What is Kenyan culture? This is a question that has confounded many Kenyans for decades. Is it in our clothes? Music? Hospitality? Athletes? Languages? The answer has never been straightforward. But it’s a generally accepted truth that one of the strengths of Kenyan culture lies in its diversity.
Chinua Achebe once said: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter,” and perhaps this is the script technology giant Google read from because it has partnered with the National Museums of Kenya to celebrate stories of the people of Kenya by digitising Kenya’s cultural collections under the Google Arts and Culture online exhibition Utamaduni Wetu: Meet the People of Kenya, which was launched on October 30.
The project’s aim is to promote Kenya’s cultural heritage and the discussions that followed the launch were meant to spur engagement with audiences across different communities, generations and geographies.
One can now visit any of the museums of Kenya documented in the exhibition with the click of a button.
On the home page is an apt quote from Ngugi wa Thiong’o, an undisputed cultural force in Kenya: “The people of Kenya have an incredible richness of history and culture. Learning from what we already have, from all the communities, is the way into the world.”
The site brings to one’s screen a thrilling explosion of culture through “meeting” the communities of Kenya and the legends from history, music and art. And if like me, your mother used to ask you: How do you know where you are going unless you know where you come from?
You will find it particularly exciting to find your ukoo (clan), which is discoverable through over 40 entity pages illuminating how communities have enriched the country through social, economic, political and cultural activities, each with their own unique and inspiring stories. The exhibition has 10,459 high-resolution photographs, 89 expert-curated exhibits and 59 street views.
The launch of Utamaduni Wetu was followed by a series of panel discussions spanning the first two days of November. The discussions tackled topics like the contribution of digitisation to the preservation of national culture, understanding the importance and significance of arts and culture, how indigenous knowledge can help achieve cultural preservation and posterity, the contribution and benefits of digitisation to historical memory and the contribution of digitisation to the creative economy.
Theatre group Too Early for Birds, who continue to impress Kenyans (effortlessly, or so it seems) with their deeply researched and thoroughly entertaining theatre productions depicting Kenyan history and culture, were heavily involved in the discussions as panellists and audience members. They are also arguably one of the most tech-savvy theatre groups in Kenya, and have used the internet to source stories, build a following and sell tickets, among other things.
From 2017, they have narrated stories about Wangari Maathai, The Nyayo House Survivors, Zarina Patel, Timothy Njoya, Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima, Otenyo Nyamatere, Syokimau, William McMillan, the resistance at Lumboka and Chetambe forts, and even gangsters Wanugu, Wacucu and Rasta. Their latest production, “Tom Mboya Edition”, received such rave reviews that they ran it a second time.
The theatre group was represented on the panel by researcher Idil Ahmed, Gathoni Kimuyu and actor Bryan Ngatia. The panel discussions were moderated by actor and journalist John Sibi-Okumu. Some of the panellists were Patrick Maundu, a researcher from the National Museums of Kenya, and his colleague Dr Frederick Kyalo Manthi, storyteller Mwihaki Muraguri from Paukwa House, Swahili scholar Prof Kimani Njogu, storyteller and writer Aleya Kassam, cultural analyst Joyce Nyairo, the GoDown Arts Centre’s Joy Mboya and singer, actress and content creator Patricia Kihoro.
Gathoni Kimuyu of Too Early for Birds said that the reason they were using technology to document stories was that the internet never forgets. Her peer Brian Ngatia said the theatre group is filling in the little gaps that have been left by history books.
Some of the panellists also tried to tackle the controversial “Kenyan culture” question. Dr Nyairo said that Kenyans need to stop thinking of identities as a single thing and start thinking of it as something that constantly evolves.
Prof Njogu echoed her sentiments about the fact that Kenyan culture is still evolving.
“We are not there yet. Identity is never complete, it’s a journey,” he said.
Patrick Maundu agreed, stressing that people should talk of Kenyan cultures and not a national culture.
“Culture is diverse. Every community has its own unique culture; one cannot talk about a singular Kenyan culture. He added that information about a people’s culture needs to be archived but it’s impossible to achieve this by storing it in museums alone.
“The volume of information is immense, it is only practical and effective if it is digitised,” he said.
Performing artiste Patricia Kihoro noted that the reward of digitisation may not come right away.
Joy Mboya pointed out that opportunities for creatives and artists will only come through proper dissemination, access and good content production. She stressed that the content uploaded online should be carefully thought through, and not everything that can be said should be said.