Political activist Marcus Garvey once said that a people without the knowledge of their history, origin and culture are like a tree without roots. The importance of culture in people’s lives cannot be over-emphasised.
Culture can be a beautiful or abhorrent thing, depending on the context in which it is being applied.
While there is no single culture that defines Kenyans, there are some aspects of it that are common and often present themselves in their extreme and, perhaps, most exciting forms during rites of passage like marriage or death.
During dowry negotiations, for example, an uncle will squeeze in a demand for an extra, fatter goat and quote a verse from the cultural bible to support his demands. All in the spirit of getting the best deal for the girl's family, of course.
In death, too, culture presents itself boldly. When Kibra MP Ken Okoth died on July 26, the country saw a haemorrhage of cultural declarations from many corners.
It started with the cremation of the MP’s body, a wish he had clearly stipulated in his will, but which some Luo elders, his relatives and constituents found abominable and “against their culture”.
And if his widow, Mrs Monica Okoth, thought this was the only challenge she had to surmount, she was wrong. They had a lot more in store for her.
After the cremation, the leadership of a splinter group of the Luo Council of Elders demanded that Mrs Okoth be inherited according to the community’s traditions.
The group’s chairman, Mr Nyandiko Ongadi, said this would fulfil Luo cultural demands. This is where one pauses to check if they are in the right century, because such sentiments have no relevance in this one.
Whose wishes, exactly, would inheriting a grieving widow fulfil? Certainly not hers.
Since culture is flexible, changing with the times and seasons, and meant to advance humanity, one is tempted to think that there must be an agenda beyond the "it's our culture" justification when such sentiments are brought up.
There are a number of scenarios which fit that "it's our culture" description that were curiously ignored. For example, what does their culture say about respecting a dead man’s wishes?
About taking care of widows and single mothers? Or about shouting through media outlets things that could be whispered in the privacy of homes?
The element of convenience and selfishness crops up in this selective application of culture. For when such sentiments are aired in support of retrogressive cultures like wife inheritance, female genital mutilation, childhood marriages, beading, among other practices that wreak havoc in many societies in Kenya, it's often done so for the convenience of just a few people.
Unfortunately, it is women and children who bear the brunt of the repercussions of backward cultural practices.
HIV/Aids, fistula, unplanned pregnancies and even death are just a few of the examples of what happens when culture is applied for the convenience of a few people.
There is no god of culture sitting somewhere on his throne waiting to punish human beings with leprosy and boils if they fail to carry out aspects of culture that hurt humanity.
But the way some people go on and on about the ramifications of not fulfilling cultural wishes, one would think that there was.
In the words of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie, culture is man-made. Culture does not make people. People make culture.
So if there is anything in our culture that does not move this society forward, then it's time we adapted what we have to the needs of the people.
Perhaps one culture should be that of comforting widows instead of inheriting them. Of nurturing children instead of marrying them. Of educating children instead of ‘cutting’ them. Now, wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?
The writer is the editor, ‘Living’ magazine. [email protected]