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H. Burgman: Western Kenya: Ways Of Thinking

Contents: Man and World  A General Picture  Basic Wisdom  How to be wise when you act   Human Society  Guile, Justice and Rights  Does Culture make you Equal or Effective?  Displaying one's Importance  Transition and DisintegrationPower and AuthorityCultural Changes  Clothes and Morals  Money  Mathematics  Literacy  Peacefulness and Freedomchristianity

Chapter 1 The World and Man's Place in it

A General Picture

The World is filled with mysterious forces; they make themselves felt in a multitude of different ways. These forces are somehow animated, and many of them are dark and potentially dangerous. All the people and the other beings that we encounter have their own forces; they make this force visible, or at least felt. This fact is even reflected in the Luo language: deep down the adjectives seem to be verbs: just as the sun "shines", so also the grass "greens", the water "colds" and a woman "beautifuls".

The forces compete with one another. They can radiate from one being to another and exert influence there. The weaker forces have to get out of the way of the stronger forces. We people are not major forces in the universe: we are right in the middle of them all. We can only hope that the superior mysterious forces hit us in a nice way. We feel "lucky" if they do. For we cannot master them or subdue them properly. Thus our lives are ruled by "GOOD LUCK" and "BAD LUCK". We can observe this phenomenon all the time in our relations with the beings around us when we occupy ourselves with agriculture, hunting, cattle-raising and fishing. Cleverness and diligence may help, but basically everything is a matter of good and bad luck.

The only one who can really control luck - if he wants to - is God. So a fundamental piece of wisdom is: be on good terms with God and do not irritate him. It is stupid to swear terms with God and do not irritate him. It is stupid to swear and to blaspheme (can it be done in Luo?); it is stupid to deny his existence: atheism is crass stupidity and asking for trouble. Other powerful entities that can go a long way in controlling luck are devils and the spirits of the ancestors. It is important to keep an eye on them.

A stroke of good luck, a bonanza, a windfall, something you can get for nothing, is never to be missed. Even if it upsets other important matters. So many people prefer to get a modest sum of money got freely "by good luck", rather than obtain a much bigger sum of money by steady application to work. Would that not also be the reason why so many people are ready to risk their well-paid job by stealing a relatively small sum of money? As one cynical observer put it: "Good luck is getting a thousand shilling, and bad luck is being caught doing it".

If a portion of good luck falls your way, it looks like a sign of God's approval. The clever person who evades the blows of bad luck will be given applause and is evidently a favorite of the supreme forces. An unlucky person may by the same token be considered to be a bad person: he can be jeered at and maltreated by people who did the same thing, but did not get caught.

We humans may be weak in force, when taken one by one. But there are some things in which we excel: first, we know how to make use of human companionship. The group to which we belong gives us security and added power. This group is concrete and recognizable and makes us into brothers and sisters. Solidarity with this group is essential. The harmony of the group is a source of joy: even sitting together as a group is a form of entertainment. Anything that upsets the harmony of the group is to be shunned. The group should move as a unity: the individual cannot go against the group. For a decision unanimity is required. Disagreeing with the group is a kind of treason. Yet as an individual thinker and performer, a human being will often have to disagree with the group. This leads to duplicity: in his heart of hearts a person has his own opinion, but at the same time he wants to be loyal to the group. This duplicity is something he can cope with, thanks to his second percious talent: the quality of craftiness. The human person is pitted against an enormous array of mysterious forces; he can take them on not only because he is a member of a strong group, but also because he knows how to use guile and craftiness. That is our glory. The odds against us are overwhelming. We have no hope or chance to really bring the forces of nature under our control: in the long run they will get us. Indeed, outwitting the powerful forces over a long period of time is a marvelous challenge. On the other hand, it is necessary to know when your are beaten or when you have no fighting chance: in that case you have to submit and comply, and you might as well do so cheerfully.

Basic Wisdom

A basic general rule would be: keep out of the way of powerful forces unless you can handle them. In fact, it is wise to keep out of the way of any kind of forces that bother you. So why not limit your dealings with the surrounding beings to a minimum? Moments of tranquility and peaceful self-possession, when nobody or nothing bothers you, are moments to relish. It would be correct to say that things you have to do indicate encroachment of the surrounding powers on such peaceful and free existence. There is wisdom in reducing the number of things that have to be done. Here we have to experiment. Many things present themselves as being utterly necessary, but a little experimentation will show that they often can be omitted. There is great primeval joy in finding out that things which seemed necessary can be left undone. There is great satisfaction in finding an excuse for not doing things. Quite a number of people are just as busy trying to find an excuse for not doing things as for doing things as well. Once such an apparent necessity has been moved out of the way, the person has created free time for himself, time and space and peace. A person who "gives in" too much to this temptation is called "samuoye", a word that occurs very often, and which is translated as "lazy". It is more: "one who has lost his drive".

