The comments you guys kindly wrote on my previous entry have left me thinking all night about reasons why my formulation and (premature) publication of a theory might be construed as worrying.

The first possibility, of course, is that I do in deed have a bad attitude toward the country where I have lived for almost eighteen months, and toward its people. Let’s call it prejudice.

The second, perhaps, is that the way I presented my theory could be thought to belittle the value system of my Kenyan associates, colleagues and friends.

One of the things I have managed to learn about myself in this placement is that I set much store by understanding. For me, having a theory is the first step in understanding. It serves my purposes* to formulate and discuss my theory here so that it can be refined. I like the lady in the shop where I buy plastic bags of cows milk most evenings, and I like her two funny little daughters too. The lady is friendly and cheerful, and seems open minded.

“You know”, she said to me one day, “we call you muzungu.”

I still don’t feel as if I have a proper sense for the connotatoins of this word, but I couldn’t help imagining a cotton farmer, in the American South, saying to the free children of his former slaves “You know, we call you niggers”. I protested (in more mild language) that this might be divisive.

“Oh, nothing bad”, she countered, “it’s just their way.”

Several times, when I heve been perplexed by things I have met in Kenya, I have been told (mainly by Kenyans themselves, but also by other Africans who live and work here) to “Just accept it” because “It’s their way”. It is my way to seek understanding. I find it hard to “Just accept”, for me acceptance starts with understanding. Once I can explain, at least to myself, the things that at first seem bewildering, I think I will be better prepared to accept them.

I think this acceptance is important. Failure to reach that point is, I believe, the beginning of prejudice.

The root of prejudice is prior judgement and, since my theory has to do with value systems, I am in dangerous territory. When I say that things here seem to make more sense when considered with a value system based on status, it is not my intention to mock these things, nor the value judgements that underpin them. I’m publishing my thoughts here not as a way to insult the culture that has kindly suffered my intrusion for a year and half, but as a way to help me understand.

Several of the people who kindly read this site have strong links to Chinese culture. When I visited Beijing I was warned about being overcharged in markets and, at the same time, warned that in negotiation with stallholders I should be careful not to cause anyone to “loose face”. I would very much like to hear from you who know more about this issue. Five days in the Holiday Inn in Beijing was not enough time for me to get any insight into “Face” and how it might be preserved or lost and what the consequences might be. I suspect there might be insightful parallels with what I have seen in Kenya.

But the real hot water here is the difference between my own value system (of which I am learning more each day by considering these very issues) and the one I am theorising might be prevalent in Kenyan culture. When formulating theories about value systems: comparing one with another it would be best to do so from neutral territory. To do that I must step outside my own value system. Impossible! The consequence of not doing so is that I will be inclined to judge the other system by the values of my own.

Thus, I’m afraid, I cannot expound my theory here without sounding as if I believe my own view of the world to be superior to the one my theory ascribes to Kenyan society. With this in mind, perhaps I should keep my gob shut to avoid potentialy hurtful political incorrectness.

Perhaps I should, but I won’t. is my website. I have never claimed that it be politically correct, neutral, inoffensive or in any way fair. What it is is a wonderfully supportive way for me to keep in touch with my beloved friends and also the rest of the world. Apparently it is also a way in which my students can talk annonymously to me about my prejudices: what a wonderful gift. As I said in an earlier comment, I choose to continue writing my opinions here as long as The Web remains a vehicle for free speech. If you choose to read them, I beg your indulgence; write your comments here and help me work through my prejudices.


  1. will Says:

    I don’t think it is prejudice. Kenyans (also africans do accept a lot of bad things. The idea something should rule over you without providing anyting is accepted by majority. I am not arguing for 100% democracy, I am arguing for people in power providing services to their own people.

    I have thought a bit about what is the difference between Europe, Asia, Middle East and Africa a bit. Of course, the topic itself is too big for me to have simple answser, one theory which explains everything. Note that I did not use the word culture above, but I am not sure if it applies to entire cultures yet. And when I mention africa or other continents I am generalizing here, it is unfortunate that I have but it is the nature of linguistic limitations.

    I believe every culture is intrinsically arrogant. I can claim that chinese are exceedingly arrogant to the degree that we believe we invented everything. Of course, anybody with a brain don’t believe that, even in China. But the point is we do believe we are better than the rest, either being smarter or harder working or longer history, what ever the reasoning is. We also believe that people with power has to excercise it responsibly. The relationship is parental, the government is a father figure, the people is children. We believe that goverment is like a boat, and the people are like water. The water can float a boat or sink a boat.

