Not everything Western

Advice is unnecessary before understanding by Sam Smith

The Rhodes Colossus Striding from Cape Town to Cairo Punch, 10 December 1892

As President Uhuru Kenyatta commissioned the groundbreaking of G47 Ugatuzi towers in Nairobi on Friday, he appeared a little agitated as he warned foreign powers against interfering in Kenya’s domestic issues.

“We thank the officers of the United Nations and all development partners who have been close collaborators but at this juncture, I must make it clear that while we appreciate your support and look forward to your collaboration you must remember that Kenya has its owners, and its owners are 50 million Kenyans. I ask you to refrain from trying to direct us in which way we should go. We are clear on where we want to go” said Kenyatta.

I’m not sure who he was addressing, but it felt like the man was tired of being given advice. Even though I hardly agree with the President's decisions, it made me think about the global attitude towards Africa and the demeaning nature of advice and support that often comes her way. It reminded me of the mindset that I’ve seen in many missionaries who come to Kenya to “help out” or “spread the word of God”. I’ve always found this idea condescending. It suggests Kenyans are incapable of solving their problems, and I suspect this was the type of attitude Kenyatta was taking a stand against.

While learning Swahili, I was able to understand how this attitude was prominent during colonization. Before the British colonized in 1895, Swahili was the most widely used language for trade in the region. Still, the British reduced the influence of Swahili by making English the medium of instruction in schools. When I first learned how to comprehend Swahili’ time schedule, I was confused by the structure as saa moja asubuhi means 7 am yet moja translates to one. Saa saba mchana translates to 1 pm yet saba means 7. I couldn’t understand why it was like time was being told in the opposite direction to the clock until one day somebody explained the logic to me.

I was told that saa moja refers to 7 am because it is the first hour of the day so saa moja doesn’t translate directly to 7 am but to the “first hour”. Once I understood the time dilemma, I realized this makes total sense and made me question the logic of figuring out the UK’s time comprehension.

Since the equator runs through the country in Kenya, the daylight hours run roughly from 6 am to 6 pm. There are 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness throughout the year. In this regard, it is logical for time to start at 1 when daylight begins and to go back to 1 again when the night hours start.

When comprehending time in Kenya, it is not English that should have been adapted but rather Swahili. However, the British teachers opted to teach the English comprehension of time. They assumed that anything Western is superior over everything Kenyan and were unwilling to promote the Kenyan way of life.

This is one of those attitudes that has and continues to shape the Western approach to Africa. It doesn’t strike me as an equal partnership but rather a parent-child relationship. Kenyatta has made it clear in his recent remarks, that this is not the kind of international relationship Kenyans want.

Another example of this is the Maasai community. This ethnic group is separated by a border between Tanzania and Kenya created by the European race for Africa during colonialism. It appalling that the boundary of the two countries separates people of one ethnic group. It makes me wonder what Africa would have been without colonization.

Colonization was in the past, and even though we can’t change that tainted history, we can change the attitude that caused these problems. Foreign NGO’s and governments need to understand what happens in Africa before their influence can have any relevance. Let’s listen before we speak and learn before we teach.

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