Using culture as a moral defence

Twice Uhuru Kenyatta has been publicly confronted about the situation of homosexuals in Kenya. Twice the Kenyan President has said that this is a non-issue, something culturally unacceptable, a conversation the country is not ready to have. The first time, in 2015, his interlocutor was then US President Barack Obama. The second time, in April 2018, it was CNN’s Christiane Amanpour’s turn. She was following the lead of British PM Theresa May.

Shortly after this second encounter, a film directed by Wanuri Kahiu, a young Kenyan woman, featuring a Kenyan cast and filmed in the country, was banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB), to much public outcry on social media. The film, called “Rafiki” (Swahili for “Friend”), chronicles the relationship of two girls who discover their sexual attraction for one another and face society’s disdain and wrath for their kind of love.

It should be obvious to the perceptive reader that these two stories are linked. What might not be obvious is how intimately tied together they are in setting the stage for a building tension between two visions for the future of Kenyan society. The first vision is rooted in the desire to keep things a certain way, out of a romantic attachment to the past, even though times have so changed that it is nigh impossible to even remember the way things used to be.

The other vision is underpinned by the desire to hasten the arrival of a new mode of living in society, even though we have not adequately questioned it. It consists in a push to be part of the global liberal bandwagon, to accept Western (modern American and European) ideas about human autonomy. It is taken for granted that, just because these ideas are Western or modern, they are not only good, but also inevitable and worth rooting for.

The tension is playing out in all arenas of our public life. From education, politics, and public morals to the way we work and love, no sector has been left untouched. And as the tension builds up, we are setting ourselves up for a dramatic showdown. Proponents of each side, differentiated more by age than by anything else, find themselves staring down the certainty that victory will be wounding to those closest to them.

At the centre of it all is something that is easy to talk about, as long as we do not have to define it. It is neat box that we easily crawl into when challenged or otherwise prompted, only to discover, often too late, that its sides are riddled with holes. In the part of Kenya where I grew up, it signified by three words. Timbe kod kite. The way of doing things and behaving in common. The characteristics of a people. In the language I write in, it is called culture.

The word easily lends itself to very broad interpretations though. Derived from the Latin “cultus,” which is also the mother of “cultivation” and “cult,” it describes, not a static situation, but a process arising out of the actions of individuals within a group, a life lived in common, inherited and morphed in each instance. Each member of a society is a protagonist of its culture, with the potential to radically set it off on wildly different trajectories.

If it is anything, culture is change. It is interaction and reinterpretation. No culture is too tight to include a man; none is too broad to exclude him. In a way, each human is a child of each of its diverse cultures; the question of which one he belongs to is accidental. But if this is so, is it even possible to delineate one culture and set it apart from the rest? Or, to make it more relevant to our case, is there such a thing as a Kenyan culture?

It is easy to make reference to the quirkiness of our discourse, the nuances of our interpersonal relations, the diversity of our peoples, the contours of the landmass we inhabit. But all these have been different in the past, and will be different in future. Is there instead something solid, a Kenyan essence, as it were? And if there is, what is it and what does it mean for the quest to remake our society?

The answer to this question is important, for the rationale most resorted to by Kenyans who care to articulate their opposition to homosexuality (and all matters so deemed immoral) is precisely that such acts are contrary to Kenyan (and by extension, African) culture. Not only does this line of thought assume that there is such a thing as a Kenyan culture, but also that that culture constitutes sufficient moral grounds to repudiate homosexuality.

And this is where we run into a Gordian knot. For not only is it very difficult to delineate Kenyan culture as a unique corpus of behaviours and beliefs, but it quickly becomes apparent that nearly everything we could use to delineate it has been gained from interaction with other peoples. It is hard to pinpoint anything cultural that is uniquely Kenyan; in fact it is nearly impossible to even describe what it is to be Kenyan.

Take the Kenyan staple food, ugali. Eaten in millions of homes every day, it has defined countless cultural loyalties and been the butt of ethnic jokes. But ugali is most commonly made of Maize, a grain developed in what is now Mexico by Native Americans and only brought to Africa in the 16th century by Portuguese travellers. In fact, ugali in its current form has been eaten in Kenya for nary a hundred years.