    I will not go through western democracy here. But neither concepts exists in africa. Mark, to certain degrees, we all hate africa because we love it.

    One conclusion I did draw away from africa is africa does not need foreigners. Africa needs to have arrogance.

  2. christine Says:

    Hi Mark. Interesting discourse. I will add not a single intelligent thought to the discussion. Instead, I will share a "joke" that a friend shared with me the other nite. He said:

    "What’s the difference between a racist and a tourist?"
    "Two weeks."

    Hmmmm. We, my two dear open-minded shellshocked by their short vacation in Kenya friends and myself, smiled wryly at this joke. I don’t think its true of adventurers venturing beyond their borders. I’ve not been made racist by my time here in Kenya. I do believe though I’ve had my naivete shatterred. And what I thought I understood about ANYTHING anywhere(which wasn’t much)before I came to Kenya, turns out to be even less.

    Love C

  3. Mark Says:

    Thanks Christine, That last sentense is exactly my problem: I feel as if I no longer understand. I might, at one time (before I denounced the concept of objective truth, but that’s another story) have thought that when I could predict and explain the things I saw around me, that I knew them, understood them, knew their truth. Since living in Kenya I have been able to see that that so called understanding was merely the application of a world-view to my surroundings which themselves had served to build that world view. I believe that, in general, Kenyans have a different world view. Their surroundings are certainly very different from my own, and the societies formed here also differ greatly from those I am accustomed to. My existing models do not serve me well for "understanding" what has been going on around me since I came here. That’s what I have been calling bewilderment.

    Having had a good scientific training I am familiar with the idea that by observing, forming theories and testing them we can come to know the truth about nature. Its a common misconception. We may build an understanding of it but it is arrogant to assume that what we know is the truth. Newton’s universal law of gravitation ("it’s not a theory, its tha law!") turns out to accurately predict the behaviour only of those bodies which aren’t very very small. Moving to the world of atoms and their components, the rules change. For me and, I suspect also many other of my fellow volunteers, moving to Kenya has a similar effect.

  4. will Says:

    love the free use of law of gravitation here. 🙂

  5. Munuve Says:

    Mark, I have enjoyed reading your blog. It obviously is a great way to keep in touch and converse with your close associates/friends. I come from Nguluni, grew up there and went to Tala High School, across from your college. You guys through VSO and other NGO do a good job exchanging your experiences with my folk.
    Your last few entries(Status, prejudice and anti-gravity) and consequent discourse was particularly interesting. Since I grew up there, I am provoked to respond. While Africanbeautie came off as strongly defensive, she had a valid point. I understand your blog is not exactly literally work and as such as is most casual conversations is likely to have faults. The theories(like the Kenyan road rules, status…) you deduce from your observations are logical. However they display 2 classical examples of fallacies of argumentation; generalization and exaggeration. I know that its not a scientific study but before you make such general comments, I would apply the typical sampling methodology across the population. Additionally, I wouldn’t call a peoples’ food rubbish, it just sounds insulting. As you clearly stated Kenyans seem to think different, but so do other cultures. That kind of diversity is healthy. I hope different does not translate to inferior. In reference to status and heirachy, and if you are genuinely interested, I would suggest that you research Kenya’s history and particularly of the Kamba people before colonization. There is limited literature but casual conversation with the older folk(over 65yrs) and a few history books written by Kenyans for Upper primary school. I emphasize Kenyan writer because there is alot of books written by early missionaries that that did not report facts but observations and personal opinions/deductions that we find offensive.
    You and I share alot of experiences/frustrations teaching at that level. However, its not peculiarly Kenyan. Alot of that has to do with motivation. Most of those students are training to be good employees, which is sad. The main reason they did not go to better tertiary institutions is because they refused to think for themselves, memorised class notes to regurgitate them a few months later just to get out of school. The local scene where the chief seems to think for people is another one. Again this has alot of history and influence from the British colonial rule where the chief’s role was changed to enforce imperialism. Until recently(unfortunate), What the chief said (and that changed with his feelings and associations/interests)was law and enforciable by the local administration police. That kind of thing pushes the local villager to resignation but does not replace thinking(its just kept to oneself). Alot of that picture is now changing with more Kenyans getting elementary education and the sense of freedom.
    Like your friend, Will, said, culture is a big subject and one can’t simplify it with a few theories. I strongly agree with his conclusion that what Africa needs is arrongance. That I am learning from the Americans here but I still talk softly. I agree that some practices are barbaric/ruthless(like feeding kids with imbalanced diets so that the father can eat meat). However, these can be explained [not justified] as complexes of poverty and remnants of Kamba/African culture. Until westernization of our economic structure (whichis now at a confused stage), meat and generally food was never a problem.
    I hope you are appreciating the difference in terms of family structure (in general) and the resultant social cohesion. I hope you still enjoythe market days at Tala on tuesdays and fridays despite the monotony.

