Saturday, February 10, 2007

Book Review: Facing Mount Kenya

Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu. Jomo Kenyatta.
London: Secker and Warburg, 1938

This book presents an anthropological study of Kenyatta's ethnic group, the Gikuyu, and their modes of social organization, morality and cultural activity prior to contact with Europeans. Kenyatta gives a very thorough and clear picture of Gikuyu life and custom, painting an almost utopian picture of their social norms and the
sophisticated codes by which all aspects of the society were governed.

In contrast to the idyllic image he presents of traditional Gikuyu life, he points to the confusion that ensues when, in the present day, the religious rites and traditions are no longer observed by the whole community.

"Moral rules are broken with impunity, for in place of unified tribal morality there is now...a welter of disturbing influences, rules and sanctions, whose net result is only that a Gikuyu does not know what he may or may not, ought or ought not, to do or believe, but which leaves him in no doubt at all about having broken the original morality of his people." (p. 241)

While I appreciate the fact that Kenyatta was aiming to demonstrate to a European audience that pre-colonial African societies were well-organized, democratic, and harmonious, I feel that from an objective, anthropological standpoint, his presentation of the culture is a bit too glorified. Either that, or we should all be adopting Gikuyu-style democracy. It sounds a little too harmonious to be true!


1 comment:

Marilyn Bruya said...

In 2000 I visited the rice plantation of Panji Tisna in Marga Village, Bali as part of our University of Montana January residency there. Bali's Hindu culture before Western colonial tourism and current agribusiness pressures, codified the religous, social and business practices of the people. Planting rice involved a series of seasonal and ongoing religous ceremonies and tributes to the gods of the harvest at local temples and at shrines distributed in the fields. Panji Tisna explained his resistance to current pressures from agribusiness interests who were pressuring Balinese plantation owners to double or triple plant their fields for economic advantage. Panji explained that altering agricultural practice would destroy religious practice and therefore destroy the cultural integrity of local community and ultimately of the entire Island. Because the Western mind equates religion with superstition, international influence on indigenous culture replaces centuried old cultural cohesion with the "40 pieces of silver" required for the Marlboro's, BMW's and moving to LA or Las Vegas, desired by Balinese youth today. The western mind of today has no experience of cohesive indiginous culture. Like tourists on the Yangtse River, they imagine it is a real improvement to move "the poor" who have lived for more than 20 generations along the river, to high rise apartments on the cliffs above, where they will have the advantage of western toilets, and enjoy the "advantage" of the new dam on the river. One might consider the "advantages" of current living on Indian Reservations to the long lost indigenous life of Native Americans for a sense of what the Western mind can achieve when it brings perceived advantages, economic or religious, to people who's cultural integrity is invisible to the Western eye. The end of agribusiness colonization will also bring the end of cultural tourism. Everyplace will then be just like here, and we can stay home and buy our Marlboroghs, Gucci bags and Tommy Hilfiger clothes at the local mall instead of in downtown Ubud, Bali.