G. J. WANJOHI
There is much talk about culture nowadays: for example many newspapers have regular columns on culture. The reason for this is that culture is vital for life in community. Culture defines people and confers an identity on them. It is difficult to imagine humans beings devoid of culture.
Every country needs a cultural policy; this is all the more important for a country as culturally diverse as Kenya. But before discussing cultural policies for Kenya, I would first like to give ideas on culture in a summary form. These are taken from the thought of an eminent scholar called Raymond Panikkar. We shall study his thought under three rubrics, namely: definition of culture, characteristics of culture, the meeting of cultures.1
Definition of Culture
There have been many definitions of culture. Panikkar defines culture simply as "the encompassing myth of a society in a given space and time." He goes on to explain that myth is the horizon of intelligibility where all of our perceptions of reality make sense or fall into place. Myth is a story which justifies the status quo of a society. It is believed in without question. To question a myth is tantamount to question the culture which underlies it. Myth gives us the frame of our worldview.
Characteristics of Culture
Panikkar gives the following characteristics of culture:
Culture is non-objectifiable. Culture is not something we can explain the way we can explain an algebraic equation, a landscape, or the direction to a particular place. The myth that is culture is not something that we are fully conscious of. We can only approach the knowledge of a culture by somehow participating in its myth.
Culture is non-commensurable. This means that cultures cannot be compared since there does not exist a neutral standpoint from which to value or judge another culture. Given that each culture as it stands has made life possible, has extended it, and nurtured it for generations, it can be considered as good and as valid as any other culture. In other words, no culture can set itself as absolute or universal.
We can talk about cultural relativity, not cultural relativism. This trait follows from the preceding one. All values are relative, and so are the cultures from which they derive. However, this does not mean relativism. The latter destroys the possibility of believing in anything. Relativity, on the other hand, means that every worldview or culture is relative to its context. Cultural relativity teaches us the importance of every culture and of every being within it. At the same time it reveals the impossibility of absolutising them.
The Meeting of Cultures/Interculturality
To say that cultures are incommensurable does not mean that they are incommunicable. Interculturality stands between the absolutisation of a culture and incommunication between cultures. Interculturality describes the dynamic situation of people who lives consciously and, being conscious of the existence of other people, values, and cultures, they know that isolation is not possible.
Interculturality stems from the awareness of the limitations of every culture to actualise the full potential of humankind. It follows from this that all cultures are the result of an ongoing mutual fertilisation. Dialogue between cultures, as well as the philosophical task of trying to be conscious of one's myth, to question and transform it, to find equivalents among diverse cultural discourses, are a process through which every human person and every culture contributes to the destiny of humanity and of the universe.
It seems to me that the ideas of Panikkar on culture can be summarised in the following manner:
There is no standard, universal or superior culture. That is, all cultures are the same inasmuch as they have succeeded in bringing humankind to the present moment.
However, cultures are not static entities that are enclosed in themselves, isolated islands that are independent and self-sufficient. They are dynamic entities that need to be more conscious of themselves and to seek to be more open to and communicate with other cultures in order to cause more harmonious and peaceful living on mother earth.
CULTURAL POLICIES FOR KENYA
On the basis of the foregoing, what should Kenya's cultural policy be? In the first place, we must bear in mind that Kenya is composed of 42 ethnic groups. Obviously, each one of these groups has its own distinct culture, which must be fully acknowledged and accorded its rightful place within the nation. In order to cater adequately for all the ethnic communities of Kenya, I would like to propose the following cultural policies:
Language and Education Policy. Given that language is the vehicle of culture par excellence, prime importance must be accorded to this vehicle. Having realised this importance, our present government has ruled that mother tongue shall be taught during the first three years of primary school. Unfortunately, this noble idea has been frustrated by the current 8:4:4 system of education, with its crowding of subjects. Given this situation, the teaching of mother tongues (being considered of less value) is sacrificed in favour of more "important" subjects such as English, maths, and science. It would therefore be better that the number of subjects in the 8:4:4 system be reduced in order to give adequate attention to the teaching of mother tongues.