And yet countless goblets of passion have been spent in defending ugali’s spot as a core element of Kenyan culture. It is kept on top of menus and other catalogues of Kenyan cuisine in gastronomic establishments and publications. For many tourists to our land, it is a must-try, and sometimes the major attraction. It would be hard to talk of Kenyan culture without mentioning that humble tasteless dish.

A similar situation holds for most of what we consider to be pillars of Kenyan culture. They are either foreign in origin or reworked versions of local elements, which themselves were probably adopted through interaction. In fact, Kenyan culture, as it is commonly spoken of, is such a magnificent mishmash of influences that it is much easier to defend its further modification to accept and embrace more “foreign” elements than its isolation from, and closure to, these elements.

One could interject here and point out that the elements of our culture might not all be local, but that the whole that they form is uniquely so. This is a strong point, but it fails when we consider the variations one sees in this whole throughout the country, a gradation in the way it is lived. It frays at the borders, and fails entirely where ethnic groups, like the Luo, Maasai and Somali, are split by our country’s boundaries. And that’s without even considering the cases of Kenyans living abroad or foreigners living in Kenya.

A further, even stronger, challenge would be the fact that, by drawing a distinction between the local and foreign elements of our culture, or even by mentioning the multiple identities within it, I have already admitted to the existence of difference, which is the principle behind identity. But I use these words to show up the ridiculousness of cocooning ourselves into distinct culture-based identities, not to claim that it is not possible to do it.

Having dealt with the objections, it becomes necessary to admit that Kenyan culture is not a something in itself. No culture is. We decide what our culture is. We draw lines in the collective behaviour of men and set them as the bounding flanks of our culture. The criteria we use to draw these lines may be rational every now and then but, in most cases, they are arbitrary. The only constant and defensible factor here is the need, written in human nature, to belong to a defined society. This is the drive that leads us to create culture in the first place.

Therefore, we cannot use our culture as a universal standard by which to repudiate the practices we abhor. And we cannot set it up on pedestal and preserve it in its current form into perpetuity. It is not a moral standard, and it will change. Perhaps this is why the proponents for the acceptance of homosexuality and other variant norms in Kenya are so confident. If it is a matter of culture, then it is just a matter of time.

If the country is not ready to have this conversation right now, as the President quite rightly states whenever confronted, it will be one day. He actually alluded to this in his interview with Amanpour, when he welcomed her to ask for his personal opinion on the matter off-camera. The cultural tide will turn. In fact, it is turning. One only needs to watch the films young Kenyans watch (and yes, they watched “Rafiki” despite the ban) to see it.

However, all this does not mean that culture is not important. The fact that the battle for the future of our society is cultural, and that it is a battle worth fighting, is enough evidence of its singular potency. As a matter of fact I have, on multiple occasions, made reference to culture and identity to defend certain convictions. No, what this means is that we need to question the convictions we hold, and to ground them on universal standards. This way, they could easily be applied to any culture, including our own.

The words of Publius Terentius Afer (Terence the African), from over two millennia ago, are particularly prescient in this quest. Brought to Rome as a young slave, brought up and educated by a senator, freed to pursue a career as a playwright, he declared, quite clearly from experience, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” The words translate to, “I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.”

In this matter, the more important question to ask is not whether something conforms to our culture, but whether it is truly human.

Feature image: Unsplash.

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  1. Great thought here Mathew.
    I tend to think that, we can’t really pledge to have a Kenyan culture at the moment considering we have different ethnically backgrounds,this calls for the element of diversity in us. Our ancestors picked traditions and cultures from different places on their way into Kenya. Hence we cannot solely identify with one culture,we are a mash up of many.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts Victor. I agree with you to a large extent. I think we can talk of Kenyan culture, but we would need to define it while also being open to the fact that it is open to reinterpretation, rendition and modification. We cannot think of it as a reality whose features are set in stone.

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