Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Debunking Cultural Myths:

Something very interesting happened two weeks ago. It all started with Raila Odinga – a true man of the people and a true son of the soil (one who has proven beyond any shadow of doubt that he is ready to take the mantle of leadership come 2012 and unless something very dramatic happens – he is the man to watch). Anyway, this gentleman, decided to take the bull by its horns. He traveled to the Lakeside country and dropped a cultural bomb declaring that "research has now proved circumcised men are safer from the scourge compared to those who are not." Raila continued, "I am taking the challenge of calling upon elders in the Teso, Luo and Turkana communities to ensure people embrace circumcision of boys, although it has not been part of their culture."[1]

For obvious reasons, Raila’s challenge was heavily condemned while others openly commended him for his courage. Some questioned the validity of the claim that male circumcision reduces the risk of infection with AIDS. I am not proposing to debate with any of these sides. We all know, and I am sure Raila is not ignorant of the fact that, circumcision is not the panacea for HIV/AIDS. However, underlying Raila’s bold stand is the fact that culture is not static and there is no such thing as “no-go” area in matters cultural. Ironically, as we argue about whether men of the lake should get the cut or not, men in Kenya are still sending their daughters to bush doctors to make them real “women” and “fit ins”.

What then do we mean by culture? When men declare that Raila is wrong on this since it is “my culture” and nobody should mess with it, what do they exactly mean? Culture ought to be understood in three levels. First, it refers to the systems or frameworks of meaning within which interpretation of the world is carried out as well as guidance on how to live in such a world. Culture embodies beliefs, values, attitudes and rules of behaviour. Secondly, culture can be understood in terms of rituals in which the community embodies and re-enacts their history and values. Finally, culture is understood to include the artefacts and symbolisation that become sources of identity.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o one of our best interpreters of culture summarises culture as an embodiment of a people’s “values, those aesthetic and moral qualities that people consider basic and important in their contact and interaction with one another and the universe.”[2] This means that culture includes completely the social realities (present and past) of a community such as economic relations, political structures, and language among others. Through culture, a community develops education, law, religion, literature and art, moral and ideological forces in which the social relations operate. In essence, culture conditions people’s understanding of reality at a particular time and place in history.

What this entails is that culture is not static. In Kenya, for example, culture has changed tremendously within the last forty years. Through globalisation and the development of new emphases and sensibilities, cultural changes have evolved so that old ways of looking at and explaining the significance of the world have become extinct and are no longer credible. Bishop Okullu having seen the potential of misrepresentation of culture cautioned that interpretation of culture does not mean engaging in cultural excavation to resuscitate the Africa of years past. African culture is what we are today and tomorrow.[3] Ngũgĩ amplifies this further when he writes that the past is only useful to us “only as a living lesson to the present… not preserved as a museum: rather we must study it critically without illusions, and see what lesson we can draw from it in today’s battlefield of the future and present.” We must not worship it. It is not possible, as Ngũgĩ asserts, to return to the previous state of innocence but we can do something about our present circumstances.

As such we use culture as a tool with which to understand and interpret one’s reality. In doing so we have to take seriously our experiences and connect them with other realities – that is exactly what Raila did in his recent take on male circumcision in Luo land in light of the HIV/AIDS scourge. We can as well appropriate culture as a tool of liberation, in which we identify positive aspects of culture and promote them while discarding those that are not helpful to human progress and experience. By putting these two aspects of culture in practise, we safeguard ourselves against any form of cultural relativism or/and provincialism. The aforementioned cultural parameters remind us of our commitment to wholeness and enhancement of life.

As such we should commend Raila for empowering us to think and talk about cultural things that for long have been considered “no-go” area. Talk about Cultural Revolution! Kudos Amolo!

[1] The East African Standard, August 18 2008.
[2] Ngugi wa Thiongo, Writers in Politics, 6.
[3] Henry Okullu, Quest for Justice (Kisumu: Shalom, 1997), 54.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Questions of Meaning and Existence

For centuries, humanity has wrestled with the questions of meaning and existence. The need to answer these questions is acute today than it was a century ago. With technological evolution of our time, news of death of a young child brutally murdered travel fast and wide. We receive instantaneous news through television and the internet of calamities such as the Tsunami in Asia, Katrina or Ike in America or Famine in parts of Africa leaving families and nations totally devastated. Our confidence in capitalism is put into question when we watch as years of hard work and savings disappear before our very eyes because of individual or corporate greed such as recently witnessed on Wall Street. Faith in protection of basic human rights is as well shaken when we witness such atrocities happening as in Rwanda and Darfur without any meaningful intervention. Such events do not only reveal our vulnerability but have also left many to live in anguish and hopelessness. "What for? what is it worth?", so we ask. Are some people destined to flourish while others perennially suffer? Or is the “graph” already drawn, as one of the gifted Gĩkũyũ writers of Gĩchandĩ and Marebeta once sung? Are there such things as blessings and curses, so that some will forever journey on the highway of blessings and happiness, while others trod on the hard and stony foot path of curses and drudgery?

These questions are not idle or empty. The disciples of Jesus struggled with the same kind of questions. In John 9 we have an example of the disciples raising a similar question when they came across a man who had been born blind. They asked Jesus “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus’ answer satisfies, at least for a spiritual moment. But why would God delight in someone’s suffering in order to make a pedagogical point? Preachers of the so-called prosperity gospel are quick (of course quoting from scriptures, and I cannot argue with that – I mean, who can argue with God’s Book) to show that there is a way of life that can either lead to blessings and happiness or to curses and suffering. According to this group of preachers, we can make God bless us through some magical manipulations. My pragmatic Presbyterian on the other side will scrap his intellect to gather some philosophical sayings that God calls us to faithfulness and not to success or blessings. Whether my Pentecostal or Presbyterian friend is right, I cannot tell. Perhaps I should not even be raising any of these questions? May be I should resign to Fate as the Greeks or Africans did. Pretend that all is well and that experience of suffering and death is nothing else but the conditioning of the mind. As a matter of fact, who is even qualified to talk about these issues, the victim, the pastor, the “objective” philosopher, or the religious? Or is it the triumphalist, the positivists, the defeatists, the cynic or the centrists? Some days to come, I might have a revelation and adequately give an answer. But as of now, I will keep seeking.