The Problem of Defining Culture

For many people today, differences are explained using the language of "culture" as the explanation. However, if pressed, most would probably be unable to point to what variables they are referring to when using the term.

Culture is a complex and ever changing reality. For instance, Kenya has never been a place simply of wild, exotic beasts with people defined only by their exotic dress. It has a long a varied history that continues to evolve and respond to the changes in the wider world.

Yet there is the fact that many of the people living throughout Kenya seem to have differences that they themselves refer to. So how do we figure out what they really mean?

So what is culture? Anthropologists have shown (and we can intuitively guess this), that just because two persons share similarities in geographical location and employment, this does not mean that culturally they see themselves as the same. For instance, above we see an Njemps man (left) and a Tugen man (right). Both live in the region of Lake Baringo in Kenya, yet although their villages share the same land and they trade and socialize with one another, they see themselves as also having differences, not the least in the way the dress/adorn themselves.
Perhaps a starting point is the realization that the practices of many contemporary "traditional" persons is determined not so much by the reality of a fixed cultural reality as much as by a need for identity that gets translated into conforming to a "tribe's" customs.

What happens in every society is that individuals "construct" sharp differences in material and decorative "culture" so as to define themselves with a group. This is perceived as necessary in order to maintain socail structure. For example, many persons, wheather they are ware of this consciously or not, subscibe to firm rules of kinship interactions and marriage. Over time, various cliques are created with vested interests in these social structures and they work to maintain the "purity" of the culture as any changes would directly affect their own positions of influence.

However, the one definite truth about "culture" is that for any given group, culture must change over time. As the world changes, the pratitioners of a culture must respond in one way or the other. Some respond by withdrawing and attempting to close out intrusions, closing their eyes to any changes while others adapt their practices and beliefs to acknowledge the reality of external changes while still holding on to the "spirit" or "core values" of their "culture."

An Example of Complexity: The Samburu People

The Samburu people inhabit an arid region in northern Kenya. They have traditionally herded cattle, though lately some have taken up farming. Others have started raising camels, which do well in this dry area. The Samburu share many customs with the Masai.

Like the Masai, the Samburu have "coming of age" traditions. Boys are circumcised in their early teens in a ceremony attended by the entire village. The boy who even flinches dishonors himself and his family.

Once circumcised, the young man becomes a member of the warrior class -- a moran -- and must live apart from the village with the other warriors. The moran braid their hair, color it with red ochre and let it grow until they become a junior elder of the village, in their late teens or early twenties.

Samburu elders when asked, would probably explain that they want their tribal society to evolve, but not be destroyed by the outside world. However, this is not an easy road to negotiate. Most perspective about culture tend to be interpreted through the eyes of how the male elders perceive as appropriate. Gender is only slowly beginning to be appreciated.

For instance, in Samburu traditions, it is believed that girls are the property of the community and so, they are not enrolled in schools.The community believes that girls have no need for education because all their needs are cartered for by their fathers and husbands. What happens to girls who want to have access to education or who, for whatever reasons, cannot conform to past patterns of behavior?

In most cases these young women are either pressured to conform or become outcasts. Loise Towon is the founder member of Samburu Girl child Education Support Programme (Sagep) established in 1997 as a women's self help group. She is Samburu herself but finds herself resented by many Samburu elders who feel treatened by her work, which they claim is aimed at breaking down the very core of the Samburu traditional culture.

Sagep's principal objective includes the promotion of gender awareness and balance among the Samburu communities with emphasis on education for the girl-child. Their most controversial activity is the training of schoolgirl dropouts and ostracized girls. Her stated goal is to equip young women with the basic skills and knowledge to cater for their welfare and that of their children in the future but certain elders argue that by taking in social outcasts into her compound, she is violating the Samburu culture.

"I was inspired to instill into the women the importance of safe motherhood. I was particularly concerned with female circumcision, a prevalent practice among the Samburu . I worked at creating awareness on the dangers of this practice, particularly as far as child delivery is concerned ".

Circumcision among the Samburu is an extremely sensitive issue, and the community elders were angered by her bold actions, but she with government support she approached both women and men in preaching against forced female circumcision.

