My workmates and I were in derisions of laughter a few weeks ago at a joke that inspired me to write this piece. One of our colleagues, a generation older than myself, had the misfortune of sitting down on a stool notorious for slipping on the smooth and freshly mopped tiles surrounding our workstations. A loud bang and exclamation let us know that she had been the latest victim of this seemingly tireless vindictive piece of furniture.
However, with grace and a big smile on her face, as she got up, she proclaimed that it was now time for a party, and demanded that we form a committee to celebrate her. The entire floor burst into laughter.
On the surface for many readers, this joke doesn’t look like much. But within the socio-cultural dynamics of many Kenyan tribes, this joke has huge significance. If an elderly person in the community fell down in the course of the day, usually hard at work on the farm even at the tender ages of 70+ years, a committee was quickly formed to have a party in their honour. In communities without healthcare, indicators that an elderly person was sick or ailing were hard to come by.
The fragility of life was respected to the degree that even an innocuous fall that only resulted in a nasty bruise would instigate the rounding up of age-mates, children and grandchildren, and friends and family from far and wide.
These are the traditions that enforce positive social integration – the cherishing of those who have served their families and their communities whilst they are still here and able to impart their example and wisdom to the next generation. Sifting through the whole basket of African traditions that have survived into the 21st Century can however give you a mixed bag.
In some communities, female genital mutilation and the commodification of female sexuality for the production of offspring and the male-to-male transfer of property still persist. As gender and human rights have evolved, traditions that favour the established patriarchal society have bent in submission to the tide of history, but many are still yet to break.
New generations have every right and should be supported to throw away the yolk of these oppressive and vile examples of our tribal origins. But how much should we throw out? What should remain? In the rage against the machine, many young Africans have yet to come to terms with this question, including yours truly.
The answer lies somewhere in how positive values are transmitted from generation to generation, and yet somehow stay resilient to both the grips of the old order, and the pull of the freedom purist secularism that is broadcast to us through periodicals and ‘Simpsons’ cartoons. And this then forces us to reconnect with values that we perhaps do not broadcast as much as our ancestors.
Honour is a heavy word, sitting at the end of a thin table from shame. These are the magnetic poles of the collectivist societies that our ancestors were moulded in, and have found resilience in the face of enlightenment in the armour of African Christianity.
To shake off the fear, we must be bold enough to explore what it means to honour the traditions and symbols in our society: to honour a mother as the giver and guardian of life, to honour the wisdom and struggle of a father.
Honour in this regard is the lens we need to discern what has brought us all here into a prosperous now, and what continues to defend us from the traps and pitfalls of the fool’s gold of the conspicuous consumption so rampant in our generation, but that also frees us from what has lost value in the engineering of an equal and just society.
So dear friend, honour your traditions that you have seen fit for purpose by serving them and stewarding them in this wild time to be alive. Judge not their history, but their utility. After all, they have brought you and yours here and now, to this moment in space-time, and may continue to serve you into the unknown future over the horizon.
Author, Binagwaho Gakunju