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. Bitterjug.com 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.