It would be wrong to see this desire for peaceful tranquility as a form of laziness. Distaste for aggressive engagement is a perfectly valid philosophical attitude, and very good for one's health. We might call it: "the Law of Minimum Investment". Whenever nature devises a scheme, it invests a minimum amount of energy in it, so that it only just works. A lion can only just catch his prey, and often loses it; a kingfisher has more misses than strikes. Too much power in any particular place would upset the balance in nature. So people should also try to reach their goals with a minimum investment. What the minimum actually is should be established by experiment: how far can you reduce your input before the thing actually collapses? This explains why we love to omit actions that seem indispensable to people of other continents. It has an immediate bearing on the level of maintenance of vehicles, houses and apparatus. Taken on a much bigger scale this attitude also offers some explanation of why the people of this continent made so little technical progress.

We feel that our "gentle approach" to nature is rewarded. If you do not make outrageous demands on nature, you will find out that nature responds with some degree of reliability and even generosity. It will answer your needs if you make your needs modest enough. So there is no need for preserving food on a big scale. This insight leads to the "feast or famine" attitude. Some outsiders may look down on this, but at least we have a feast every now and then. Feast is whenever there is a lot and we are allowed to finish it all. Tomorrow nature will give something else again. And even if it does not, then we have had a marvelous feast today. There is even a little glory and reason for pride in managing to live fairly decently.. on next to nothing, on getting by with what everybody else declares to be inadequate. This feeling of pride can be applied to the nation as a whole. And it is an excellent school for survival under tough conditions.

There are of course obvious disadvantages to this attitude of "reduced engagement", and attitude symbolized by the drawn curtains and closed windows of many of our living rooms. First, much valuable work will remain undone. This is no calamity by itself. But in the context of the present 20th century technology and industrial world of intense competition, this creates problems. For our people know and desire the many wonderful things that technology has produced. But the amount of work that goes into producing them or even procuring them may be more than what they find humanly desirable. Even when these articles are obtained, these very articles will demand a lot of care. Cars, engines, electrical apparatuses, they all have their own laws of maintenance and safety. It is very dangerous to temper with these laws. Yet all around us we see people trying to omit even the minimum demands that these artifacts make. Safety regulations are flouted with incredible ease. As a result calamitous break-downs occur and horrifying accidents. These will be ascribed to "bad luck". For see: many people gave still worse maintenance and took even greater risks; so how come that they did not get an accident, but got away with it? Thus the causal connection becomes obliterated, and the "good luck-bad luck" evaluation takes over. No improvement can be expected.

How to be wise when you act

When one decides to act, philosophy plays its role. People do not like to act in the abstract but rather in the concrete. They like to react to reality, not to imagined situations. "Anticipating" is essentially reacting to imagined situations; so it is not popular with many people. Anticipating an event is often wasteful, for the event may never happen. That is why most of us like to wait till the last moment: just to make sure that they are not fighting thin air. Also, by waiting till the last moment, one gives a maximum chance for excuses to come along to be absolved from the action.

This dislike for anticipation and the desire to try and cope with concrete crises can lead to curious behavior. It may explain for instance the strange ways some people drive a motor car. Careful drivers find it unbelievable how many of the other drivers overtake at full speed on blind bends. The latter seem to argue thus: "Why worry! There is no car to be seen yet, and surely, if one happens to turn up we will find a way of coping with it". If another car actually comes round the blind bend, there is either a colossal crash with a number of people getting killed, or the guilty driver manages to avoid the oncoming car by some last-minute evasive action like going through the fields. In the first case the driver is most likely to get killed and will therefore not profit from the lesson contained in his mistake; in the second case he congratulates himself for being able to execute such a marvelous evasive maneuver rather than curse himself for taking such risks, and in this case too he learns nothing.

We Luos love make-shift solutions. Once you opt for a make-shift solution you are allowed to wait till the last moment (and so get the maximum chance for an excuse to present itself). Once you start with the make-shift solution at the last moment, the pressure is on: you have to come up with a solution, and any kind of solution will do. You cannot spend too much time in thinking, the result, however inadequate, has averted a crisis, and this is a marvelous boost for one's pride.

