A Movement for Social Change with Folktales?
Here is how we are doing it at the Syokimau Cultural Centre
By Muli wa Kyendo
The Nobel Prize Laureate, Elie Wiesel said: "We are the stories we hear and the stories we tell." It is a reference to the importance of culture, of literature, of stories in the search for peace whether national or international. No change is long lasting when it isn’t based on culture, when it isn’t based on stories.
As Ada Aharoni of IFLAC observes, even religions, which are an integral part of culture, are built on stories and parables. “It is of crucial importance therefore, that those stories we are exposed to, at the socio-cultural and educational levels, which we watch on television and in films and which we read, should be pluralistic and peaceful ones that open our eyes to the world, and that build and do not destroy,” she writes. But this is not the case. Human history is made up of stories of conflict, stories of people and nations conquering each other, stories of people and nations killing each other. To get peace, we must change our cultures. We must change our stories.
Since the dawn of history, men and women of goodwill have sought peace. The Pharaohs of Egypt and Hittites of Asia after a period of slaughtering each other in endless territorial supremacy wars, decided they could exist in peace – that there would be no conflicts and wars “in the world” any more. And to this end, they signed the first recorded peace treaty, posted the treaty in public places and carried tablets of it wherever they went lest they forgot and started war again.
War is in the minds of people. It is in their culture and literature. In Africa where nations have recently come together to form modern states, we are provided with a living laboratory of nation building and peace. Since they became independent states, mostly in the 1960s, Africans have tried to create more just and sustainable societies, each depending on the perception, knowledge and conscience of their leaders. Growing up during the so-called cold war era, President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania saw the challenge of peace as that of ideology. He thus developed an ideology which he called Ujamaa – African socialism - which was more like religion. His key target was to destroy differences by destroying cultures and ethnic groups. Each Tanzanian became a Kiswahili speaking “ndugu” – brother or sister - to each other. Nyerere gave up the leadership of Tanzania, after he realized, as he said, that he had failed to create a strong economy.
The first President of Nigeria Nnamdi Azikiwe, spent time studying anthropology and came to believe that diversity was strength. His effort was to strengthen Nigerian cultures to form a strong nation.
Today, presidents and governments in Africa do not “waste time” looking for ideologies. With the collapse of the USSR, the pamphlets of ideology that littered government offices have now been swept away. It has now been assumed that all is alright; that our focus should now be on economic indicators. However, as everyone will readily agree, there most social indicators that are not moving in positive directions. And that creates problems for the African economies.
In Kenya for example, the citizens are frustrated. They are impatient and even angry with the state of affairs in the country. They are appalled and frightened, by the tribe-based cut throat competition, by the increasing tendency to reinstitute intolerant, undemocratic institutions, by the reckless corruption that has spread to all sectors of the national fabric.
Concept of Nationhood
Nearly 54 years since independence, the concept of Kenya as one nation, as a people with common destiny, is practically alien to the average Kenyan. Even to those holding high office and those with high education, Kenya is Nairobi, which by its history and colonial administration excluded local populations. The colonialists expected the local population to work in Nairobi and to return to their native tribal locations when their labor was no longer needed by the colonial administrators or the White settlers. Consequently, “Kenya”, symbolized by Nairobi, is still a place you go to grab as much as you can for yourself, your family and friends and for your tribe before your sad day of returning “home” arrives.
More than a half a century since independence, our political parties are based on coalitions of tribes. It is the only way you can become a leader – including becoming the President of Kenya. Naturally, communities that cannot muster the numbers, communities which are excluded, and which see no chance of ever assuming power, no matter how relevant and beneficial to the country their agenda is, are disenchanted, disillusioned and angry. They are fomenting strife. Who will help us? They ask. Chris Kirubi, Kenya’s most celebrated billionaire and industrialist told Kenyans in a national TV broadcast, “We are in a terrible state. We need a savior! Our country needs a savior!”
Peace from Without
Internationally, we are seeing an alarming weakening of institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) which had given Kenyans – and Africa - a hope for a peaceful coexistence. With the ethnic violence that rocked Kenya after the 2007 general elections in which thousands of people died and many more were maimed and left homeless, Kenyans’ hitherto latent fears of ethnic crisis came to the fore. The ICC and its promise to ensure that no repeat of the ethnic clashes would recur in Kenya was a welcome relief.
And Kenyans were excited when in the last General elections there was unusual calm, civilized campaigning, civilized voting and acceptance of defeat by those who lost even if there were murmurs of discontent. The ICC’s strong, punitive arm hovered above, daring anyone to fight their neighbors. Now as the next General elections approach, Kenyans are preparing for the worst and, in truth, can only hope, the best will come.
