TRADITIONS AND CULTURE

Why traditional society is fast slipping away - Nyong'o

We are living through transitional times. A new generation is coming behind us that is largely of an urban oriented culture.

In Summary

• Our lived experiences in school and church have been dominated and shaped by this euro-Christian bourgeois culture.

• We have funerals where we dress as the rising bourgeoisie did in Victorian England.

The Association of Kenya Insurers launching a campaign to urge Kenyans to get funeral cover
The Association of Kenya Insurers launching a campaign to urge Kenyans to get funeral cover
Image: COURTESY

As we watch, as we whine and as we talk, traditional society is fast slipping away into the past.

We may be worried, we may even complain but that is the plain truth. "Teri buru" is no more. It belongs to the myths in the past. 

Tradition is man's lived experience. What we eat, how we build our houses, the marriage ceremonies we engage in and how we socialise in song and dance all define our culture. The language we speak is an expression of our culture.

When we learn new languages they bring into our lives new perspectives of the world. Culture is, therefore, the way we perceive things and define them. We are who we are largely by the culture we grow into and those we learn from as we grow.

 

Children born in urban areas may not speak their mother tongue because it is not part and parcel of their urban experience. We have families where children born in this century and living in Nairobi away from ushago may never speak their mother tongue unless they are forced to learn it. Even then, few may appreciate it and use it meaningfully.

I remember arriving at the University of Chicago in October 1971 and getting what is called "culture shock".

I found Chicago a mammoth city by Nairobi standards. The people were indifferent when I tried asking for directions in town when I got lost. In the lecture rooms, students were always asking difficult questions to impress the professors. Outside the lectures, solitude consumed me.

I spoke English but had few to communicate with and build relations. Language is only useful within the context of interaction, communication and a life worth living. In pursuit of higher education, I had thrust myself into solitude. Little to share with those around me.

Culture is, therefore, a lived experience in language, thought, expression, aspiration, identity, interaction and survival. That is why, in studying history, we find that the migration of people across the globe quite often led to the emergence of "new civilisations" and some cultures being fused together or giving way to others.

The spread of Christianity into Africa on the back of European imperialism is a perfect example. It came with the adoption of European languages that we now accept as the official or national language in every African country. At times, this development has completely dwarfed our own languages, hence Professor Ngugi wa Thiong'o' s valiant defence and promotion of African languages.

Some would argue that Ngugi is fighting a losing battle, especially when those children born in this century in Nairobi will only speak sheng, Swahili and English.

The reality, as it were, has changed. Traditional society has passed as far as these children are concerned because their lived experience is so different from that of their parents. They are Nairobians first and Giriama, Tugen or Kisii last. 

Culture is what makes meaning out of life. When a young man or woman goes to look for a job, some mannerisms are expected from him or her. Before the interview even begins, how the interviewee looks, speaks and behaves is important to the employer.

All these are a product of cultural background from home, society and school. Unfortunately, some of these forms of behaviour may not necessarily determine the ability to do a job, but they are important parameters in defining a personality, which is largely a cultural thing.

We are living through transitional times. A new generation is coming behind us that is largely of urban-oriented culture. When they are told about "Tero Buru" and all that they regard them as myths. Yet, as a young boy, I engaged in that activity. It still means something to although, at this point in time, there is no idle land or forest near my clan to which we can drive cattle in pursuit of the evil spirit! Tero Buru is gone given the new economic development and current land ownership systems.

 

Hence, while we talk nostalgically about the past, we currently never do things the way we did in the past. Take, for example, wedding and burial ceremonies. We try our best to resurrect the past in wedding ceremonies, ensuring that bride paying ceremonies are as akin to cultural practices of the past as possible. But when we come to burial ceremonies, we have given full sway to euro-Christian bourgeois cultures.

And that is as it should be because our lived experiences in school and church have been dominated and shaped by this euro-Christian bourgeois culture. It is perhaps too late to change that. Thus we have funerals where we dress as the rising bourgeoisie did in Victorian England, and even today.

Women in black dresses donning large Victorian hats and shedding a tear or two at appropriate intervals. The men, on the other hand, dressed equally exquisitely, sit stoically as the ceremony continues only to rise up at the end with the solemnity the occasion deserves.

When I say we have become bourgeois in our ways, it is not because we are all rich: Not at all. I am referring to our cultural behaviour expressed in such things as dressing, sense of dignity as well as worth.

 In traditional society, funerals were not moments of solemnness. Women wailed and men carried spear running across homesteads chasing away the evil spirits of death.

Now it is different. Solemnness is the spirit of funerals. It is unchristian to wail even when the deep feeling of loss can only be dealt with by crying aloud and pushing the frustration our of the body and mind.

Further, in keeping with the need to cut down expenditure on funerals, cremation is first emerging as the best way to give the departed a final resting place. No wonder cremation is a phenomenon of the urbanites.

The French word "bourgeoisie" can be defined as "les hommes cultives", meaning well-groomed and civilised men and women. The old generation in Kenya who were brought up to be cultivated men and women have aspirations for their children also to be like themselves.

Quite often this aspiration is defined in terms of the jobs a successful son or daughter should do. Up to now, the old generation saw success in terms of white-collar jobs: School teacher, lawyer, doctor and civil servant. Success and bourgeois living were equated with these. Marriage in church then followed complete with baptising offspring and continuing with the church tradition. 

Young people of today may not necessarily conform to that image of success. Self-employment as artists, bloggers and "hustling" may define their perception of success. Together with this is disrespect for formality and embrace of a counter-culture, which is too casual for the old generation that is wedded to a bourgeois sense of decency.

Marriage is increasingly becoming a two people affair and the extended family may be receding into the past if there are no family traditions that bind individuals to a certain family or cultural practices. 

The writer is the governor of Kisumu County.


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