THAT’S LIFE: Of development, values, culture

By: Mungai Kihanya

As Africa seeks development and progress in all its forms, we must address what we are willing and not willing to leave behind.

Probably more than anything else, the looting and subjugation of Africa during slavery and colonialism left deep wounds that we haven’t addressed.

Following independence, African leaders had among many other difficult tasks, the mammoth one of carving out a national identity and sense of pride for a people who had for so long been taught that what they believed, how they spoke, lived and dressed was barbaric.

Consumed by personal greed and the un-African value of self-gain at the expense of the community, many failed to rise to the occasion.

Those of us born after independence were taught that African names were unpronounceable and hence we had to get good ‘Christian’ ones at baptism or confirmation.


What I didn’t know was that as far as names go, Caroline was more English than Christian. But my parents complied and Caroline I became.

So our African names became ‘middle’ names, ‘second’ names or ‘home’ names. In some schools, we were taught that it was wrong to speak in mother-tongue and that English reigned supreme. And so we learnt to speak “proper” English and possibly, very improperly, our local languages, if at all.

It was more important to master a foreign language than an African one. Someone taught us that European foods, mannerisms and dress were superior to ours, to the point that the discussion on developing a national dress never quite took off. When I was getting married, I told my parents that I wanted none of that “cultural stuff”.

The more educated, or “progressive” one become, the less African they were expected to be. And so it came to be seen that progress or development could not go hand in hand with African cultural values.

If we wanted good roads, great jobs and tall buildings, we would need to be more Western and less African.

Then I begun to travel beyond Africa, and realised that most other peoples thought differently. Many embraced their food, language and culture to the extent of exporting it to other parts of the world.

That’s why today we have more Chinese, Japanese, Italian and Indian restaurants in Nairobi, than we do say, West African restaurants.

That’s why Spanish is the second most spoken language in the US. Those people I encountered during my travels actually thought that who they were, what they had, where they came from, was good not shameful.

That was the beginning of my cultural awakening and the realisation that beyond the plundering of Africa, the greatest havoc was reigned on the African mind.

It is a shackle that we – because only we can do it – have not removed some five decades after independence.

However, in the words of Bob Marley, we need to “emancipate yourself from mental slavery”, to carve out a national consciousness of what it means to be African in the spirit of Kwame Nkrumah and Steve Biko.

Sadly, when we talk of African culture and values, many are quick to harp on the negative aspects of culture, from female genital mutilation and the subjugation of women.

What we must accept is that all cultures have negative practices and as culture evolves, every people determine what they move forward with and what they leave behind.

Secondly, while Africa is diverse, different tribes and nations share similar values. There is the African value of respect for authority and elders as well the proverbial African hospitality not to mention many other positive aspects of culture.

In a paper titled Urbanity and African Traditional Values, Chukwudum Barnabas Okolo writes, “Africa’s success in her struggle for self-realization and self-identity will depend then on her ability to subject foreign values to her traditional ones, to master and at the same time domesticate industrial techniques and scientific knowledge to serve her own ends, and not the other way round.”

Our ancestors had an inkling of it, and told us as much in the Swahile proverb, “mkosa mila ni mtumwa’. Losing one’s identity, language or culture is never progress but a crying shame.