Coping with a crisis in a spectacular manner gives much pleasure to our people: they are confident that they can do it. Would that be the reason that they pay rather little advance-attention to emergencies that threaten them? They can cope! See how organizers manage the seating arrangements at meetings. As important visitors come in, the seating arrangements are adjusted. An important man is given a very important chair; soon a more important man arrives, and new and bigger seats have to be collected from elsewhere; when the biggest man arrives a sofa-set has to be procured from far-away. Thus every high guest is given the most excellent place available at that moment.

Anticipating, by the way, can be a provocation: it implies that you can predict the activities of somebody, and very powerful agents will not like that or feel humiliated. Fate certainly should never be provoked this way. Does that not explain why people are so loath to anticipate events that have to do with life and death? Certainly in the matter of child-birth they are very wary; they feel that preparing a sleeping place, and clothes, and even choosing a name is asking for trouble.

Conversely, if you are a very powerful person you can humiliate people by forcing them to anticipate in vain, thus making them look stupid or inadequate. You can force them to come very early, and you yourself come very late, or not at all. The simple people can do nothing about it: they have to keep on the alert; for when the powerful person, however late he comes, finds that the preparations have not been maintained, he may fly into a most dangerous rage. (A number of sad stories come to my mind. Of a very high education authority who made the school-children wait along the road for hours, and when at long last they went for lunch he happened to arrive; he was so incensed that he threatened to fire the teachers on the spot. Or the case of the very high government official who, coming home in the middle of the night, found out that his servant had already eaten; in a drunken rage he smashed the man's head with a piece of frozen meat; but the doctor in the hospital who treated the man was afraid to sign the document providing the servant's injuries: the politician was too powerful a force to engage).


Chapter 2 Human Society

Guile, Justice and Rights

The high powers of human society are not very different from the high powers in nature. We have to tackle both in the same way. Our security is our group, our glory is our wisdom, our weapon is craftiness.

A good person will be loyal to his group. Yet, he will try to retain his own freedom by manipulating or outwitting others in the group. That is a natural thing: you see all living beings in nature do this. Friends are very careful here not to overdo it: they "hold back". Parents "hold back" over against their children. It is a sign of affection and esteem if one person does not take advantage of his friends weakness. This "holding back" could also be called "mercy". It is a very important factor. It gives living space to the weak ones, and everybody is weak at one time or another. Where there is no mercy the law of the jungle takes over. Mercy, or "Ng'uono" in Dholuo, is a term that occurs all the time in prayers as well as in human dealings. If you need mercy, it is obtained by pleading ("ywak"). Favours also fall under the notion of ng'uono, and these too are obtained by clever pleading, rather than earned by hard work. Getting "mercy" is a good example of "good luck".

A wise man knows the order of things, knows how people and animals and things react. He knows how to find shelter in the group, but also how others can be influenced. He also knows when the time has come to carry on the struggle of life all by himself. That is the moment when a person should cover up his tracks, mislead and create the kind of confusion to which he himself has the key. In this world of contest truthful speech is a stranger. Creative cheating and telling clever lies is commendable and builds up one's life; telling the plain truth is stupid, it is a surrender to outside forces, factors and persons: it is putting your head into the noose. Once there is sufficient confusion it is easy to extricate oneself from a blunder. Lying then is really a powerful element in the struggle for self-preservation. It is not really a fault or a sin, it is a near-virtue. The same holds for good creative cheating: it is a part of life responsibly led. It is never wise to show completely what is in your mind, for after that you have no trumps left. Giving a straight answer is like showing your mind with the concomitant risk of revealing your ignorance or inadequacy. Much better to avoid committing yourself to a statement, and reply with a question. The question you can always ask is: "What did you say?" That gives a little more time to think. Similar to that one is the popular question: "myself?". But the best is the question that serves as an answer at the same time: "Is it not thus?" Some conversations consist entirely of such answer-questions.

Can one build a modern nation in this way? Modern economy might well thrive under these conditions. Democratic elections however become a tour-de-force: the candidates may well feel that they owe it to themselves to leave no crooked trick untried.

Can justice survive? It will certainly take on interesting colours. "Justice" in the Western sense of "everybody getting a fair share" can only be realized where there is abundance. When there are simply not enough things to go round, a "just division" becomes impossible: everybody will get too little, the one who distributes will be declared to be unfair, and everybody will end up being unhappy and angry. If you look at nature and at the world of hunting and fishing (and trade?) there is no distributive justice. If there is any law at work it is the law of the craftiest, the most cunning and the strongest. There will be some rules, but if it is among humans they will be more like rules of "fair play" to which everybody subscribes. For the rest deception, bluff, muscle, intimidation and quick thinking become the lawful weapons, like in most forms of play or games. "Mercy" becomes the restraining element, again like in many forms of play. So, where there is not enough for all to go round, people have to secure their small portion by craftiness. Most people will be proud of what they gained or caught, even if it is only a small thing. Happiness is more likely to follow.