The old signs of ethnic clashes that has characterized general election are again visible. Tribal “gangs” are traversing the country, shifting their relatives and community members for voting in places they don’t belong. The Governor of Nairobi Dr. Evans Kidero gives the ominous warning, “These gangs will bring us worse problems than the tribal clashes of 2008.” He expresses the feelings of most Kenyan especially now that the ICC has become more mocked than feared after it has seemed incapable of repulsing political onslaught by the Kenyan government. The darkening clouds become more and more ominous
Before the ICC, our faltering hopes of stable, secure and free existence had been kept aflame by the Big Brother image of the United States. In this role, it had kept Kenya safe from crisis during the disastrous Daniel arap Moi regime of 24 years. Indeed, it was the Big Brother who eventually helped Kenyans to drive Moi out of power.
The coming into power in the US of Barack Obama – a man who is technically a Kenyan - had increased hopes for a secure Kenya. And we in Kenya celebrated his election like no other people in the world did! He became our hope for a better Kenya, for a democracy such as that in the United States of America. For surely Obama would not let his blood brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers, perish in flames of tribal wars. But soon, we were disabused of this naïve expectation. We have now sadly realized that there is just that much that a US President of Kenyan parentage can do, however powerful the country that he leads.
In Kenya, our fears are multiplied by the events taking place in the countries surrounding us and by the impotence of the international community. In Burundi, the world is watching unsympathetically as a merciless dictator has imposed himself upon Burudians. In the neighboring Rwanda, Paul Kagame, is bidding his time to unleash a bombshell of death, destruction and mayhem in a country we had hoped had learned from the shocking mass murders a few short decades ago. In Southern Sudan, after years of fighting to free themselves from what they said was a racist regime in Northern Sudan, friends have become foes, tearing at each other in a tribal war that no one is interested in stopping. And In Uganda, President Joweri Museveni, he who has led the merciless campaign of disempowering the ICC, is now mercilessly silencing his opponents after a sham election.
Kenyans have good reason to be apprehensive. They fear that without an external supervisor, Kenya and other African countries, can slide into the sorry state of our neighbor - Somalia – where bitter clan rivalries have ensured that the question of Somalia becoming an organized, civilized modern nation again, has been forgotten.
From all this, we come to only to one conclusion: Peace for the Kenyans, as for the rest of Africa and the world, must come from within. We must urgently develop our internal capacity to establish and guarantee our own security. We must develop our own ability to guarantee that we shall regard ourselves as a people living in modern states with common destinies. We must guarantee ourselves that none of us will spring up with a gun or knife against his fellow citizen on the basis of ethnicity whatever the circumstances. Indeed, we must guarantee ourselves that none of us will do that to a fellow human being of whatever ethnic or racial extraction because we are all a family of human beings. We must urgently start educating ourselves to develop attitudes for life in a modern world.
To most Kenyans, it is clear that we cannot guarantee ourselves this quality of life and security simply by doing harder and longer what we have been doing so far. That will not be sufficient. What we need is to transform our nation quickly to forestall crisis. To reach that degree of security and freedom, we need to explore a more fundamental transformation in how we work together, in how we are doing the work of social change. The transformation we need must be profound, radical, and sustainable. It must be change that fundamentally alters the very nature of our vision and perception. It is a task that requires courage to challenge basic assumptions and lifelong traditions. It demands boldness to place major bets on new ideas, models, and strategies.
Syokimau Cultural Centre Model
The Syokimau Cultural Centre has brought its model to the table. It is actually not a new model. It is predicated on the belief that peace can only be achieved if we develop value systems that encourage peace. And culture and literature can promote can help develop and spread these values. Culture and literature can contribute immensely to peace, freedom, and the enrichment of the quality of life, as Ada Aharoni says.
With this belief in mind, the Syokimau Cultural Centre is encouraging writing and reading of books that advocate new value systems, especially those drawn from traditional thinking. Among books already published through this effort is King Kamaliza which is a captivating play that analyzes traditional African concepts of governance in relation to modern democratic ideas.
How does a man who believes that leaders are chosen by God handle modern democracy when he becomes President? And how does he reconcile that with the fact that he had come to power by violently overthrowing the predecessor’s government? These are some of the key questions that make King Kamaliza a hilarious comedy, if only tragic.
A project titled “Moral Reawakening” was born out of a desire to contribute in finding solutions to run-away corruption in Kenya and the rest of Africa. A recent research shows that more than 55 per cent of Kenyan youth see nothing wrong with corruption so long as they get to their goal. Overwhelmed by the situation, even well-educated Kenyans are beginning to publicly express the view that corruption is in the genes of Kenyans. Few believe that the vice can be eradicated.
