A week or so ago I proposed the following question: what is the place for traditional culture in an industrializing society? And in particular, how is culture affecting Kenya’s progress? Kenyan Entrepreneur has pushed a bit further to claim that Africa has a culture of “non-progress” in which people fail to recognize or act on opportunities:
“I tend to agree with Brook’s commentary that culture has a lot to do with a country’s progress. I’ve said before that Africa’s poverty can be attributed to the fact that Africa does not have a culture of production. If something cannot be extracted from the ground (e.g. oil, gold, etc, etc) – we simply will not create or make it and this culture of non-production is the main cause of Africa’s poverty. That’s why foreign aid hasn’t worked. It’s because the do-gooder’s of the world have refused (out of fears of being labeled “racist” – have refused to confront this underlying question of culture).”
I think he’s right, but recognizing this fact is just one piece of the puzzle. Why is there such a culture of non-production? And what can be done to change it? For one, people are used to the idea that others (the government, NGOs, credit institutions) should swoop in and provide help. God knows they need it, but ingenuity can do a lot more than government can, trust me.
Second, the institutions that have meant to transition Kenya from a subsistence to a market economy have flat-out failed. The ideas for developing Kenya are there! The implementation has foundered time and time again due to corruption, politicking, and poor coordination by the government, parastatals, and privatized institutions.
Third, there is a reliance on imports: capital and consumer goods from abroad are viewed as a better (if not the only) option than building up capacity locally. Domestic products are seen as low quality, perhaps because people know how things are made locally and think the process is somehow better or more professional abroad. The country could use a “Buy Kenyan” campaign.
Lastly, there absolutely are people and institutions who are “progress oriented.” There are many of them and I’ve met them. For example, look how Dominic is making innovative use of the Fab Lab or how tirelessly countless entrepreneurs at the bottom of the pyramid are working to grow their businesses, like Daniel who has expanded from electronics repair to a cyber cafe in just one year and now wants to start a computer training school. I heard a retail shop owner in Kisumu (where even those in Nairobi say dreams go to die) tell me she submitted a business plan to a VC firm abroad and is hoping to receive an investment to open an eco-lodge. She doesn’t want charity, she wants business. Tell me that’s not progress-orientation!
These innovators need to be cultivated. I’ve heard too many stories of talented individuals who have been shot down for loans, intellectual property, or any kind of support (even emotional). The government and formal institutions have too little faith in the micro and small enterprise sector, but that’s where the drive and progress will—nay, must—come from! So make loans more accessible, promote the development of new technologies, make intellectual property a reality, and craft linkages between the formal and informal, e.g. sub-contracting and investment, so that capital can flow to the little guys.
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.
HIV is one of those things I’ve read about and seen on the news, but haven’t put a face to. After today, that’s no longer true. While the debate rages on whether Africa should receive money for treatment (high cost, save a few lives) or prevention (low cost, save many future lives), actually meeting AIDS victims makes it all very real.
Jemima is one of the first people in the area to publicly announce her positive status, reducing the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. These days, more people talk about AIDS openly through euphemisms like “He’s positive” or “I know my status.” Jemima now runs a women’s group of positive widows who have not been taken in by their husbands’ relatives, as tradition generally requires. The women engage in various farming and other income-generating activities. They appear extremely content with their lives and are thankful for the support and livelihood provided by the group. They are a testament to the power of living with a positive outlook.
If you are white, the first Swahili word you will learn in Kenya is muzungu, which mean’s “white person” or more literally, “something strange and startling.” Since white people usually stick to Nairobi and Karen, children in rural areas affectionately yell “Muzungu muzungu, how are you!” (“How are you?” is the first English phrase taught in school) and gather all of their friends to observe the white people. I have to admit it’s kind of nice to be able to make people so happy just with your presence. The effect is many times more powerful if you have a camera. Everyone in rural Kenya—kids and adults—usually want you to take their picture, and children may hint by posing as soon as they spot a camera.
Today I got a heavy dose of village life. Intravillage and constituent-government dynamics are complex, interesting, and at times tedious.