What about Rights? "Rights" cannot be claimed even if you seem to have them; they still have to be granted as "favours" by a generous authority. Even if you earn them, you earn them as favours, favours that can also be granted to others. Take the example of a diploma after a course: even those that failed the exams may very well still go to the teaching authorities and plead for mercy or ng'uono, stressing that it was not their fault that they failed. If there are such things as "rights" they will derive from your place in the hierarchy of human society, and it will be very much linked up with "duty". You should not be prevented from doing your duty, and if you do your duty, you deserve praise.

Guile and mercy are necessary companions. With guile you try to secure good luck; but when your luck runs out, all there is left to you is mercy. For you will have battled against superior forces with a craftiness that is basically deceitful and insolent. There is no excuse for deceit that has not worked; the only thing left in ng'uono. The fact that people are likely to resort to guile and deceit gives them a feeling of guilt that will make it easier for them to put up with injustice or bad luck. After so much guile one deserves whatever one gets, even if the actual injury was incorrectly inflicted. (One could speculate if the same holds good for the animal world: the animals ultimately feel that their cruel death is a punishment for their deceitful lives). It could explain why our people do not revolt so easily against injustice, why in fact "revolution" is a foreign notion.

Does Culture make you Equal or Effective?

Egalit�, Fraternit� and Libert� are foreign notions that have their equivalents here, but not with the arrogant overtones they have in Europe. Europeans claim those rights without ever having deserved them, as un-earned powers therefore. By claiming them you assume to be allowed to criticize people above you. Frank criticism from below is not appreciated here: even discussing a superior's performance is felt to be something like an act of subversion.

In our society here everybody and everything has its place and its time. The position of the houses, the details of the houses, the position of the main articles in the house, the places for people to sit, the places for the graves to be dug, they all have been determined. Who shall eat which part of the cow is determined by fixed rules; who shall eat what kind of food too. The tasks to be done have been divided: there are men's tasks and women's tasks, husband's tasks and children's tasks, tasks for the old and tasks for the young. Traditionally this constituted a fair division of our culture, and very much underestimated by Europeans.

Civilization is to know the right order of things, and the right way of doing things. White people seem to like the spontaneous, the new, the unexpected. The people here like to see the proper thing done, even if they have seen it done a hundred times before. The big thing is to go through the right motions of an activity and give it the right entourage; whether the action itself makes sense is a question people do not like to hear: it is presumed. And rightly so. Our people's culture has proved to be very effective. It has safeguarded very well the most important aspects of human society: to make sure that everybody gets a fair share of whatever is available, to make sure that children are born into a world that takes good care of them, and to make sure that these children get a proper and balanced education.

Human tasks relate to each other like in a hierarchy, and thus bring about a hierarchy of relationships among people. These hierarchical relationships are the very fibres of our culture here. To be able to do your task well is a source of great joy to the person and gives him a claim to praise. People do not question why this or that is the task they have to do; the important thing is to be good at it. If everybody would be good at his tasks, the world would be nearly perfect, or rather: how lucky we all would be. The idea that everybody should be allowed and able to do all kinds of tasks is foreign, modern-European. The order of things and the assignment of tasks is not questioned. Even a European used to feel this way: formerly their men used to stand up and offer their seat to a woman; no man doing that would feel deprived or insulted, but rather proud: for he knew the right way of doing things. In a similar spirit a Luo woman still happily gives up her seat to a man.

Correlatively, incompetence is a very serious fault, and exposure is to be avoided at all costs. This makes people hesitate a long time before they will do a thing of which they are not very sure. It is better to be safe than sorry. And also: it is much easier to find an excuse for not having done a thing at all than for having done it wrongly. So it is not a very serious thing to omit an action that one really should have done. If God were a Luo, the sun would not rise from time to time. And there is no need to delegate the action to a substitute when one foresees that one cannot do it oneself. This may at times be very awkward for the people that depend on it; but it equally often constitutes a wind-fall of unexpected "free-time" for them: they have an excuse for omitting a thing they had to do.

Human authority grows with age, mainly along the male line. People accept this as correct. Male predominance looks right in view of greater physical strength and the consequent advantage in the decisive struggles for life and death (with wild animals, raiders, enemies). The dignity and authority of old age has to do with the fact that a life time of experience will have produced a great amount of wisdom and a great familiarity with the order of society. Old men are venerable cult figures.

