Diani, Kenya—The largest daily newspaper here recently published a column by a British political scientist who argued that Kenya needs “lively disagreement and debate,” rather than efforts at reconciliation, in order to move on from the 2007-08 post-election violence. The political scientist, it’s worth noting, is a recognized Kenya expert with a PhD from Oxford.
A week later, the same paper carried a furious response by two Kenyan academics, one of them a regular columnist whose opinions, particularly on cultural matters, I’ve come to admire. Their objections were numerous, but the main one boiled down to this: The British political scientist’s prescription was all wrong because she didn’t understand the importance Africans attach to community harmony.
I hadn’t done more than glance at the original column, but now, curious, I went back and read it carefully. My conclusion was that while the Kenyans might have been a little too harsh, they were right in calling out the British “expert”: Americans and most Western Europeans may revel in speaking their minds, and indeed consider “forthrightness” a highly desirable trait, but Kenyans generally prefer private consensus-building on highly sensitive matters.
All of which leads me to the first lesson I will take away from living and working in Kenya for most of the last ten years, a period now at an end, which is that differences between cultures, in particular national cultures, are so deep, and so subtle, that it’s hard for outsiders not to put their foot in it. Or, in a political context, not to make a bad situation worse.
Here’s one personal example. I was working as a consulting editor at another of Kenya’s daily newspapers when the secretary of the cabinet had a major heart attack. At the morning news meeting the next day, I suggested that given how serious the situation appeared, the paper ought to have a story on the leading candidates to replace him. The idea was greeted with such an uncomfortable silence that I dropped it. Later, one of the senior editors explained that in Kenya, it’s considered impolite to even hint that someone might die.
I was deeply embarrassed; here I was, several years into my second stint of living in the country, and I was still failing to pick up on fairly basic social mores.
If individuals can get things so wrong because of a lack of cultural understanding, so can governments—and with far more serious consequences. Soon after the Islamic Courts Union (a loose coalition including businessmen and clerics) emerged in Somalia a few years ago and began to gain support for its success in bringing stability to the southern parts of the country, the United States decided the ICU was a terrorist group. Before long, Washington was sending suitcases full of cash by plane from Nairobi to a group of opposition warlords and encouraging Ethiopia to crush the ICU, which it did. And then what happened? With the leadership of the movement having fled or been killed, the ICU’s radical youth wing morphed into al-Shabaab, which has since killed at least 350 Kenyans and foreigners in attacks at the Westgate Mall, Garissa University, and elsewhere, and is now allied with Al Qaeda.