Talking Culture

Happy New Year all you my readers and followers! It’s has been a great ride thus far and it gets even better in the new year 2011. I welcome new contributors into the blog. Along with my articles, we shall endeavour to make this a worthy read in reviewing the art, culture and related issues in the country and around. Karibuni !
This, our vibrant Nairobi town is replete with cultural activities on both weekends and weekdays. The palette of Kenyan cum African cultural sceneries boasts a diffuse range of offerings from poetry, music to cuisine from cultural centers, coffee lounges to exotic restaurants and even to elaborate wedding ceremonies. Everywhere and anywhere you go the expressions of culture beckon the passerby to take time out from their busy schedule and spare a minute or two of their precious time to immerse themselves into the world of culture.
That world of culture appears to be something we step into and then step out again to continue with our normal routine of earning daily bread; culture is a monotony breaker, it is those things you do when you are not working to, as it were, enjoy yourself. In other words, culture is those activities that occupy the non-working space of society.

By this definition, the world of culture just got smaller, having been minimized by the new Alcoholic Beverage Law (Mututho laws), which has restricted drinking hours from 5pm to 11pm. Before the Mututho laws came into effect, the City turned into one big English premier league stadium on Saturday afternoons and whenever the favourite team scored loud cheers would bellow out from the pubs; it always makes one feel like they are near a stadium!
This DSTV culture has been the dominant culture, among the men at least, for the last five or more years. It is not something our forefathers did and as such it is an acquired taste rather than a tradition. But I suppose, there are subtle differences between culture and tradition but most people tend to confuse the two.

For instance, when tourists from London arrive they are not ushered into the local pubs for a treat of their brand of football over a couple of brown bottles; rather they are offered some form of exotic entertainment in form of traditional dances that no longer serve as an identity of the mainstream culture which so happens to be a hip hop music culture!
Somehow, we do not feel it is right to present our esteemed foreign guests with a token of genge hip hop as part of our robust cultural roots. Conversely, we always err on the side of traditional artifacts which are representative of the culture of our ancestors but not our present way of life. This is because over the years the differences in culture between the West and the increasingly urbanized Africans have largely narrowed.
Perhaps, the manner of education has served to accentuate Western values and as a result, our socialization with the world is inclined to ideals of Western culture and progress (read: ostentation). We go to school in the village and are told of how those who get educated are best placed to gain access to plum jobs in the city and generally strike it rich, drive big cars and live the life!

Through hard work in school, it is said, we shall be able to escape the clutches of poverty brought about by our backward traditions in the rural setting and in this sense from our schooling experience we get the notion that traditions have failed us and our hopes lie in our acquaintance with Western socialization in language, dress and outlook.
Even those whose cloth is not cut out for scholarly work do not lose sight of the Western ideals and express them in other art forms. On the one hand, there is always the aspiration to make it in the Western sense but on the other there is a sense of loss in our identity; a feeling of nakedness, which exhibits itself in our continuous urge to portray our traditions as our culture.

When there are no tourists around, we are proud of genge hip hop music, as it is an expression of our everyday struggles, but as soon as they knock on our doorstep, we quickly switch it off and put up a full itinerary of Mwoboko dancers complete with traditional regalia.
Of course, the average Englander will not break the monotony of his toils in Manchester City by coming all the way to Nairobi to watch a hip hop show over a cold Guinness; something that would have been easily attainable within the comfort of his house! This is the classic rerun of the book of Genesis. If someone wants to sell you cloths, they will have to make you believe you are naked. If on the other hand, you want their Arsenal T-shirt you will have to play naked.

The English have all but succeeded in making your average Nairobian believe that watching English football over a Guinness or a Malt Lager is the life! He straddles and hustles so that at the end of the week he shall have a place in the premier league folklore. 
However, the Nairobian too knows how to play the “naked emperor” by literally stripping our modern cultural attire and adorning the almost bare costume of “poverty tourism” to entertain the Englishman, when he comes for a suntan; all in the hope of extracting that peculiar thing called a dollar, that thing that clothes us with progress.  

In retrospect, our present day culture is a constrained western culture and past traditions merely serve to mask its prominence. For a long time, before the age of internet, the television was the foremost Western cultural ambassador and whatever people saw on TV they gradually begun to mimic and by and by the majority of Nairobians came to aspire to the things they saw on screen.
In the 80s, it was rare to see animated affections in public places but in this millennium it is common place to see people giving each other hugs and kisses on the streets. The cumulative effect of mushy Spanish soaps and comedies expanded their vocabulary of affectionate expressions.

In the 90s coffee lounges were unheard of; presently almost every street in Nairobi has a coffee lounge. The coffee lounges did not arise from the fact that Kenya has been a leading coffee producer since the 60s rather it was the intoxication of the Starbucks culture which is constantly bandied in movies and sitcoms.  
It is from the lounges that people live what they saw on television and the movies. From this relaxation dens they take a bite at a piece of modernity and actualize their dream to live the (Western) life…just like on TV.
Yet this coffee lounge culture in both restaurants and pubs is the mother and father of the renewed artistic expressions. 

They gave budding artists the podium and the audience to grow their art forms and their popularity. Undoubtedly, the new art forms in both poetry and music and even in fine arts are mainly expressions of what culture has become. Something, we do to enjoy ourselves that is done when not working and is in tune with our longing for Western conformity. It is not good or bad or evil, it simply is, but for all means and purposes it definitely is not tradition. 

By Poe.T.Critik

About Kenyan Poet

Showcasing the best in Kenyan Arts;Music,writing,Poetry,fine art and art reviews as well as info on emerging art trends. “Art is not about thinking something up. It is the opposite…getting something down.”