The above example speaks to the complexity and the reality of change that culture undergoes in every society, even in Kenya. The outsider often takes a certain snapshot and expects that that explains the "culture" of a place. It is much more accurate to understand that every culture contains many discussions of identity which are continuously evolving.

The Samburu people and their dancers have become well known images of "cultural" Kenya
The Samburu greeting dance is a well know image for many travellers
The mporo marriage necklace on top of other beaded ornaments worn by Samburu women also provide images of "culture" for many visitors.

Generational Change and Culture

Another component about cultural change reflects the question of generational change and the role of education. In the generation for Loise Towon, Samburu morans are allowed to bead girls formally engaging them to be their girlfriends even at age 10. From that age, a Samburu girl was considered mature and ready for marriage. All the moran has to do is approach the girl of his choice and express himself. Once the girl accepted his proposal, the moran then gave her a beaded necklace-ushanga, officially formalizing their engagement. However, should the girl later reject him, the moran is then compelled to approach her elder brothers or parents who will persuade her into submission. Girls had little voice in this matter.

When the time for a formal union arrived, according to past Samburu practices, the girl was circumcised on her wedding day. However, access to education and changing generations now has this sequence of events being questioned, mainly by women. Many men (and women!) do not see a reason for change because "This has always been our culture!" in their eyes. When individuals and authorities try to speak against such practices it is often perceived as an attempt to act against the group by person who have lost their "identity" and who thus are lost culturally.

Women like Loise Towon (left) and artist JaneOuma, exemplify a generation of urban-oriented, educated women, who are challenging static definitions of culture
Above-A painting by Jane Ouma of a response to the question of female circumcision

It is therefore difficult to answer the question of culture. A key part of the answer perhaps lies in making sure we listen for the alternative voices comming from within the group itself. The way that female "circumcision" is talked about in Kenya is changing rapidly and dramatically. Formerly, the topic was seldom publicly addressed. Recent years, however, have seen intense media coverage of "female genital mutilation, in newspapers, on the radio and television. Kenyans are not only consumers of international media which often have treated FGM in a sensationalist manner, but have also repeatedly become the subjects of such reports, and there is widespread awareness that this "local practice" has become part of a global debate. Since the early 1980s, an increasingly intense dialogue has emerged between those Kenyans who perceive a need to "eradicate FGM" and those who seek to preserve "female circumcision" as an integral part of "culture."

Loise Towon is thus not the only person thinking about issues that affect identity. Outside the above example of the Samburu, there are many other voices such as Jane Ouma, a painter who criticizes female circumcision. She says: " It's a bad act and it should be stopped. Females need that best part of their body. Most of the time it's done artificially and sometimes it does not heal. This leads to a bad health condition and affects the happiness of a young woman. I can't accept that, whatever their culture is."

As elsewhere, the origins of female "circumcision" in Kenya are not clear. Kenyans generally will say that the practice is old, "we found it from our grandmothers" but rarely offer suggestions as to where or why it may have originated. The controversy over it today has become far more than a public health issue, but has become a locus for contested views of "Culture." While historically many Kenyan girls were "circumcised" in the context of coming of age pedagogy and celebration, it has in recent decades become more common for very young children to undergo a primarily physical procedure with little ceremony or transmission of "traditional" knowledge.

It must be carefully noted, however, that those who do not attend circumcision as well as those who "act like they didn't attend" are regarded by many contemptuously.They are view by many not only as"uncircumcised" but also as being rude, ignorant, immature, uncivilized, unclean, "someone who does not know herself." The fear of being labeled as such can act as an extremely strong motivation for a woman to "join" herself or her daughter with those who are circumcised.

Female "circumcision" in Kenya is generally seen as "women's business" and is in no small part perpetuated by women themselves, although many men are becoming increasingly involved in the debate. It is also true that perhaps equally important to the status change of the initiates is the way older women's authority is bolstered by the process of initiation. However, this is a complex and fluid debate. It is just as common, for example, to find an elder woman who opposes the practice as a young man who supports it.

There is no real answer that an outsider looking in can easily come to but we can see the trend of these alternative voices as an indication that the aspect of culture defining this particular issue is changing. In 2002, two schoolgirls took their father to court and won the right not to be circumcised. Cultural change ultimately is tied to giving people the ability to voice their opinions and the economic and political power to decide on their own futures.