"Cultural Man"

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A Community Leader in East Pokot, a community that holds their culture dearly A Community Leader in East Pokot, a community that holds their culture dearly Photo by DJ Bwakali

It was the first day. There he sat; hands clasped with his chin resting on the tips of his forefingers and his gaze oozing preoccupation. He didn’t make a loud first impression until he popped a question and responded quite testily to the answers given, leaving me and I bet the others too, apprehensive. If only I could have known how tough the next three months would be.

From then on he would come oft dressed in a kitenge shirt, some pendant or interesting item (that alludes to culture) on his neck and teach as if we were a bunch of professors with absolute knowledge of all things cultural. I therefore took it upon myself to baptize him “cultural man.”

Not knowing about one’s culture and ethnic background and he insisted that it was ethnic and not “tribal or tribe” dare you say so, amounted to a barrage of stinging criticism and bad vibe coming from him. In many non-verbal ways, subtly, he made you aware or so I felt that you were worthless without such knowledge.

One can only imagine his disgust and utmost condemnation when I very loudly and perhaps a bit naively declared that I only speak and understand English, Kiswahili and a bit of French. I was the perfect example of all those lost in the “modernity and utter stupidity” of not knowing where they come from.

I hated the cultural man’s guts. How each topic somehow wondered toward knowing one’s ethnicity and cultural background, how he rubbed it in that I didn’t know mine and how wrong that was. I hated his arrogance and bravado. I just hated the sight of him.

I felt guilty that I didn’t know all these things I was supposed to know, I began to blame my parents for not taking the time to teach me those things and I felt worthless whenever he was around. He had such a way of making one feel useless, especially me. So I sought his acceptance.

I tried, put intense effort into learning and understanding my culture and did all his assignments which quite frankly few others bothered to do. I tried and tried but to no avail, so I quit trying and became indifferent to all his highhanded opinions and suggestions. He was beginning to chip away my confidence and self esteem.

I ignored and blocked out all his negative vibe. I dreaded all his lessons but I wouldn’t miss them for the world simply to prove the point that I would not let him get to the core of me.

I can however say that the generation I am part of is mostly clueless about its cultural roots. The importance of language as a carrier of culture is incomparable. It is no wonder that we are suffering from a loss of culture and severe identity crisis. We are lost in a myriad of other cultures that are anything but ours and it all begins with language because language embodies culture, it facilitates our thought process and carries our cultural beliefs, attachments and values. Having studied linguistics I deeply appreciate the knowledge of one’s mother tongue or L1 (language one).

Still, why is it that English is our official language and we are required to be able to communicate as fluently as possible in this foreign language? Even a seat in parliament requires that one can at least communicate in English and Kiswahili, the latter of which some of our MPs are extremely miserable at. Furthermore it is the language we are all taught at school and knowledge of the same facilitates holistic progress.

Is it a question of development versus culture? Dumping linguistic concerns for whatever will get us closer to the rest of the world. Can’t we develop at our own rate? What is development anyway? And what is it to be without a sense of culture, identity and ownership when put against “development?”

All these questions rise in the wake of this debate. Where do you stand?

As for me, I believe that we live in a dynamic and individualistic world where survival is for the fittest; every man for himself and God for us all. Whatever gets you to tomorrow is what you embrace. Mother tongue or no mother tongue, English or no English, development or no development and that puts a lid on the issue.    

Furthermore, perhaps “cultural man” should have been a bit more inquisitive about my history in as far as not knowing my mother tongue. My mother is Ugandan and my father is Kenyan and by result it was a bit of a challenge for either parent to teach me and my siblings their language.

If my mother taught us Lusoga (she is a Msoga of the Basoga ethnic group and not tribe as would say “cultural man”), my father would not be able to meet us at the point of communication; he does not speak Lusoga. If he taught us Gikuyu (he is of the Kikuyu ethnic group), my mother would not be able to communicate back. It can be quite a challenge.

You may wonder why I am writing this. Is it that I just want to rage on about “cultural man?” Well, that is part of the reason why but the main reason why I am writing about him is that despite who he was, he made an unequivocally amazing difference as regards my perception of my culture as has my undertaking a course in linguistics.

He made me feel passionately enough to know whatever I didn’t know. He made it seem imperative. It was a crime not to know and being one who prides herself in being knowledgeable; his bluntness stirred me to action.

He was a catalyst for change.

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