Displaying one's Importance

Just as people like to react to concrete forces, they also like to evaluate others by their concrete appearance. Thus persons tend to be taken at face value. This has interesting consequences. There is the underlying conviction that the appearance of a being is indicative of its essence. That is not quite "phenomenology", for this would demand that everything that is there should show itself, and that is definitely not believed to be so: there is probably more than what can be seen. But the appearance as such is not deceptive. And it is constitutive: if you put on a brave appearance you become brave; if you put on important insignia you become important. And the other way round: if you show up in a less resplendent outfit you will deserve less respect. You can manipulate the nature of things by tampering with the nature of their appearance. This goes as far as the furniture: a nicely embroidered cloth will make any rickety chair respectable.

Appearances then are also messages; clothes are meant to be read. Traditionally every detail of a person's outfit - here and all over the world - had meaning. Much of that spirit has survived. Clothes have to be read, they are a language. Now, a language can only work if it has universal terms, establishing the common ground of things. What universals are to language, uniforms are to dress. Western dress tries to suppress this. There the stress is put on individualization; but this can never be pressed to the limit, and so even Western dress is full of uniform items.

If uniform indicates status, it confers status, and establishes the wearer's importance towards himself and towards outsiders. So it is a great privilege to be allowed to wear a uniform. Less of uniform is less of status, even of identity.

In the context of authority a uniform becomes very necessary. It should bear the message across: "I am more powerful than you! I am dangerous". Thus the uniforms of authority often include items that make them look taller (e.g. a soldier's headgear) or that are artificially enlarged: buttons, rings. It is said sometimes that a uniform is a sign whereby people can recognise the function of the wearer. If it were just that, a small simple detail would do. A uniform is a proud display of status and is often even intimidating, calculated to make others submissive. At best it is a flamboyant display of the order of human society.

Transition and Disintegration

The new technical culture coming from the West (or the North) tends to make a mess of this hierarchical structure. The fixed order of things is being denounced as restrictive of freedom and of initiative. More seriously: the division of tasks has been upset badly ever the last eighty years. The work of the women has increased: looking after the household and the children. The introduction of clothes and many household articles caused more work, and the very sizes of the houses has grown; the traditional helpers in the household, the young girls, have gone off to school. The men had to hunt, raid, train for warfare; all these occupations have disappeared more or less. The jobs that the men do nowadays are by and large the wage-earning occupations and the handling of the big cash-crops. Thus the men have a lot more money at their disposal too. Perhaps the most seriously hit are the elderly. The task of the old men, to guide and to rule, has been eroded. The task of the old women, to teach the small children, especially the girls, has been taken over by the schools. These schools do not dwell on ancient wisdom but inculcate modern ideas and values, and could well accelerate the disintegration. The successors of the old people are the modern figures of authority with a leg in both worlds. The only hope is that education will produce a growth in perception, and that this perception will "tame" the new powers that otherwise will be rampant.


Chapter 3 The Exercise of Power: People in Authority

Authority in human society is acknowledged to be a blessing for the sake of order and the proper organization of activities. A fundamental property of authority is that it is creative: it creates order and new regulations. These regulations and laws have little meaning unless they are enforced, preferably in the physical presence of the law-giver. Once the authority allows laws to be broken, it is taken for granted that it has been abolished. Where authorities cannot be present, the law is flouted easily. Take the speed-limit on the road: nobody sticks to it, even though there is daily carnage as a result. The only way to slow down the traffic is by speed-bumps, more effective than police-men, even if they are called "sleeping-policemen".

The authority himself is not really under a law, but it produces law. A person in authority is stronger than law; consequently some authorities feel tempted to show their power by constantly breaking the law. One would not be surprised if it was found out that the biggest single group of traffic law breakers are the police: this shows their power on the road. When very important people are found to have broken the law, they probably thought that it was alright for them, since they were so important. It is very bad manners to confront authorities with regulations that they have to keep or apply. Authorities do not really think in terms of theoretical rights, but more of favours and help that they have to hand out.

Sometimes they have to make their power felt: by parking their car in places where people have to walk, by making people wait, by writing or doing something else while the subject is speaking to them, be demanding extensive apologies. The people recognise authorities as formidable entities that have to be handled carefully. So in harmony with what has been explained above, they develop the following approach.

First of all they will try to limit the impact of the persons in authority by avoiding all unnecessary contact with them.

