What is the True Kenyan Identity?
If there’s one thing that’s unique about us Kenyans, it is that we’re copycats. We will embrace and promote everything foreign before we appreciate what is authentically ours. We only seem to claim people and things that do not belong to us, or have first been celebrated in international circles. Barack Obama and Micere Mugo are examples. It is quite impressive that we fought for that rock, Migingo, like we did.
As a country, we go through different seasons when different countries capture our fancy. There was a brief period, about two years ago, when Uganda was very cool. We planned holidays in Kampala, which, to this day, we mistakenly call Champara, thinking that we have mastered the Luganda accent, when, in fact, there is no accent in the entire country that pronounces the name of their capital city in this way.
Currently, we are all about Nigeria. The average Kenyan will sooner recognize Desmond Elliot or Genevieve Nnaji than they will Oliver Litondo or Lizz Njagah.Kenyan women strut proudly wearing gele (a Nigerian head wrap) to weddings, and are easily mistaken for Nigerians in international functions. Statements like Body no be wood and Everything na double-double are common nowadays. Because I have had the opportunity to make tons of Nigerian friends, I am fluent in Nigerian pidgin. This is already a form of butchered English, so to speak, so I cringe when I hear people butcher it further in an attempt to appear trendy.
Far be it from our musicians to be left behind. I have heard phrases such as “the Nigerianization of Kenyan gospel music.” People talk about this like it is a good thing. I wonder if it has crossed anybody’s mind that while we are busy Naijanizing, nobody seems to be Kenyanizing anything because – especially in the arts – nothing Kenyan enough has been made fashionable enough to copy.
Along with this trend is the annoying “in America” mentality. As soon as Obama became president, a women’s talk show aired an episode titled “Raising the Next Obama.” Was Obama the next anybody?
It seems that the myriad things going wrong in our country are alright as long as someone can give a similar example that begins with "But this has worked in America!" Nobody seems to realize that as a developing nation, we require slightly different models in several areas as we work to catch up our developed counterparts. Nobody seems to notice that America has serious problems of her own.
Even when it comes to our morality, we view other nations as benchmarks, and not examples. I once spoke out about Kenyan pastors plagiarizing content and marketing it to their gullible followers in books and sermon series. It surprised me that I was met with responses such as “I’m sure even American pastors plagiarize.” So what if they do? Does that make plagiarism acceptable? Some of the things that Kenyans copy, in the name of being like countries in the west, are wild even for the people they think they are imitating.
Perhaps we just have a strange need for company. When our political leaders are pinned – even if with overwhelming evidence – to corrupt deals and volatile statements, they know they will be alright as long as they can point to someone else who stole an extra shilling or made a similar comment and is walking free. We ourselves say, “Afadhali this regime. In the previous one…” If our leaders can brand themselves liberators and give credible evidence of unwarranted public humiliation or a jail sentence, then we have no problem if they are corrupt. They should be excused, because in them we see our own Mandela.
The constant aping and comparisons could be because as Kenyans, we oscillate between characteristic amnesia and exceptional lenience. We overlook things, and then forget them. We fail to understand that we cannot leave a legacy if we do not lay our foundations right. Trailblazers must be willing to tread lonely paths. This does not mean they become social islands. It just means they are unashamed of their individual identities.
Making other countries our benchmarks has not helped us. Perhaps we should try viewing them as examples and not yardsticks. Instead of aping everything we see in Nollywood and Hollywood, we can pick up the positive factors from nations we look up to, and use them to enhance, not overtake or replace, our own Kenyan identity.
In this way, we will be able to focus on steady growth, determining our progress by looking back at our own history, correcting our own mistakes, embracing our own culture, and charting our own path. We must be determined as a nation to be pioneers, not blind followers.
If we renew our minds, Kenya can become the template. But if we are content to copy every aspect of cultures that have little in common with us, and if we continue to blindly support those who are determined to run this country aground politically, spiritually, and academically, simply because somebody saw something similar “in America,” then perhaps we do not deserve good leaders or progress as a nation. By virtue of our choices, we will get our just desserts.
By Paula Odhiambo. Paula is a US-based Kenyan gospel singer, writer and activist.
This article can also be found on The Star.
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Heard of re-inventing the wheel? It is not common.... but for those who can borrow and replicate using some modification to fit their situation or those who can add value and make something that serves a need, let them do. BTW, whom do you hang with? I honestly haven't had those Nigeriarization examples you gave....if you do not like them, come hang with my group :)) you'll not hear those.
With all due respect to Obama, we (Kenyans) did not know him before he became the US president.... so we could not have paid homege to him...but yes, I agree, we take too long to appreciate our heroes until some else goes first.
RAO should read this article..... I think he can borrow a leaf!