Let's decolonise ourselves by reigniting unique traditions

Merille elders from the Ethiopian community in South Omo plait their hair as a traditional way to conserve their culture. [Lucas Ngasike, Standard]

Because this is the season when our sons and daughters are getting married, I have had the privilege of participating in numerous marriage related cultural events crossing many of our cultures.

I have been amazed by the quiet but vibrant renaissance of traditional ways. There has been much to learn from our cultural diversities. These experiences have left me, on the one hand, with a sense of elation but on the other with feelings of deep sadness. Elation because I have experienced the beauty of our traditional ways.

Most importantly, I have increasingly understood the significance of many of these traditions and appreciated why they meant so much to our different peoples. In marriage negotiations for instance, I was always a supporter of quick processes. If matters could be concluded in one day, the better.

I had matured in the “instant coffee season” and saw no reason for endless meetings to discuss what was already known. But with time, I have appreciated the value of the various forums that to a dismissive eye, can appear time and resource wasting.

Traditionally, it was recognised that a marriage happened not just between two people but in families and communities. It was therefore important that the new couple be slowly integrated into their new families so that family and community could form some of its support pillars. The series of meetings were therefore more about forming family relationships than negotiations. I understood the essence of the dowry. It was never a purchase of a bride but a statement of the seriousness of the undertaking one was committing to.

That was why in Kikuyu culture for instance, the basic dowry was nominal and could be managed by even the lowliest. Dowry was also “paid” through life, thus ensuring a lifelong respectful relationship between in-laws. I have also appreciated the richness of our languages. In none of our communities are important issues discussed in patently obvious language. Each of our communities is rich in proverbs, riddles, and songs used to communicate deep meanings that allow varied interpretations, enriching conversation and blunting its more difficult messages.

But these experiences have also left me with a deep sense of loss. They have made me see the real impact of the brutality of our colonisers. When the English landed, they understood that the best way to weaken our communities was through deculturisation and imposition of what was seen as a superior, “civilised” culture.

To be modern meant discarding even language, and even today we frown at people who dare speak with a local accent. We are unlike the Asians who retain their Korean, Chinese and Hindu languages despite modernity and speak “Indian English” without apology. To deculturise, the most effective weapon used was religion.

While the essence of biblical faith is pure and liberating, it was unfortunately clothed in English garb, blurring boundaries between faith and English culture. To become a Christian required one to de-clothe of African ways and partake fully of English mannerisms.

It was lost on the new converts that the beauty of the Christian faith was Christ’s incarnation, God had embodied humanness and worked within a culture, preaching new values but within the existing cultural set up, only challenging its anti-human elements.

It is the role of our generation and those that come after us to re-capture the essence our traditions, discard that which is objectively evil and dehumanising but retain the myriad of components that are inspiring, enriching and valuable.

That is the journey of decolonising our minds we must walk. Mkosa mila ni mtumwa. May this not be our label; a people still colonised in our thinking, enslaved through absence of unique, contextually meaningful traditions.