Secondly, when contact is unavoidable or potentially profitable, they will try to outwit the authorities. There are several ways of doing this: by misleading or by flattering. Both are used extensively if not universally. Sometimes one gets the impression that it is a basic rule of life that all authorities have to be misled: by wrong names, wrong dates, incomplete information, mistakes, things that get lost or forgotten, the book of tricks is inexhaustible. Very few people apparently want to be caught telling the truth. Flattery too is very widespread, and sometimes demanded. Fulsome praise delivered by people of dubious character is not rare. The daily TV-News is careful to flatter many important authorities by extensive but often boring coverage of sometimes trivial events. But the public evidently appreciates it. There is something very dangerous in flattery. The good thing about it is that it buys freedom for the flatterer. But for the superior flattery is always bad, for basically flattery is falsehood. One becomes frightened when one sees big men surrounded by flatterers, that is: people that distort the truth, and turn the real truth into something subversive. Slowly but surely the big man will go mad.

The third and best way, but also the most difficult one, of coping with important people is: to befriend them. For from a friend you may rightly expect favours. In official matters few people bother to find out about the so called rights you have: it is much more effective to look for a friend who can handle your problem.

Loud laughter is something that one hears often when big authorities are meeting their subjects. It evidently has to do with many of the things said above. Conspicuous laughter is a form of flattery. Just as the English say: "A rich man's jokes are always funny", so in our country we could say: "A Big Bwana's jokes are always funny". It is also reassuring: it creates the feeling that everything is fine, and that there is nothing to be afraid of. It is like an absolution from sins. So this loud laughter is functional where subjects fear the big boss. When the big boss laughs loudly he shows that he is the big boss and in perfect control and has nothing to worry about. For the small fellow who has absolutely nothing to say, loud laughter together with a big boss is a marvelous experience of importance. All this illustrates also why the laughter should be loud: it has to be heard, either by the laugher himself or by the public.

If none of these ways work: submit humbly and comply. Within this system the crafty individual has considerable space where he can manoeuvre, and do what he wants to do. And there is more. Very powerful authority tends to be autocratic. However, the very fact of autocracy creates extra freedom. For the autocrat wants to do everything himself, wants to take all decisions personally, wants to know everything that goes on; he cannot delegate much. By this very fact he makes matters impossible for himself. He cannot possibly do all, know all. And so his underlings will be found to be going their own way: their boss is too busy to find out.

Authorities often carry on a struggle among each other to gain supremacy, and sometimes this takes on amusing forms. In the VIP-Room where many VIPs pass daily, there lies a book in which they put their names. For each person a space is provided, ample enough for the name, the function, the address and even remarks. Simple authorities stick to this space. But some feel that they are humiliated by this restriction of space, and so they spread themselves out over two consecutive spaces. The one who wants to top that writes his name, and cancels out the rest of the page with diagonal lines. Some who feel that they owe it to themselves to display their importance still more vividly will take a whole new page, write his name in the middle, and cancel cut all the space above and below by diagonal lines. The highest authority in the book had cancelled two pages before putting down his own name on the third. There is a story of a VIP book in which you find one name only. All the rest can not be used any more.

Modern times are making the exercise of authority more difficult. Ideas about modern democracy clash with the ancient concepts of authority. As for the Gospel, Jesus Christ himself decreed that among his followers the exercise of authority had to be different from the way ordinary powerful people exercise it; this means a big task for every region on earth to "evangelise" its concepts of authority before they can be applied to the Church. This has proved a difficult task in many lands at many different times, so we may expect it to be difficult here: how to combine the "Servant-authority" of a "brother" to the display of superior power. Verbally everybody pays homage to democracy; in the history of Europe this led to impossible expressions like "His Excellency the Minister". As for us here: will it be possible for many people to renounce their authority freely, e.g. at the end of their term of office? Will they not have to be unseated, either by removal from above or a process from below that smacks of conspiracy? Is this why we have coups and power-play all over poor Africa? Authority is power, power is life, and life goes on until death.

As the young manager, technician, executive, expert, begin to dominate our lives we sadly feel the absence of the old men who have mellowed with age, who can be more detached, who have a great resistance to the temptations of money and glory and personal ambition; who have experienced how much we all need ng'uono and who are at the right age to give it.

However modern our authorities may be, they will find power-sharing a very difficult thing, they will not easily permit corporate responsibility. Delegating is evidently a horrible thing to them, indicating loss of power: go to any office, and nobody seems to have a competent substitute who can do the work in the absence of the boss. If the boss is on holiday for a month, his work stops for a month, at least that is how we underlings experience it. Consultation is another tough item it seems. The elders in former days knew how to do it, how to listen to people: they knew that consultation did not imply that their personal authority was inadequate. There is still time to learn wise lessons from them.