  6. Mark Says:

    Thanks, Munuve, for this thoughtful comment. I’d like to respond to some of your points.

    "You guys through VSO and other NGO do a good job exchanging your experiences with my folk." — Perhaps. I should say that I don’t think most NGOs do a good job, but maybe what you say about exchanging experiences is true. The organisations who dish out money and aid don’t seem to be doing much good either for society at large or (even) for the individuals they support. But by bringing people together — especially for volunteer organisations who pay to send people here who will live in small places like Tala and Nguluni, rather than the oh-so-like-America parts of Nairobi, five minutes from Nakumatt and surrounded by razor wire — there is the opportunity for us to bump into one another and to bounce ideas off one another. Of course we areall individuals with our own "bad attitudes", but I do think there is benefit to be had from exchange of opinion like this.

    "2 classical examples of fallacies of argumentation; generalization and exaggeration". — I completely agree with your diagnosis of generalization. Even as I write these entries I am fighting with my own internal censor who saus "you don’t know this for sure, you only have a few examples anecdotes to back this up". I have chosen to go ahead and write those entries anyway, remembering this this is not a scientific study but a place for me to write the opinions I am forming based on the experiences I’ve had and the stories I’ve been told". As for exaggeration, if you mean calling Ugali rubbish, then, yup that too. I am not planning to modify my writing style here to say "I think" and "in my opinion" in front of every potentially controvertial statement. It’s my blog and I write it, that should go without saying.

    "The main reason they did not go to better tertiary institutions is because they refused to think for themselves, memorised class notes to regurgitate them a few months later just to get out of school". — What, do you think, was behind that refusal? I think the same thing was true of many of the diploma level students I taught in the UK: they might have made it to better tertiary education had they applied themselves to the process of learning rather than to the process of "progressing" by which I mean passing exams. I was frustrated then too but I think I’ve found it harder here because I’ve not been able to feel connected with these students, most probably due to cultural differences.

    "[What the chief said …was law] That kind of thing pushes the local villager to resignation but does not replace thinking(its just kept to oneself)." — This is an amazing and thought provoking concept. Thanks for mentioning it here — I had no idea. If, for example within a classroom, what the teacher said was enforcible (by beating or pinching or whatever), students might also choose to keep their thinking to themselves. What a tragic situation.

    "I hope you are appreciating the difference in terms of family structure (in general) and the resultant social cohesion." — Well, not really. I live a fairly isolated life (mostly through choice) and don’t interact much with families. Other aspects of social cohesion may impact me but I might misinterpret them. Perhaps if my work here were different I might have opportunity to see more of how that works but I doub’t if it will come on this placement.

  7. Lee Scoresby Says:

    I’m writing this on an Information Engine at a a research post in the frozen North while I’m waiting for repairs to my baloon.

    Just the other day I was a-talking with Serafina Pekkala, the witch-queen, while she was towing my baloon against the wind. She told me that I’m getting involved in some kind of war up here. Now, I came here to sell my aeronautical services; to make alittle money to help buy me a farm in Texas for my retirement, some cigars and burbon whisky. If I was going to become involved in a war I wanted to gather some information — particularly about the possibilities of remuneration — in order to make an informed choice on the matter.

    Well, we talked at cross-purposes for a while and then she observed that "choice" means different things to the two of us. She went on to explain that these differences stem from our different motivations. I am saving for my retirement but the witch folk don’t keep money. They don’t want for food, the don’t feel cold so they don’t need much in the way of clothing and if one needs anything, another witch will give it to her. They don’t do things because of what it will gain them, they do it because they think it is right and important.

    Seemed to me, as I was readin’ the Doctor’s recent observations about cultural differences, that what he’s a-struggling with down there in Africa is a lot like the differences between me and the witches: different priorities arise out of people having different needs. I just wanted to share this with you all. Now I must go and sew a patch onto my gas bag.

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