Culture is dead
As Chris, Marijoan, and I rode in a cab to the train station (of course “rode” implies that we were moving), our driver blabbed about the various common tribal stereotypes: Luos are fishermen, Kikuyus are farmers, Asians are businessmen, etc. But when asked what traditions he stuck to, he responded: “Me? I’m a Christian. I live in the city. Culture is dead.”
While a great exaggeration—culture continues to shape Kenyan community, livelihood, and industry—the statement got me thinking about the role of traditional values and practices in an industrializing society. Too much tradition and too little money can ravage a market economy, yet community and indigenous knowledge can also be leveraged for sustainable growth. To what extent does culture’s influence on (or interference with) the market promote or hinder progress? A few points:
First, there is a distinct Kenyan way of conducting business, as opposed to, say the Asian or Western way. Kenyans rely largely on social networks (no, not Twitter) to shape their business activities because they know trust will prevail over the law and formal institutions. Tight-knit communities, especially within clusters, help train one another, share information, and lend goods and services.
Second, this has led to certain potentially undesirable practices. Tribalism is rampant in both politics and industry. Employers, like politicians, tend to favor those from their own tribe. Nepotism is often seen as positive: you have to look out for your own brothers (and sisters, sometimes). However, this attitude often creates conflict and unnecessary divisions.
Third, the focus on community has been leveraged throughout the developing world through cooperatives and welfare associations in which locals, particularly in rural areas, pool their resources, lend money to each other, exchange information, and support one another. This has been tapped into successfully in the microfinance industry. However, social pressures and pooling of common resources can sometimes have harmful effects when someone defaults, corruption occurs, or there is a lack of ownership over common goods.
Fourth, holding onto traditional practices has had harmful results, particularly in rural areas. For example, Nyanza Province, home to the Luo tribe, has the highest HIV rate in the country largely due to its cultural practices. It is a challenge (physically and ethically) in the healthcare sector to convince locals to modernize.
Lastly, the erosion of cultural practices has also had some harmful effects, particularly in agriculture. Modern land use practices (combined with climate change) have led to degradation of land with often devastating effects on local livelihood. Indigenous knowledge must be tapped and combined with contemporary sustainability practices to regain this land.
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Making Do is an investigation into systems of innovation in Kenya's informal economy. Learn more and read the book online or in print here.
I'm Steve Daniels. I study the transformative impact of technology on individuals and societies. I am the founder of the Better World by Design conference at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design and Analogue Digital, a publisher of content related to global cultures of technology. Currently, I work at IBM Research, where I study mobile social computing in emerging markets.
I am particularly interested in how people create, adapt, and use technology in resource-constrained environments, which I have written about in Making Do: Innovation in Kenya's Informal Economy.
- Emerging Futures Lab
- Future Perfect
- Information Aesthetics
- Maker Faire Africa
- Smarter Planet
- Timbuktu Chronicles
- White African