Chapter 4: Cultural Changes

Clothes and Morals

In the month of September 1984 Kenyan Parliament had a discussion about pornographic video-tapes. During that debate one Parliamentarian said: "Nakedness is un-African". To Europeans, who used to refer to Western Kenya as "The Great Unclad", this may have seemed a blatant denial of provable facts. Somewhere around that same time two young Luo ladies came back from a visit to Europe; they said that elderly Luo ladies would be scandalised if they went to Europe and saw how immodestly - by Luo standards - the women there dressed. Again many Europeans would have blinked their eyes in disbelief, knowing that these elderly Luo ladies had themselves walked about practically naked in their youth.

These examples make it clear that it is necessary to distinguish between nakedness and immodesty: they are not the same. Nakedness refers to the objective absence of clothing whereas immodesty refers to the intended amount of exposure. What the MP meant to assert was that intended bodily exposure is rarer in Africa than it appears to be in the West. And that is very true. However little clothing African women used to wear, they wore it very carefully so as not to expose parts that have a sexual connotation. And their breasts were for the babies first of all; as it should be. Europeans on the other hand tend to think that they are not immodest because they wear a full ward-robe. They tend to forget that the more clothes your wear, the more clothes you can take off: the more refined ways of exposure you have at your disposal. Whereas if you are practically naked and you then want to expose yourself, you have to be an exhibitionist. And let us not forget that the European men have stolen the breasts from the babies for their own enjoyment.

Traditionally the rules of modesty were very strong here in Africa. The near-nudity misled the early visitors from Europe. The Missionaries, bringing a new religion and a new set of ethics, were mesmerized by the people's nakedness. The Missionaries' home-ethics were strongly centred on sexual ethics, and so the people's nakedness suggested to them an alarming degree of sexual depravity. At the same time they presumed that the undressed bodies were a reflection of the minds: these too must be naked and empty, a "tabula rasa". Many Church-people became engrossed by problems of sex and polygamy which was seen as a sexual problem. That there were more disturbing weak sides to our people's culture escaped the new educators because they were convinced there was no culture worth mentioning; and the sexual problems were big enough anyway. Few whites investigated our people's culture, and so the new educators missed important insights.

Our people have strong rules of sexual ethics, stronger at least than in Europe; and they have an important culture that may prove to be a blessing to the rest of the world once it becomes known and appreciated.


Money is not yet a hundred years old. In the days before money appeared property and land was shared much more than at present, held in common by the members of the extended family and the clan. Everybody contributed a share, everybody received a share. There was security in the common bond, and relative affluence was the result. Nobody went hungry unless the whole group went hungry. People in the group were vulnerable in as far as they relied on nature so much; but then, nature did not let them down very often; and it also yielded many secrets that led to cures of suffered ills.

Money changed all that. It enabled a single person to take his possession in one hand, close his fingers around it and say: "It is mine". the most important aspect of clothing was the fact that it had pockets in which a person could hide his money and carry it around. A great individualization of possession took place. But the new possessors still had to learn the grammar and syntax of money. This is a serious thing: if you do not know the laws of money, it will rule you mercilessly: there is no ng'uono in money. And even if you do know the laws of money it may overcome you, but you can at least take precautions. It takes very long for a people to learn the ins and outs of money.

Not only did the individuals take to money, the whole economy was switched over to a money-economy. That meant ultimately that all things, and even values, became interchangeable with money. From then on money was needed for government (tax), education (school), appearing in public (clothes), travel (bus) and for getting your rights (favours). People began to sell their things to get money: their agricultural products, the produce of their lifestock, their fish. One effect of this was that the people's menu impoverished. this again had a considerable effect on the health of the small children. Traditionally there was no special children's food apart from the mother's milk; after that the children just got a small portion of the adult's food. This had always ensured a varied diet; but once the adult diet had been reduced to "posho" and some greens, the small children were in great danger of malnutrition.

People have not really learnt yet how to handle money well. Just as they have not yet mastered the new areas of technique and scientific organization well enough. The tragic thing is that these are precisely the areas where our people meet persons of other races who are very much at home in these matters. Thus expatriates invariably meet the local people in a position where the latter are still weak and not rarely inadequate. This is bound to account for a lot of unsatisfactory racial relations and persistent inferiority complexes.


