I am caught up. I am torn!
I seem to be very reminiscent of my childhood lately (see Clearly I Need Glasses), so again, when I was growing up in post-colonial Kenya, I was taught English is the way to be. I was taught that it is the way to speak, dress, eat and carry yourself, and better if you acquired the accent. Back then I must admit up until recently I was a bit of confused as to which accent is better between the American and the British. Laugh at my sorrow, will you not? As much as the American accent implies prowess in its rather easygoing curl of the tongue and tone, the British has become my latter preference for its propriety, wit and diction. Plus, I think the Americans have since slain English with laziness and warps in pronunciation and spelling, and the inclusion of colloquialism in mainstream communication. However, lately, especially after attending the university I am currently enrolled in and after taking English classes, my mental boat is rocked. It has since been impressed on me that I am supposed to be a Kenyan – an African in every right. I am supposed to think like a Kenyan and speak for Kenya.
So I am caught up.
Half my life, through primary and high school, all efforts were imparted on and drawn from me to becoming … foreign-like. I was told that was the way to go, that it was the future; that there was no progress in being all round Kenyan – leave alone in letting slip a single word in Swahili, for instance, which was a dire offense punishable by canning in my elementary school days. I could do it for sport of course, but never too seriously, and only within the confines of a Swahili language classroom, and for some of us, not even at home. I was taught – mostly by the deliberate lack of formal address of the matter – that there was no importance in researching on my Kenyan roots or in seeking to be authentically Kenyan in my dressing, demeanor, education and speech. To be fair, admitting that some of the instruments used in traditional Kenya were mentioned in music class in primary school could add some weight in credit on the other end of the scale.
Back then, ‘African’ fabric was scarce, and if any, were much less appreciated, and reserved for the old and greying. The trending African attire was the t-shirt with ‘Jambo Kenya!’ printed on the front, very much like today’s ‘I love New York’ apparel, a few of them spotting dangling plastic beads from hems and the sleeves, and others with pictorial illustrations of wildlife. They mostly came with matching shorts which had elastic waistbands with draw strings and front pockets. This trend was marketed only in foreign franchise stores like ‘Deacons’ (back then’s ‘Mr. Price’ or the American ‘Macy’s’) with an eye for the tourist clientele and the middle class. It might be befitting to indicate that ‘Jambo Kenya!’ was an aping of the white man’s feeble mastering of greeting in the local dialect Swahili. That was more than half my life. Afterwards, while working in the formal sector, every order of business and every serious interaction was automatically conducted in English.
So now, at prime age, the supposed malleable Nawiri is supposed to flip that switch. I am to do a 180 degree turn, flawlessly and promptly, back to my long shunned ethnicity. At the same time, I am supposed to continue in my pursuit of mastering the foreign language and its native speaker’s norms and culture with excellence.
I am caught up.
I love the world views that come through the doors of school. I love the debates and practical applications that ensue. I feel so well read just attending one or two classes. I relish the growth. Yet, I am wondering how real we are thumbing it on students to embody Englishmen and associates, while still requiring them to get back to their ethnic roots. Is it not ridiculous? Am I being overly argumentative as some people consider me to be? Is it not what they point out to us in these classes, that we have turned away from our motherland; that we should think like and for Africans; that we should not despise our mother tongues; that contrary to the fallacies we acquired, Africans are geniuses with their own art, medicine, systems of governance and practical world views? What then are we doing?
I am torn. I get it, and then I do not.
I am made to understand that the initial plan in colonial Africa was for Africans to master the mannerisms of the foreigners so as to beat them at their own game and turn the tables of power and influence to the native’s favor. But have we not endeavored to become like them in the process and so lost the authenticity of that argument? This might come out as cliché, but I remember how as a young girl I used notice English scholars from Africa in the media, especially Kenya, climbing to the highest ladders of academics and career, then at some point deciding to endow African garb as their signature wardrobe. Some still do not do so too well. The transformation includes hair-dos – the locks, the fros, the works. They do this deliberately and consistently, as if to give a statement. I did not and still do not know for sure what they seek to express or achieve by doing so. I am a natural haired girl myself and this is for ease of management, for my student budget and for the unhindered expressions of appreciation I get from people I get to rub shoulders with. But I can only speak for myself.
Please note that I am in no way trying to insult these great men and women who I am learning so much from, and some who by their writing and even bloodshed have paid for the independence and lifestyle I enjoy today. My question is, if it is indeed important, why are we not putting the same effort in learning the African values, tongue, culture, mannerisms and art at home and in schools as we do the foreign? Are we not being pretentious and two-faced to an extent? And should not these post-colonial Africana perspectives be cultivated from our tots’ cribs?
Are we being real?