CULTURE

Kenya as a nation-state founded on cultural diversity

Article 11 of the Constitution recognizes cultural diversity.

In Summary

•Culture distinguishes one human society from the others.

•Kenya has 43 ethnic communities that practise different cultures.

Morans boys and girls join in dance during the moran festival.
Morans boys and girls join in dance during the moran festival.
Image: FILE

The Constitution of Kenya 2010 recognizes culture as the foundation of the Nation and as the cumulative civilization of the Kenyan people and nation. Article 11 affirms the value of culture, and cultural heritage, in the governance architecture.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines culture as “the customary beliefs, social norms and material traits of racial, religious and social groups” and as “an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.”

This inter-generational aspect of culture is what gives people their unique identity and provides a basis for regulating human relationships through accepted norms, habits and practices.  

Culture distinguishes one human society from the others. Kenya has 43 ethnic communities that practise different cultures. The reality is that we are a nation of diverse ethnicities and cultures.  

Article 11 of the Constitution recognizes this cultural diversity. The State has a duty to promote all forms of cultural expression through literature, arts, traditional celebrations and other cultural heritage.

But is there anything like a Kenyan national culture? Truth is, there are as many cultures as there are ethnic groups in Kenya. At a personal level, most Kenyans tend to identify with the cultures of their ethnic communities. This ethnic affiliation, and in extension culture, plays an influential role in shaping their political choices.

That perhaps explains our ethnically-charged political contests at national and local levels. This is not an exclusive Kenyan phenomenon. As Prof Christopher Coker of the London School of Economics argues, culture has become an important factor in modern politics.

He cites identity politics sweeping across many countries as an example of how culture shapes the politics of a nation. Political culture, meaning the beliefs, opinions and emotions of citizens towards their system of governance, is heavily influenced by their culture(s).

In Kenyan political culture, this is manifest in the way the voters elect leaders based on ethnic or tribal considerations. This tends to undermine the quest for a Nation-State, that is, a State made up of people with a common identity.

A Nation-State is anchored on two fundamental principles. First, the principle of state sovereignty which recognizes the right of States to govern their territories without external interference. Second, the principle of national sovereignty which recognizes the right of communities existing in a nation to govern themselves.

Kenya is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nation. Although many Kenyans feel a sense of belonging to a nation called Kenya, they still retain a strong personal attachment to their ethnic and cultural identities.

These multiple identities are at the heart of our highly ethnicised political environment and to a great extent fuel the ethnic divisions upon which our dysfunctional political culture thrives.

Transforming this culture requires strengthening existing cultural institutions within the context of Article 11 of the Constitution so as to build an authentic Kenyan Nation-State anchored on cultural foundations.

Three things must happen. First, we must accept there is nothing wrong with embracing our cultural or ethnic identities. Culture should be used to emphasize the unique contribution of each community to national development and our cultural heritage as a force for social progress.

This also entails amplifying the positive elements of our rich cultural heritage, for example, coming up with policies to support integration of our traditional knowledge systems into the formal economy. This requires protection of traditional intellectual property rights.   

Second, we need to promote cultural values like respect, tolerance, love, peace as the building blocks for national cohesion, and as a pathway to a less polarized political culture devoid of ethnic stereotype, suspicion and hatred, that perennially fuels animosity and violence among our communities.

Third, is to re-think our approach to leadership and governance by promoting cultural institutions like the elders to build inter-ethnic and cross-cultural bridges with a view to promoting a common national cultural identity needed to build a truly Kenyan Nation-State.  

Mr Choto is a legal and policy analyst. Email: [email protected]