It was in this scenario that the Moral Re-awakening campaign was born. The concept was widely discussed with people in the know including academics from around the world and it highly praised.
The major focus of the campaign is the youth and school children. Schools, colleges and universities are the key targeted partners. The campaign is all-inclusive with as many people as possible free to take part. Its key purpose is to develop and impart new value systems and to encourage debate along the way.
It is centered on a story tentatively entitled, When Mr. Tajirikaleo Was in Charge of Money. “Tajirika leo” is a Kiswahili phrase which literally means “Get-rich-now.”
The first chapter was written by the Centre, distributed and discussed widely. A tentative plot outline was developed with the purpose of distributing and inviting as many contributions as possible. Readers interested in participating in any way can write for more details to: firstname.lastname@example.org with a copy to email@example.com
Of particular interest to the Syokimau Cultural Centre are folktales. We believe that folk tales are the most effective way to bring about fast and lasting change in individuals and communities. Aesop was the earliest practitioner of social change through folktales. Although history tells that he told his stories in the streets, he was nevertheless so effective that he was accused of “corrupting” Greek morals. Today, Aesop’s stories are part of the entire humanity’s collective culture -- a part of our collective conscience.
Dr Chintamani Yogi refers to culture as “the mirror of society”. And if that is accepted, we would like to add that the light that shines on that mirror comes from folklore—and especially folktales.
It has been described as traditional art, literature, knowledge that is transmitted mainly by word of mouth and behavioral example. It is the things that people believe (such as planting and family traditions), do (such as dance and music making and mending clothes), know (such as how to build an irrigation dam, nurse an ailment or prepare a barbeque), make (such as architecture, craft art) and say (such as personal experience, stories, riddles and folktales).
The superiority of folktales is based on the fact that they alone “reflect society’s attempt to give form and shape to its hopes and fears, and answers to its questions”. They attempt to answer the key questions of human life: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we coming from? And where are we going?
Folktales provide order to seemingly random experiences, as well as express the culture’s belief system. They capture our sense of wonder and aspirations. And as Dr. Chintamani writes, we recognize their visions which are often more powerful than the explanations science provides.
As a medium for entertainment, folktales have no equal. None of us can hold ourselves when told the story of the greedy ogre, who finding a lonely and woman who has just given birth, decides to take her flour to ostensibly make porridge for her. With a lot of bravado, he hands her the porridge only to quickly take it back saying, “I see you do not want to eat it! I will eat it myself!”
Yet in two of three days of such greedy ogre, no one can miss the lesson – its bad to be so greedy and inhuman. Our laughter stops as we ponder the consequences. So when a friendly dove offers to take a message to the woman blacksmith husband far away, we become expectant with joy. Finally, we are rejoicing when the husband returns with a sharp sword. The villain does not succeed. Retribution is part of folktales all over the world.
Our efforts in this regard are more recent and consist of transmutations of folktales rather than retelling. An example is a book, Kioko and the Legend of the Plains (https://amazon.com/authors/muliwakyendo). Critics have praised the story as one with incredible tight plot and a character anyone can empathize with “ … a tale that is steeped in culture, that illustrates a beautiful setting and that shows how two cultures who previously thought they were enemies can live in harmony.” In a world that has become woefully intolerant, where many wars are being fought because we cannot appreciate the “otherness” of others, we believe that is a great message. One critic calls it “a wonderful lesson” for peaceful coexistence.
If you would like to receive our newsletter Culture Scope or participate in our activities, kindly write to: firstname.lastname@example.org with a copy to: email@example.com. We are always pleased to hear views from our readers. You can also write to us if you would like to participate in our activities. Visit us at: www.syokimauculturalcentre.org
Muli wa Kyendo
Tel: +254-773-991820 | +254-727-536174
Ever since he came across the theories of social change in his undergraduate studies, Muli wa Kyendo became convinced we could create positive change in the world. He founded the Syokimau Cultural Centre, a non-profit organization that encourages the use of culture and literature as a way of bringing change. A writer and journalist, his books include Whispers and The Surface Beneath (an expose’ of life of Africans in Germany). His play, The Woman of Nzaui, was performed at the National Theatre in Nairobi and other towns in Kenya to highlight the impact of traditional socialization on the modern leadership in an African society. His children’s book, Kioko and the Legend of the Plains, is a modified Kenyan folktale written to promote peace and inter-ethnic cohesion.