To make the teaching of ethnic languages really effective, research into these languages must be carried out in order to collect stories, proverbs, and riddles, and also to compile dictionaries. (Some of this work is already being done by Bible translators. Their in-depth study of a number of Kenyan languages is a very commendable undertaking towards the promotion of these languages.)
What we have said about the teaching of ethnic languages applies to rural schools. When we come to urban schools where the medium of instruction is English, the mother tongue is not taught. What to do? Since it would be impractical to teach the many mother tongues spoken by the parents of children in city schools, no policy can be laid down here. One can only hope that, if they really value their language and culture, the parents will take it upon themselves to teach their children the mother tongue outside school hours. Another way to teach them the mother tongue (and to make them appreciate the culture of their parents and grandparents) is to take them to the rural areas during the holidays. Difficulties arise, of course, in cases where the parents have different mother tongues. However, it would be better to teach them at least one of the languages rather than neglecting this teaching altogether since this would give them the impression that the traditional culture is of little importance.
It goes without saying that Swahili, which is one of Kenya's national languages and which is ethnically neutral, can play a very important part in forging a united Kenya. Its teaching should therefore be given high priority in the school syllabus.
The Performing Arts. Dance, songs and plays have been taken quite seriously in Kenya. The yearly school competitions in these arts is to be encouraged. In addition, during the celebration of public holidays, dancers and singers from different communities come to entertain guests. The same thing happens when the president or some other high dignitary goes to visit a certain locality within the country. Also, during harambee (fund raising) gatherings, it is usual for guests to be entertained by singers and dancers of that particular locality. There is no doubt that these aspects of culture are well catered for and one would wish for their continuation and improvement..
Employment Policy. With respect to mother tongue teaching and the performing arts, the cultural policy for Kenya seems is favourable, although there could be improvement, as has been mentioned. However, when we turn to employment policy and practices, the situation is not very good. It is at places of work that Kenyans really have the opportunity to get to know people from other areas and cultures and many people have benefited from such experiences. In the first years after independence, the situation was not very bad: there was a rather good mix of Kenyans from different areas in government institutions and people were generally hired or appointed to jobs according to their knowledge and experience. However, there was no written policy. Also certain ministries did not bother to advertise vacancies so bad hiring practices were allowed to creep in.
After the restoration of multipartyism in 1991, the situation became much worse: one was hired or appointed to a post or promoted mainly because of belonging(as the saying goes(to the "correct" tribe. Hiring on merit went more or less out of the window. This policy of favouring one ethnic group over the others goes counter to the cultural principles explained above. This is very unfortunate, as it not only engenders economic disparity which becomes a cause of friction, but also deprives people of the opportunity of becoming more broadminded. One would therefore hope that discrimination on account of ethnic affiliation would become a thing of the past and that the Government would put in place a non-discriminatory employment policy.
Appreciating the Variety of Kenyan Cultures
What we said earlier about culture can be summarised in a different way by saying that each culture has its own intrinsic value, is independent, and does not need another culture in order to exist. However, given its inherent limitation, each culture needs other cultures in order to be better. Given this, what should be the attitude of the Kenyan cultures towards one another? It should be one of coming together and intermingling for mutual enrichment. This has already been happening among different Kenyan peoples through interethnic marriages. Of course, this cannot be a matter of policy since ideally the choice of a marriage partner is a private matter. However, where this choice is made by mature individuals who are willing to learn from traditions other than their own, it can indeed enrich the partners and can also be for the children in such a family a fertile ground for learning tolerance about and appreciation of different Kenyan cultures.
Suffice it to say that it takes very little thinking to see that for a better and more peaceful Kenya, every effort must be made to accord equal treatment to all its peoples and cultures.
1. See Caravan: newsletter of the Alliance for a Responsible and United World, no. 3 (May 1999), p. 16.
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