By David G Maillu
Recently I was confronted by one young man, let me call him Musangi who, perhaps in order to vent his frustration, argued with me sharply demanding, “Professor, what’s in these African values you people talk about which are invisible to us today anyway?”
I attempted to reduce his heat by advising him to simply address me as Maillu; but he backfired, “Why should I do that when you are one that lot?” On a light note he sarcastically said, “We look forward to that lot’s demise then we can find out own feet in our world and live happily thereafter.”
“That serious?” I asked and Musangi ridiculed, “Is your lot ashamed of getting old and becoming respectable elders? Every where I go I meet them with raven black dyed hair that they may to look young like us even when they are in your eighties?”
From Musangi’s attack I realized something. That the old generation has gravely failed in delivering our traditional treasures to the young. That’s where the rains started beating us. Both the educated and the government should bear the blame.
Then I remembered Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino in which the wife character expressed her pride is ridiculing the westernized husband. I further remembered Okot calling brides’ wedding dresses mosquito nets. Okot also asked the meaning of that rungu carried in Parliament, now spread over to be carried in parliaments of Country Governments without any explanation. Chief Justice Mutunga should be given credit for abandoning wearing that overflowing and stupid white-sheep-skin that Justice Gicheru was fond of wearing.
The subject of “African values” is an immense subject that cannot be addressed in an article like this one. African values is the traditional cultural ship responsible for African interpretation of life and how to live that life. That ship is both the shrine and religion of the people. Period. That man indirectly was telling me we have defiled the shrine and almost become irrelevant to the present generation. Yes, there is the Kiswahili saying mwacha utamaduni ni mtumwa; he who has abandoned his culture becomes a slave to other cultures. Very beautifully said.
However, on the ground we have not been promoting that culture. For example, in Kenya, we have got a Ministry of Culture that, ideally, should be the most important Ministry. But that Ministry is the most lost and toothless Ministry in the Kenyan government. Culture has been presented as watching traditional dances expressed by people dressed in skins, beating drums, jumping and the rest.
Cultural promotion has been left to writers who, in any case, are working in hostile political climate in which they are perceived as liabilities. Notwithstanding, most of African writers run gravely short of being proud of their traditional values. That’s why they are at peace in aping foreign writers.
The government has taken a back seat in development and promotion of people’s cultural values. When Chinua Achebe wrote The Problem with Nigeria, instead of being given credit, he because the enemy of the Nigerian Government. The government was the mother and Achebe was trying to uncover his mother. The question was not what dangerous thing the mother was hiding under the dress.
In as far as promotion of African values are concerned, most African presidential regimes have utterly failed citizens. If there were courts of law for Presidents to face charges because of principally abandoning African values, they would all end in jail. But, those regimes have been terrorizing and imprisoning cultural activists.
The address should begin by answering this one million-dollar question.
What is there on the ground for the average person to make him/her feel proud of his cultural roots? When the visiting African Professor or Diplomat or tourist is travelling to Europe, Asia or America, what African values can he put on the bargaining table to show that he belongs to a civilization? He stands face-to-face with civilized people who are religiously proud of their cultural values when he is appears culturally rootless.
In nutshell African regimes and their Presidents are naked, crying to be dressed in imported clothes.
Back to my Musangi. I didn’t talk long with Musangi before I discovered that he had swallowed a couple of beers. Nonetheless, he had made an important point and was focused when he asked me, “Give me a sample of one of those values.”
“In Maasai traditional law,” I said, “if you are caught having stolen a cow, you are sentenced to pay seven cows.” That is an effective deterrence for stopping your from stealing. Your family is involved in raising the payment. Your family is forms the checks and balances of your behavior. That is why your stealing propensity becomes highly controlled. In our imported law, your family is not the keeper of your moral register; you are on your own. If you steal a goat you will be arrested, charged and jailed. Which method is better in upholding morality – the imported or the traditional one?”
He agreed that the traditional one was superior. He opened the door for me to add that the integrity of the family is the backbone of African social order; and that a government is a replica of an extended family. The social fabric is broken in the nuclear the checks and balances of the extended family are removed. If the government catered for the full rights of the extended family, the government would harvest grand social order that would reduce sharply domestic disputes and need for the police force and prisons. In that traditional setting crimes were effectively obliterated from the communities and prisons did not even exist.
As things stand at this stage, it looks that the writer is the only messiah that could help in the recovery of those fast vanishing African values. His government is either suffering from both amnesia and shortsightedness. That’s awfully serious because the rot of a fish begins from the head.