Last week, I was all excited, preparing to go to a Kenyan party-slash-concert. It was less about the particular musician visiting and more about being with my fellow Kenyans and experiencing a little taste of home.
First impressions: the venue was quite obscure – an Indian restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Further impressions: my little stereo could put the sound system to shame and the wine tasted of millet porridge. Crucial impression: the musician did not show up until 4am! At this point, we were leaving so, I'm yet to find out if he actually performed at all! On my way out, a man who I presume was one of the organisers, restrained me to make this plea – that I stay for, even if the artist performed for 2 minutes, it would be worth the wait.
No amount of reasoning, or coercion, could convince me of this. I left extremely disappointed, not so much by the no-show but more so by the general low standards of the entire event organisation. Yet, people seemed to be having a good time. It made me wonder whether it was a case of making the most out of something or whether indeed, people were simply happy to accept the little they'd been given, regardless of the relative high price they'd paid.
I've been thinking about it since and questioning why a lot of us Africans accept whatever is thrown at us. We embrace politicians who do not even pretend to have our best interests at heart. We let public servants abuse us, seemingly forgetting that our taxes pay their salaries so that they can – operative word here – serve us. Our employers take advantage of us and we willingly sacrifice our time and energies for crumbs.
There are theories that root this predisposition to subservience and lack of assertiveness in culture. I'm reminded of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and his explanation of the cultural reasons behind Korean Air plane crashes. People fearful of questioning their superiors and challenging authority. I've observed the same to be true in Kenya – people being treated inhumanly and accepting that as their lot because the perpetrator is in a perceived position of authority due to their profession, status, education, clothing, and so on.
I appreciate how this has emerged from culture (a distortion) but I cannot agree with those who justify and defend such subordination, in the name of culture. Is it a wonder that it is usually the people who are somehow benefiting from this who are so vocal about preserving these so-called cultures? I think there is a difference, however blurry it may seem, between respect and subservience. Between honouring an honourable person and treating somebody as if they are a superior human being. Between using your judgement for the greater good and avoiding giving someone constructive criticism or suggestion, in order to massage their ego. The destruction of one's own self-respect and standards can surely never be justified by any tradition or culture.
Maybe mindlessly deferring to authority is a way out of taking responsibility for yourself. Easier to do as your told than to actually have to think about, admit and assert what you want for yourself. Maybe people don't even try to reach for better because they cannot imagine that they can get there. Trying new things, pushing further, taking leaps of faith, asking, questioning, demanding…. Why risk doing these things when you could maintain the life that you are comfortable with? You complain about this and whine about that but, ultimately, it must be perfectly bearable if you do nothing to change it.
It all goes back to imagination:
- taking time out to think about what we want and throwing away all the negative thoughts that have ever entered, or been put in, our minds about how we can't get what we want
- believing that we can have it and then making a plan
- and finally, actioning that plan
If we set our standards, assert and stick by them, others will have no choice but to comply. But they can only comply if we set those boundaries.
So here's to demanding no less than what we deserve!