Of Swahili cornrow plaits and the unfair and futile cry of cultural appropriation - Daily Nation

Of Swahili cornrow plaits and the unfair and futile cry of cultural appropriation

Saturday June 23 2018

Kim Kardashian went to a major showbiz event sporting a striking hairstyle. She wore her hair in cornrow plaits. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

Kim Kardashian went to a major showbiz event sporting a striking hairstyle. She wore her hair in cornrow plaits. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Kim Kardashian went to a major showbiz event sporting a striking hairstyle. She wore her hair in cornrow plaits. In Uganda they call it the Kiswahili style. Would you call that news? Well, the cynical English expression is “Queen Anne is dead.” It means that the news you are reporting, like that about a lady wearing her hair in plats, is no news at all.

But Kimberley Kardashian and her partner, Kanye West, are celebrities. I would not say that they are quite my kind of celebrity, but that is immaterial. The second point about Kim’s plaits is that they are recognizably an African phenomenon. That, too, would not be big news, except that Kim Kardashian is not of African descent.

There starts the news. The lady was hotly and widely criticised by many observers, accused of “cultural appropriation”. This suggests that she was taking a phenomenon of other people’s culture and arrogating it to herself. In other words, she was treating African or African-American culture with disrespect.


Fortunately, the response was not one-sided. There were several voices that argued that there was nothing wrong with what Kim Kardashian had done. I wonder what your opinion is. I told you once that someone suggested that professors should all be one-handed. That way, they would not keep saying “on the one hand” and “but on the other…” to our confusion and consternation.

My main comment on this controversy is that “cultural appropriation” is not a given fact. It is only an interpretation of an attitude or an action. The determining factor in the wrongness or rightness of a non-African-American wearing Swahili plaits, or a dashiki for that matter, should be sought in why and how they do it. I personally see no fault in anybody’s liking a style of hair, food or dress and adopting it.

This reminds me of a dear departed sister called Kavetsa Adagala. She was a brilliant literary don at UoN and she played a key role in the founding of the Kenya Oral Literature Association (KOLA) in the early 1980s. She was also, along with such creative stalwarts as the late Francis Imbuga and Arthur Mudogo Kemoli, one of the pillars of the Maragoli Cultural Festival.

Kavetsa left us for eternity a few years ago now. But she has been strongly on mind of late, because of a concept that I first heard from her. It is called cultural engineering. I think she expounded the idea at a conference we were holding at Kilaguni, in the Tsavo National Park, in 1984, to try and formulate a national cultural policy for Kenya.

It was also at that conference that I, too, tried to propose the concept of "social sense" as an essential component of culture. I am still trying to refine that into what I currently call my "deshenzinisation" project. That is the systematic elimination of the “shenzi” (savage and primitive) from our society.

But back to Kavetsa's cultural engineering, I believe that her hypothesis started from the common realisation that culture, the way a society lives its life, is dynamic rather than static. It is always changing and being changed from both within and without.

In order to intelligently manage the constantly changing flux of culture, Kavetsa suggested, we have to be constantly evaluating the various aspects of culture and assessing how they fit into one another and how effectively they operate within our societies. This is what would enable us to absorb new items of culture within our existing frameworks without succumbing to blind imitation, what Okot p'Bitek calls "apemanship".

 That conscientious selection and diligent assembly of elements of culture can be called engineering, as Ms Adagala envisaged it. But in matters creative and cultural, I personally subscribe to Derrida's idea of the "bricoleur" (trial and error handyman) than the precision-oriented engineer. Culture itself, as a way of living (not fossilizing), is a continuous experiment.

Both as individuals and as societies, we consider the choices available to us, in our specific physical, historical and social environment, and we decide which choice is most suitable to our survival, development and relationships. Since our environments are always changing, our cultural choices have to be continuously adapted to the changes.


No one is born with a culture. We are only “born into” a culture, that ever-changing experimental framework in which we learn how to live and get along with members of our societies. Culture, like language, one of its most prominent aspects, is learnt, not inborn. A Swahili child growing up in an exclusively Chinese-speaking society would speak nothing but Chinese. Similarly, a Chinese child growing up in an exclusively Swahili cultural society would practice only Swahili culture.

Today’s reality, however, is that we are born in an increasingly hybrid cultural environments. This is an aspect of the unstoppable onslaught of globalisation, leading to cultural pluralism. This pluralism demands a great deal of generosity and mutual tolerance or, better, acceptance.

Culture means the ways in which we identify ourselves, regulate ourselves, produce our sustenance and express ourselves. This is a definition I sold to the Ugandans, when they were formulating their national cultural policy. It was, of course, derived from my experience from the Kenya national cultural policy project. As such, culture, or any aspect of it, should not be grasped with proprietary monopoly as, “This is mine, and don’t you dare touch it.”

The historical facts, many of them horrendously sad, that make the African-American community, for example, react vehemently to gestures of adoption of what they regard as theirs, are understandable. But aggressive and unqualified exclusion of others who are attracted to aspects of culture originating from our heritage are unacceptable.

I cannot help wondering what would happen if someone were to come up and accuse you and me of a cultural appropriation of the English language.

Incidentally, I think that cornrow plaits, properly done, look pretty on most heads, black or white.


Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]