KOLA – TALK
CULTURAL INTEGRATION? – THE SAMOSA FESTIVALS
I am the Managing Editor of AwaaZ magazine, Zahid Rajan is the editor. One of our board members, Tom Odhiambo, is also participating in this gathering. AwaaZ, in addition to being a magazine, is also an institution under whose umbrella various activities are organised, including the SAMOSA Festivals. The word AwaaZ is Indian and is found in Gujarati, Urdu and Hindustani – it means ‘Voices’. The initial emphasis was on the voice of Kenya’s South Asian community in the context of the country’s national history. Highlighted were in-depth articles on the South Asian nationalists who played a prominent role in the anti-colonial struggle, and the close association with their African counterparts. The first issue had on its cover G L Vidyarthi, publisher of the Colonial Times and Kenya’s first journalist to be imprisoned on a charge of sedition by the then colonial authorities. Like much of our patriotic history, this narrative too had been largely ignored. AwaaZ magazine has now moved on to more contemporary issues around minority and diversity concerns. The first edition of AwaaZ was in 2002, it is published tri-annually and is now in its 30th edition.
SAMOSA is an acronym for South Asian Mosaic of Society and the Arts. The samosa is a popular food item common to all and so symbolises the fusion of African, South Asian and Caucasian talent and interaction. The constant features of the Samosa Festivals have been photographic/art exhibitions, music/dance performances, film shows, panel discussions, story telling sessions and programmes for schoolchildren.
Samosa 1 came on to the Kenyan scene in 2005 in a televised promotion . . . . Pannelists discussed ‘A Hundred Years On – are Kenya’s South Asians making more or less of a contribution to nationhood?’ A locally made film, One Country One Game, showed integration on a football ground bordering a slum. Eric Wanaina and Gupz Saund crafted a fusion song.
The highlights of Samosa 2 were a classical Indian dance and Kachumbari. A hallmark of Samosa is the musical bands specially crafted from a mix of African, Indian and European sounds and traditional instruments. Dubbed ‘Kachumbari’, the band has developed a life of its own and become well-known in Kenya’s music circles.
In Samosa 3, students from the University of Nairobi engaged in a lively debate on ‘Chute, Jungo and Miroo’. In Samosa 4 and 5, the film shows were also shown in Mathare, Kibera and Kawangare.
Starting with Samosa 3, an international event was added so that in 2008, two ex-East African spoken word artists from England had audiences enthralled with ‘Oceans Apart’ and ‘Broken English’.
In 2010, a dance troupe from South Africa rendered a unique extravaganza of Indian-Zulu fusion. This year a 12-member group from India, the Sidis, gave performances which called to attention their African heritage.
The exhibitions have ranged from subjects such as ‘Kenya’s nationalists’ to ‘Daily Life in Nairobi’ and ‘The people of Kenya’. Hadithi staged last month in the courtyard of the Kenya National Theatre under the stars was a fascinating mix of tradition and modernity. ‘Tides’ – a play by Coast playwright and ex-councillor, Kuldip Sondhi, dealt with the politics of corruption in Kenya’s local councils.
Samosa showcases the diversity that exists within Kenya’s various cultures and communities. Themes have included ‘Difference is Exciting’ and ‘Creating Cultural Encounters’. Venues range from the GoDown Arts Centre which is located on the periphery of Nairobi’s industrial area to the National Museums of Kenya, the Alliance Francaise, the Kenya National Theatre, the informal settlements, the KICC and the Karura Forest. Between the Samosa festivals, events tagged as mini-Samosas are organised to further implement AwaaZ’s objective of promoting cultural integration.
Why do we need to promote cultural integration? What are the hurdles? What are the expectations? We all know that during the Scramble for Africa, the colonialists carved up the continent and cut across ethnic, cultural, historical and geographical units. At independence in 1963 a sovereign Kenyan state was declared, but we have yet to build the nation. We became Kenyan citizens on paper, but did we acquire a Kenyan national consciousness? No!
Have the Somalis and the Luo, or the South Asian and the Kalenjin begun to see themselves as Kenyans first and all else second? Far from it! On the contrary our leaders have excelled in dividing us; so much so that we are approaching next year’s elections with much trepidation. But this is not just a Kenyan phenomenon.
