As I write this, a song is blaring across the corridor from my room. Apart from the failing English and, where it fails, its clumsy mixture with, and ultimate replacement by, Kiswahili, nothing distinguishes the song from one of those American things you hear in Githurai-bound matatus. The chorus goes something like “My city, my town, this is how we do it, this is how we get down.” Shazam tells me the artist is called ‘Prezzo’, apparently quite a celebrity in Kenya, and the song praises Nairobi.
I have nothing against the song, even though it makes absolutely no sense. However, I have a big problem with the culture that led to its production in the first place. It’s the same culture that has led to kids wearing tattered skinny jeans, sleeveless tops, boxy capes and fake ‘beats by dre’ headphones, all multi-coloured and flashy, and strutting around Nairobi as if they own the universe. It is the same culture that leads these young people to crowd in front of malls on Friday evenings to drink, smoke and fornicate. It is the culture of copying.
Now, copying has a rich history. Two examples serve up succinct evidence: One; the planes that dropped the two war-ending atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in late 1945 were American B-29s. By mid-1947, the Soviet Union had the Tupolev Tu-4 which, apart from the name, was the B-29 down to the last detail. It had been reverse-engineered from a B-29 that had crash-landed in Soviet territory during the war. Two; closer home and time, we’ve had phones in the Kenyan market which ape every new phone from recognised manufacturers, arriving in the local market almost before the real thing lands. I suppose we agree that both cases indicate a callous and disgusting lack of originality undeserving of any recognition or acclaim.
But I couldn’t have thought that young Kenyans could advance this concept so far. From the movies they watch and the online world they interact with they’ve drawn and created the very definition of themselves. From their grooming, to their speech, their games and their relationships, they have transformed themselves into a completely different breed. They’ve taken all that is bad in American youth culture and made it the standard by which they judge themselves and their peers.
I don’t know how things would be if this copying had been as exact as the Tupolev — Superfotress case; if the accent they have assimilated were perfect, if their parents had as much money as American parents, if they didn’t have to steal to buy marijuana, if they actually had their own cars. But, let’s face it; the copying hasn’t been so successful. And the result is that an entire generation has a deficient identity drawn from the wrong sources. It goes unnoticed by parents and elders, who shrug it off as something that will disappear, and puts these kids at risk of being lost forever.
In the 60s and 70s, with the American economy booming and the good times rolling, American society underwent a moral upheaval, the so called ‘Sexual Revolution.’ The results are with us today; LGBT, the pill, condoms, HIV, STIs, promiscuity, adultery, fornication. The list is almost endless. But, as long as the different parts of the world lived in virtual isolation, the Americans posed little moral danger to the world. Then the internet happened. And everything turned on its head.
The result has been absolutely devastating on young Kenyans from middle- and upper-middle income families. We are now faced by a swarm of American-teenager-lookalikes with no sense of direction in life except the quest for fun, or anything that they equate with it. It is to this generation that the advice to ‘sleep around as much as possible, only use a condom’ has appealed to most. Kenyan music is a tasteless mishmash of American tunes, instruments and bad English, complemented by appallingly scandalous videos. Kenyan social life is an unpretentious copy of America, down to the exclamations.
Yes, I am admitting that America has had a great detrimental cultural influence on Kenya. To fit now into the group that calls itself ‘enlightened’, you have to ditch your Kenyan roots and become American. And this is all too easy because your Kenyan roots lack the depth required to anchor you, because, as a Kenyan, you lack an identity. The reason for this is matter for another discussion. But it sure has made the adoption of the American lifestyle quite easy, especially for the young, who hadn’t even the last vestiges of the so called ‘Kenyan’ identity.
There certainly is nothing wrong with learning from the experiences of other countries. But that isn’t what we have done, or we have done it the wrong way. Learning from the experiences of others implies, on the one hand, drawing on their actual achievements to make life better, and, on the other, using their mistakes to mark up the boundaries we shouldn’t cross. Instead, we have taken American mistakes as the ideals to which we aspire, and have created a culture that is as bereft of morality as Sodom and Gomorrah.
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