The Member of Parliament and District Commissioner of Bondo were in town visiting their constituents. Each village makes a huge production with food and speeches to celebrate their presence. Without my knowledge or approval, we endured four ceremonies in four villages with four lunches.
All village ceremonies and meetings are held at schools because they are considered neutral ground and no one can complain. A lot of complaining goes on here.
I’ve arrived at my most permanent destination, Western Kenya, home of the Luos. The Luos are the second or third largest tribe in Kenya (depending on which statistic you look at) after the Kikuyus and sometimes the Luyas. They are known for their warmth, humor, and intelligence. They say that Kenyans used to fear the Luos because of how highly they valued education, but now everyone has access to education. It seems these days more people fear Kikuyus and Indians, who dominate the country’s industry and, in the case of the Kikuyus, the its politics. Apart from the city of Kisumu, which is underdeveloped compared to Nairobi or Mombasa, Western Kenya relies primarily on agriculture and fishing from Lake Victoria for income. Luos eat lots of fish, chicken, and ugali (a dish made from maize flour).
I have already experienced how friendly and light-hearted the Luos can be. Your perspective on poverty changes when you see people so happy day-to-day with so little.
The Luo value of education over entrepreneurialism is also evident. Some of the country’s brightest college graduates remain idle in the villages because they can’t find work and are too proud to go back to farm work. In addition to cultural barriers, the Luos also blame the
Kikuyus government for the lack of development in Western Kenya, which has ostensibly been snubbed since independence due to ethnic bias.
This is the Tanzania-Kenya border, right in the Serengeti plains. Our driver John is taking a picture with his mobile phone.
I came into this trip with much more background on Kenya than Tanzania and assumed that all of East Africa was pretty similar, but so far I’ve discerned a few critical differences:
Though both countries have many tribes, Kenya’s tribalism runs much deeper. Kenyans tend to identify with their tribe as much as their nation. Tribal tensions have fueled (and been fueled by) political conflict. Since independence, Kenya’s dominant tribe, the Kikuyus, have dominated the political arena. Other tribes, such as the Luos, contest that their region has suffered economically as a result of political mistreatment. This all came to a head last year following the contested 2007 elections.
In Tanzania, I have learned, tribalism was largely abolished early in its independence by its political leaders. Tanzanians now enjoy a relatively peaceful political scene.
In Kenya, property rights are an important part of the country’s society and economy. Ancestral land (until now) has been distributed to a family’s sons (of course, resulting in increasingly smaller plots of land). This week, Kenya passed a landmark bill that allows women to inherit ancestral land. Ancestral land is often undocumented, but recognized informally by village leaders. Of course, property can also be formally purchased by either gender.
Tanzania has no property rights, and all land is leased from the government. As a result, the camp I stayed at was not enclosed and we enjoyed spectacular and unobstructed views. It is common to see various species of antelopes outside one’s tent. Hippos are particularly irritating at night.
It is not really fair to compare Kenya and Tanzania in this regard since Nairobi is a critical regional business hub. But it is an important distinction. Nearby Arusha, Tanzania, has no industry beyond food processing. The capital of Dar es Salaam has greater manufacturing capability, but nowhere near that of Nairobi. Thus Kenyans, particularly in the central region near Nairobi, are more enterprising and “enjoy” more modern amenities (though I think Nairobi slum dwellers might beg to differ).
To understand the Maasai tribe, you must first know that there are about 120 tribes in Tanzania and many more throughout East Africa, each with its own region and mother tongue. The Maasai are unique in that they have been, until recently, nomadic and, as such, can be found throughout East Africa. They also remain very traditional and maintain the quintessential image of the “African noble savage.” Nevertheless, many of the villages have modernized, the youth often have mobile phones, and some villages like this one have succumbed to the business of tourist traps attractions.
The Maasai have long dominated the Ngorongoro Crater, but have been forced closer to the outskirts of the reserve by the Tanzanian government. They live in enclosed villages like this, but still wander about the crater herding cattle.
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