Globalisation has existed from time immemorial, ever since the early humans stirred in Africa. But the pace in recent years has outstripped all predictions. As multi-nationals, the internet and satellites swamp us with a global culture; starry-eyed economists of the West talk of a global village. But as Issa Shivji says quite rightly: the global village is just global pillage. And the peoples of the Third World are struggling to maintain their identities, their cultures and their economic and political independence.
But no country can develop, leave alone exist, as a conglomerate of disparate ethnic, racial and cultural units. So what then is the way forward?
Do we promote segregation or multi-culturalism or assimilation? Apartheid in South Africa did not work, nor did it in Kenya. The West is realising that multi-culturalism only further entrenches ethnic ghettoes. The French tried assimilation in their colonies with grotesque results. For us, it would be like making chapattis out of maize flour, stuffing githeri into samosas and declaring sheng as the national language.
Culture is a way of life which is passed down through generations. It is a product of our collective intellect and memories which shapes the way we try to make sense of the world. It is made up of beliefs, myths, language, music, food, art, sports, technology, architecture and so much more.
Culture is the very core of human existence and it is not static. It is ever-changing – out-dated traditions are discarded and more pragmatic ones adopted. Cultures cross pollinate; traits can be shared and can be enriched, in today’s world cultural influences can spread across the planet as fast as the click of a mouse. Communities are fiercely possessive of their cultural heritage but also very proud of their cultural achievements and traditions.
To try and dilute or diffuse cultures with the aim of building a cohesive society is not only not desirable, it is not possible. Instead we need a policy which brings together the most universal cultural practices, encourages interaction and builds mutual trust, confidence and understanding; so that a national culture can evolve. Cultural integration is a slow process but there is no other alternative if we are to survive as a nation.
The biggest hurdle to this process in Kenya is the lack of any government policy geared specifically towards cultural integration. On the contrary, as stated before, political leaders, to serve their own selfish interests, actually scheme to keep communities apart. The other major obstacle is the glaring economic disparity whereby some communities are more marginalised than others.
Language expresses culture – having Kiswahili as our national language is an important start but, you will agree, it needs to be enforced more effectively. We only have to look at our neighbour to the south to realise the truth of this assertion. Another obstacle is religion, culture is very closely tied to religion. While we can speak many languages, we can only practice one religion. Fortunately our constitution defines Kenya as ‘secular’ but this needs to be translated into reality. Our schools should be teaching religion as a subject so that our children grow up understanding and appreciating ALL religions. Particular religious teaching should be the preserve of the home and family and the relevant religious institution.
Now that AwaaZ has staged 5 festivals geared to promoting cultural integration; what is the experience? The Samosa Festivals, in spite of their very unique and excellent content, face an uphill battle in attracting multi-cultural and multi-racial audiences.
The Samosa crew is entirely voluntary and consists of South Asians – not by choice I can assure you. The general perception is that the Samosa Festival is a ‘muhindi affair’.
But not all is doom and gloom. This year for the very first time we were joined by an African member who became one of our star volunteers. For the first time too the Ministry of Culture not only attended our events, but gave us much appreciated support, both financial and moral. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission held our hands most gallantly. The National Museum, the Alliance Francaise, the GoDown Arts Centre and the Karura Forest club have facilitated the use of their venues. And many, many are the friends of SAMOSA, too numerous to mention, who make it possible for us to organize these festivals.
We take for granted that our cuisines include chapati, samosa, pulao and mahamri. We dress in Khanzus, salwaar kameez, kikois and khangas. Our languages are peppered with Swahili, Indian and Arabic words. Our religions are criss-crossing and our youth is becoming increasingly colour and ethnicity blind. When we travel abroad we proudly declare we are Kenyan.
So there is progress – Kenyans are coming together and crossing racial and ethnic boundaries to find a new togetherness. The involvement in Samosa of so many artists, volunteers, advertisers, sportspeople, technocrats and sponsors in a spirit of great camaraderie, cannot but be positive and fruitful.
We are encouraged and hopeful. The process of cultural integration leading to the building of a national consciousness is long and slow. The Samosa Festival is one step, and there are many others who are with us in this long walk.