Just what culture will we mark on Utamaduni Day?
That the government issued a memo to confirm that tomorrow, October 10, is now an official Utamaduni Day says a lot about what we, Kenyans, think about our culture(s). The notice that declares Monday, October 11 an official public holiday, because the 10th falls on a Sunday, says, “Whereas this day is already conferred in law, this shall be the first time that Utamaduni Day is observed in Kenya and this press release serves to emphasize the need for all citizens to recognize and celebrate the rich cultural diversity of Kenya in a manner that promotes unity, national cohesion and economic progress in the Country (sic).”
But, hold on for a minute. The government of Kenya feels the need to remind Kenyans to ‘recognize and celebrate the rich cultural diversity of Kenya’? Why should they recognise the country’s rich cultural diversity? How do they recognise this cultural wealth? Don’t they do this every day? Kenyans actually live, breathe, talk, dream their cultures every day, throughout the year. They do so in many ways. They do it all over this country. Doesn’t the government know this?
What is ruracio about? What is tero buru about? What are the circumcision ceremonies in many parts of this country during school holidays about? The mashemeji derby is about cultural celebration. The ohangla or mugiithi nights, before Covid-19, were exactly about cultural diversity and celebrations.
Despite Covid-19, young Kenyan thespians have been staging plays all over the country. The Kenya National Theater and Alliance Francaise have been busy with plays and art exhibitions in the past few months. Oh, there is a Kikuyu comedy at the Kenya National Theater this weekend (what a celebration of art and culture it would be if government officers attended?)
Speaking of the Kenyan National Theater (KNT) and Kenya Cultural Centre (KCC), aren’t they supposed to be the mecca of our arts and culture? We can add the Kenya National Archives here. Then the National Museums of Kenya. And the Bomas of Kenya. And may be the Kasarani Sports Complex. Across the country, the stadia and theaters that were promised some nine years ago haven’t materialised. Whatever exists in the other 46 counties are social centres and halls that date back to the colonial times.
Back to the KNT/KCC. This is where all artists and cultural producers in this country should dream of having their premier performance. This is where any international visiting performer should do their act. Well, not many artists would rate the KNT/KCC. It is more or less a car parking lot. There is nothing at the KCC/KNT, apart from the signboard at the entrance, to show that it is a cultural centre.
Nothing to suggest that it is where the cultures from the more than 75 ethnolinguistic/racial communities in Kenya could meet for a cultural conversation! The small hall, Ukumbi Mdogo, cannot hold more than 100 people. The main hall wouldn’t hold 1,000 people today. Where are the murals here? Where is the wall art? Where are the carvings? Where are the memorials to Kenyan thespians and playwrights?
Kenyans, despite or in spite of their government’s little or lack of investment in the arts and culture continue to do their thing. At birthdays, marriage/wedding ceremonies, burials, on sports’ day at school, chama meetings, clan meetings, these Kenyans sing, dance, act, and do all that appertains to celebrating their cultural identity. Today, most of these ceremonies involve people from different cultures. Often they share and compete and cross-fertilize each other. They perform and live their cultures quite naturally.
The government is expected to promote the different Kenyan cultures, record and archive some of them and help in disseminating our songs, dances, films, plays, novels, poetry, paintings, carvings etc. How many of our government offices have paintings by Kenyans? How many government officials give gifts of our songs or carvings to foreign dignitaries? Where would the government of Kenya take a foreign visitor to watch a Kenyan play? How many Kenyan government officials listen to Kenyan music? One would hazard that government officials only know about Kenyan films when one is banned as recently happened. Very few government officials whose responsibility is art and culture have ever heard or know about the Wakadinali or Mbogi Genje and what they do.
Utamaduni Day is long overdue. There are too many holidays in this country that are associated with politicians and politics. Ordinary Kenyans appear at these ceremonies to cheer on politicians making empty promises after empty promises. Maybe ordinary Kenyans will now have a day dedicated to who they are.
Now that this day has been officially inaugurated this year when Kenyans are inundated with political messages calling them to their supposed tribal enclaves, what can the government tell Kenyans about ‘cultural diversity... unity and national cohesion and economic progress? Kenyans understand cultural diversity quite well, after all they work, travel, eat, pray and live together. All Kenyan cultures demand the cohesion of the cultural unit/community. It is actually easy then for the government to build on this character, which is inbuilt in all of them, to create a cohesive country.
As for economic progress, Kenyans try every day to exploit their cultures economically. Kenyan ciondos, shukas, carvings, paintings, beads etc are found all over the world. Our athletes participate in meetings almost every week all over the world. Kenyan writers and musicians are part of the global creative industry.
What has been lacking for decades has been sustained government support for the arts and culture. Unless the government invests in theaters, exhibition halls, stadia; unless it supports institutions to train artists and cultural producers; unless it removes or reduces taxes on Kenyan art and cultural products; unless the government of Kenya spells out clearly in the school syllabus what Kenyan cultures are and why they are important to the wellbeing of Kenyans; and unless the national policy on culture is redrafted to oblige the government to fully fund the arts and creative sectors, Utamaduni Day will just be an extra day on a crowded holiday calendar in Kenya.
Thus, Utamaduni Day should have been the day the government calls on all Kenyan ethnolinguistic/racial groups to converge in social centres and stadia and under trees, wherever they can, to perform their songs, poems, and dances; cook and eat their foods. Drink their busaa, muratina, pombe and make merry. This is when Kenyans should have witnessed exhibitions by our painters and sculptors. There should have been boat races our rivers and lakes. Road races in other parts. Music competitions by live bands. Performances by poets and spoken word artists. Major plays staged at the KNT/KCC, from Friday to Monday 11th.
All these events should have been fully funded by the government of Kenya. But in a country where major arts and culture events are sponsored by corporate organisations and donors, how can the government urge Kenyans to celebrate Utamaduni Day?
The writer teaches literature and performing arts at the University of Nairobi.