By Zoe Cormack
In mid-September, two weeks after the official start of the project, I made my way to Nairobi with PI Lotte Hughes to attend the Storymoja Literary Festival, where Lotte and project consultant Steve Akoth were taking part in panel about culture and the constitution (read Lotte’s previous post).
Kenya’s 2010 constitution gives an explicit place to culture and the panel was convened to discuss the implications of cultural rights provisions in Kenya’s new constitution. This is, more or less, what our project will be studying over the next three years, so I couldn’t really have asked for a better introduction to the themes of the research.
Joining Lotte and Steve were Karega-Munene (Professor of History at the United States International University, Kenya), Aghan Odero (Director of the Kenya Cultural Centre) and Daniel Salau (activist and Director of Simba Maasai Outreach Organisation). The chair was Mshai Mwangola, a performance scholar and a board member of the Kenya Cultural Centre. She has written a very thoughtful reflection on the panel in The Star newspaper.
Mshai led the panellists through a discussion of two texts. The book Managing Heritage, Making Peace: History, Identity and Memory in Contemporary Kenya (Annie E. Coombes, who wasn’t in Nairobi, Lotte Hughes and Karege Munene are co-authors) was used as a way in to talk about the place of cultural heritage in The Constitution of Kenya (2010). The conversation touched on a wide range of topics and the panellists brought very varied backgrounds and experience to the table. This gave the audience (including myself) a lot to think about.
Big questions, which I am sure we will be returning to frequently over the course of the research, focused on the potential for tensions between sub-national cultural identities and nationhood. Why does ‘culture’ tend to be conflated with ‘ethnicity’ when there is so much hybridity and exchange between different ethnic communities? By stressing the importance of Kenya’s ‘cultures’ is the constitution, paradoxically, a national document that identifies people by their ethnic identity and not by their ‘Kenyaness’?
The panel also confronted the question of what might lie beneath the importance of cultural heritage for ordinary Kenyans. Steve Akoth made the point that we should pay attention to feelings of precariousness. Drawing from his own research on cultural festivals, Akoth explained that cultural heritage can be used as a tool to make claims from the state – for support and recognition – in a context of uncertainty. This means that understanding feelings of precariousness is key to understanding why cultural rights are being pursued.
Coming from a different perspective, Daniel Salau, a cultural activist, reminded the panel that celebrating culture can be very empowering and cultural provisions can help protect threatened indigenous languages and indigenous knowledge. For many communities, not just in Kenya, the experience of marginalisation is very real. The positive potential of cultural and minority rights provisions in the 2010 constitution are vast.
You can listen to the discussion for yourself in this podcast. http://player.open.ac.uk/embed/47cbb877e2