to cling to what we already have.

Or we grow and watch passively as the songs are sung no more.

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