Storymoja Culture panel: two years on

Muthoni Garland, founder of Storymoja festival introducing the artists (Lotte Hughes second from right)

As the organisers for this year’s Storymoja Festival, which is happening in Ghana this year, are gearing up to launch tomorrow, I have been reflecting on the panel Lotte was involved in two years ago.  On the 20th of September at the Louis Leakey Auditorium at Nairobi National Museum Lotte took part in a discussion on culture and the constitution chaired by Mshai Mwangola and featuring Aghan Odero Agan (Director, Kenya Cultural Centre, Nairobi), Karega-Munene (United States International University [USIU], Nairobi), Steve Ouma Akoth (Pamoja Trust, and affiliated to The Open University) and Daniel Salau (Director of the NGO Simba Maasai Outreach Organization, SIMOO). At the time of the panel we were less than three weeks into the project but several of the issues discussed then have returned again and again during the project.

Central to the discussions on the day were competing definitions of culture.  Lotte defined it as ‘who we think we are, which is not necessarily the same as who we are’; while Aghan Odero felt that it was ‘the totality of how we live our lives’ he also emphasised the importance of it being handed down through the generations ‘[Culture is]something you pass on that’s better, so the next generation can survive better.’  This idea of passing something down over time was also emphasised by Daniel Salau who argued that ‘culture must have come from very far, like across the generations.  It’s an accumulation of knowledge’.  He also felt that this contributed to the dynamism of culture rather than made it static. Karege-Munene emphasised his training as an anthropologist and thought it was important to point out that culture was learnt and could be invented, it was not something people inherently knew at birth.  He also expressed concern that the constitution ‘rigidified’ culture while seeking to protect it.  Steve Akoth backed him up on both his definition and his concerns that the constitution sought to rigidify and assign ‘culture’ to certain groups in Kenya.

The debate focussed on several binary oppositions such as national vs. ethnic culture and cultural rights vs Human Rights.  Steve argued that cultural rights and human rights should be seen as being in conversation with each other rather than in opposition to one another.  He said that the real question was ‘How do Kenyans live with various levels of precariousness? … the way precariousness manifests itself seems to have a bearing in the way people position themselves either using culture or using the bill of rights [to improve their situation] in this country.’

The biggest conflict discussed was that between an idea of a national culture and ethnic identity.  Mshai quoted Karege-Munene’s previous work to highlight a fundamental conflict at the heart of the constitution which seeks to create ‘one indivisible sovereign nation’ while also privileging ‘cultural and ethnic hegemonies by groups claiming impunity or deep rootedness to specifically bounded spaces.’  This is perhaps most controversial when it is tied to issues of land ownership and two of our case studies focus on this issue. Lotte and Mshai Mwangola made repeated pleas to the audience to try and think about culture as separate from ethnicity but the discussion kept returning to this point.  Godrey Muriuki perhaps summed it up best when he said ‘We have not agreed on what we mean or what we want the Kenyan culture to be because we have so many ethnicities or communities and we have not agreed how we are going to weld those communities together.’

Towards the end of the discussion Gabrielle Lynch asked whether minority groups were making use of the rights enshrined in the constitution or whether they continued to focus on international institutions as sources of redress.  This is a question central to our research.  Are Kenyans using their cultural rights, as enshrined in the constitution, and if so how?

You can listen to the whole debate here

Or read the full transcript on the Outputs section of the website.

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