Talking about technique, it would seem that the ordinary man's attitude to measurements is different from the way a European feels about them. When a European has acquired knowledge about something, he is convinced that there is "adequatio mentis and entis" -what you establish in you mind is equally valid in reality. Thus, if you calculate measurements correctly they will be necessarily applicable to the concrete things, both in the parts and in their totality. It seems that our Luo workmen are not so sure of that. They are not completely confident that if all the parts are correct, the total too will be correct. Rather than first making all the parts and then fit them together they will make one part first, and then fit another part to it, correcting as they go along. Or they will take rough measurements first for the parts, and after assembling them cut off the superfluous bits. This attitude will make mass-production impossible and industrial work difficult.


Contrary to what is normally held, we do not think that illiteracy is synonymous with ignorance and deprivation. Illiteracy is an aspect of oral culture, denoting the absence of the written word. To that corresponds a bigger prominence of the memory. Illiteracy does not seem to be a big handicap in the learning of foreign languages. Certain aspects of illiteracy endure even after people have learned to read and write. People's houses may remain illiterate for a long time: there will be no room for books, no place for writing, and papers will get lost. This is one of the reasons why it is do difficult to start something like a lending library.

The absence of paper is felt very widely. One literate use of paper is: overcoming a weakness of the memory called forgetting. In our illiterate culture the factor of forgetting is often incorporated into the system. A notable example of this is when people borrow money, or something else. At the moment of borrowing one promises most solemnly to give everything back. The first few installments are indeed given back. But as time goes on, the sharpness of the obligation to return everything weakens, and the parties begin to forget a bit about the debt. No, they do not quite forget: the act of friendship is remembered, and the remaining debt is transformed into a debt of friendship and gratitude, and when at any point in the future the lender is in trouble, he can turn to the borrower for assistance. It works somehow. When people are used to it, the introduction of paper and literacy can lead to disasters: the debts are written down and retain their horrible character. Paper knows no ng'uono. One day the police may suddenly turn up and take all your cattle and even furniture away. It is, however, difficult to see how you can run a modern banking system on the old habits.

Peacefulness and Freedom

Kenya has made a colossal jump into modern times. It is hard to believe that there is continuity between what was here in 1887 and what is here in 1987. The Kenyans congratulate themselves with this, and they have every right to do so. The history of the last hundred years shows that our people have a real talent for making good use of difficult situations. Of course, the country has become heavily dependent on outside forces. But that is true of every modern nation: not one of them is really independent. There is no purpose in continuing the lamentations about the colonialists' exploitation. What has happened has happened, and we must try to make the best of it, and use it to our advantage, and not turn it into excuses for our own failings. Historical facts often have an inevitability about them. Thus one of the contributing factors for the colonial occupation was, strangely enough, the peaceful character of our forefathers. Our people did not care to develop heavy armaments. The spear, the shield, the bow and arrow sufficed. Only the Maasai (and the Nandi in imitation) developed a heavy weapon that was capable of destruction: the phalanx. The advantage of this light armament was that there were only small wars and no big conquests, no Kingdoms or empires to be established. The disadvantages were serious, though. Our tribes found it very difficult to protect themselves against marauders with a couple of guns, like slave-raiders. Except for the Maasai and the Nandi. Slavery had an immediate link with defenselessness. Again, no strong clear nations were built, just scattered groups of families in a crazy pattern; no "logical " borders could be established even if somebody had wanted to do it. Consequently our present nations struggle with border problems, powerful groups of aliens and lack of national identity. Violence on a big scale never played a part in our people's effort at nation building, and that is how our country got its identity. It is to be hoped that the people manage to retain their peaceful quality in the face of modern and international provocation.

A New Religion: christianity

In the olden days our people had a religion that gave some kind of satisfactory answer to the problems that arouse out of their preoccupations: agriculture, fishing, hunting, living together. The modern times brought new and wonderful things: watches, aspirins, cameras, cars, democracy, progress. The old religion could in no way comment on these new articles and their use. The people, who were fascinated by these things, looked for the religion that could comment on these things of progress, and that was christianity. And just as the artifacts from Western culture where in many ways superior to anything they had ever seen, they took it for granted that the corresponding religion too would be superior. So everybody who wants to be modern and opts for progress will also want to become a christian. Very soon almost everybody will be christian.

In the olden days person get his individuality from his clan. The clan is disappearing, and the Civil Register is only just starting. the christian churches have taken over the task of the clan and give a person his identity; the baptismal ticket is his passport.

In its deepest kernel christianity is not something modern-European. It can supply Africa with counterweights against the pull of today's technocratic Western Civilization. With one proviso: that christianity does not sell itself to Western Technocracy, but reverts to its ancient heart: The Gospel in its full original power.

Hans Burgman, Pandipieri Catholic Centre, P.O. Box 795, Kisumu, Kenya, February 1987