We all love to stay in familiar territory. We love what we know, because what we know offers us some level of control over the situation. Therefore there is nothing as unsettling as an abrupt change of culture. It leaves us unsettled, because we have no idea what will happen next. See, culture is predictable. We could easily rely on the wisdom of our forefathers to deal with challenges. Whether it was circumcision, marriage, parenthood or even war, there were older people to guide you.
It is not like culture did not change, like we sometimes like to pretend. It did. The only difference is that culture changed gradually. The two most common agents of culture change were trade and war. Trade with neighboring communities ensured there was constant interaction and therefore they inevitably affected both cultures, as each community tried to pick best practices from the other. War was another form of interaction. Often, men were killed by the winning community while women and children were captured. While the captives were assimilated into the culture of the captors, they often did bring with them aspects of their own culture to their new societies.
But perhaps the most radical agent of culture change is colonialism. Colonial powers conquered other areas, and instead of plundering, killing men and capturing women and children as was the case in ordinary wars, they imposed their rule on the captured territories. The reason they were able to conquer was of course because they were often economically and militarily superior to their opponents.
But these conquests came with, unsurprisingly, a social and cultural arrogance. The colonialists saw their way of life, including their language, as superior to that of the indigenous people of the colonies. Thus, their way of life was imposed on the colonies. The Babylonians did it, the Greeks did it, the Persians did it, the Romans did it and more recently, the Europeans did it.
The industrial revolution was Europe’s source of economic and military power. Having been able to invent powerful boats that could stay in water for months, they could now send wanderers to go and discover the corners of the world. Thus, the likes of Christopher Columbus, Bartholomew Dias and Vasco da Gama were sent by their kings to the sea to explore.
Centuries after these early explorers came to Africa, the British landed in Kenya, dismantled our social, economic and political systems and imposed their own. Collaborators and rebels were treated with equal disdain. Our forebears’ dignity was ripped off. They were made to believe that they were inferior to the white folks. Even religion, Christianity, was laced with European culture, and we were made to believe that our all our cultural practices were backward and pagan. Of course the notion of European superiority was advanced by their superior technology, read their guns, vehicles, trains etc.
This ensured that we remained beholden to them. Of course they left in the 1960s but they left their culture behind, and more critically, an inferiority complex. Our cultural response to colonialism has been varied, but can be broadly categorized into 4 groups.
The first group has the rebels, who rejected the European culture in toto. They dropped their European names (which we were made to believe are “Christian” names), spoke largely in their mother tongue (and Kiswahili), wore kitenge (Ankara) attire and either joined African Independent (Christian) churches or reverted to African traditional forms of worship.
Then there those who bought into the European superiority. They see everything African as backward. Those who, after acquiring formal education, will not be heard uttering a word in vernacular (and in extreme cases, even Kiswahili). And when they do, it is in comical, acquired European accents. There are parents in rural areas who forbid anyone from teaching their children vernacular, so now we have a new breed of youngsters who have been brought up in the village but cannot utter a single word in the dominant tongue of that village.
The third group, which is the largest, are those who simply do not care one way or the other. They just flow with the mixed Afro-European culture they find themselves in. They do what they find being done without asking questions.
Then there is a fourth group to which I belong. I closely associate with the third group, but for different reasons. I see the Afro-European culture as my culture, but not because I do not care. I do care. My reasons are rather pragmatic.
First, I reject the notion of European cultural superiority. I embrace the Meru culture. And my mother-tongue, Kimeru. Just this Sunday, I delivered a sermon at my home church in Kimeru, because the entire congregation understood the language. There were a few visitors, but they all said they understood the language because they were brought up in one part of Meru or another. So why waste time with interpreters when we all have a language we understand? If I marry a Meru girl, which from the look of things is very likely, I will expose my children to Kimeru, so that if they decide not to speak it, it will be their choice. I will not decide for them by denying them an opportunity to learn. Of course if I marry a girl from another tribe, that would be difficult while living in the cosmopolitan city of Nairobi. (In the village they could easily pick it from the neigbourhood, but in the city that is not possible).
Second, as Christian, I have consciously learnt to separate European culture from the Christian faith. There is nothing Christian about my name Edward. It is just an ordinary Anglo-Saxon name. But even the names that are in the Bible, like Peter, Ruth, Solomon etc, have nothing Christian about them. They are ordinary Hebrew names. I am sure there were many wicked Jews going by those names. So I could give my children all African names, or a combination of African and European names (like mine). To me it doesn’t matter one way or the other.
There are many other European cultural practices that have been infused into the Christian faith. The most popular is weddings. We have been made to believe that the white wedding is the only valid way of getting married, and that anyone who gets married in any other way is living in sin. I differ. The Bible, as far as I can tell, does not prescribe any wedding format. All the weddings that are recorded there followed the Hebrew (or other) cultural practices (Isaac & Rebecca (Genesis 24), Jacob & Leah +Rachel (Genesis 29), Tamar and the sons of Judah (Genesis 38), Moses and Zipporah (Exodus 2:21), Ruth & Boaz (Ruth 3&4), David & Micah (1 Samuel 18:17-27)). None of these marriages involved priests. Yet Jesus did not say these marriages were sinful, neither did He or any of the early apostles set a different format for Christian marriages. Because weddings are a cultural function. And the white wedding as we know it today is not even a Jewish or Hebrew cultural format, it is a European format.
Do not get me wrong. I actually think that as a matter of practice, it is a good idea for Christians to get married in church. In fact, I intend to get married in church (though I do not intend to follow the standard European template. I will customize mine to suit my (and my then fiancée’s) circumstances). However, my point is that I do not think Christians who do African traditional wedding ceremonies and start living together without doing a church wedding commit any sin. Neither do those who opt to go to the Registrar of Marriages at the Attorney General’s office to tie the knot. And I certainly do not think that those people who got married in any of these ways before becoming Christians need to do a white wedding after becoming Christians, unless they want to. God recognizes all these marriages as valid. I know many will not agree with me on this point, but I challenge all Christians, especially my Bible Study gang, to show me where in scripture the Jewish Christians (or Gentiles for that matter) were told to abandon their cultural marriage practices and adopt a particular “Christian” wedding practice.
However, having said all that in favor of the African culture, I am pragmatic enough to know that it is impossible (and often unwise) to reverse all the cultural changes that colonialism left with us. For starters, I am not dropping the Western clothes in favour of animal skins. No way. Second, the world is now a global village. And the global order is set in Western standards, thanks to colonial influence. Thus, while my mother tongue limits me to only two counties in Kenya, mastery of the English language enables me to communicate with people from many parts of the world. Thus, I am likely to learn French before Dholuo. Not because the French language is superior to Dholuo, but because, again thanks to colonialism, French gives me a larger audience than Dholuo. Besides, many Luos do understand English and Kiswahili, and the primary function of language is to communicate.
This post can be summarized by three points. First, the colonial idea that African culture is inferior to European culture is a lie. We need to be proud of African heritage. Two, cultural change is inevitable. Whether by trade, war or colonialism, cultures are bound to affect each other when they come into contact. Three, globalization and the internet have ensured that the world’s cultures are frequently rubbing shoulders. Ours is therefore to borrow the best practices from around the world, while ignoring the negative influences, in order to be better citizens of the world. Next week we will look at a cultural shift that has nothing to do with colonialism, but which is affecting the entire world: the rise of the independent woman.
Image Source: http://history105.libraries.wsu.edu/spring2015/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2015/01/Screen-Shot-2015-04-24-at-11.56.47-AM.png