In today’s Nairobi, streets that were once named after British colonizers now feature the names of Kenyan freedom fighters and Pan-African leaders. The state house, which used to be the official residence of the governor of British East Africa, is now the home of the president of Kenya. The iconic Kipande House — which, during colonial times, was where Kenyans applied for identification cards that permitted them gainful employment and the right to travel — now hosts one of the largest commercial banks.
Such is the contradiction, or perhaps harmony, that describes postcolonial Nairobi. What was once a place of cool waters — “enkare nyrobi” — has evolved from what it was before and after British colonization. Nairobi is a beautiful microcosm of different cultures, old and new, modern and traditional. Our language of choice is Sheng – Swahili, punctuated with English and elements of Gikuyu, Kamba, Dholuo, and Luhya. The complexities of Nairobi represent contemporary Kenyan identity.
But, close to 60 years after independence, Kenya still grapples with the effects of colonialism. There is no shortage of colonial ideology and attitudes present in our land, from our education system to the values we espouse. The colonists did not just come, plunder, and leave. In their wake, they left the stench of colonization that we still bear today.
From a very young age, the idea of Western superiority is imprinted onto our minds — we are taught to hate the things in us that are African. In schools, we are often asked to shave our heads because our African hair is “unsightly.” We are forced to acknowledge the apparent good that came with colonialism and are told that we ought to be grateful to the British for “civilizing” us. Mastery of the English language is often treated as a measure of intelligence. We constantly try to differentiate ourselves from our Africanness and seek approval from those who, against our better judgment, we perceive to be better than us. This, perhaps, has been at the root of many of our problems. While there are problems in Kenya that are of our own making, I do believe that the colonists were — and still are — the architects of many of our misfortunes.
Along with the bad taste of colonization left in our mouths, Kenyan youth and African youth at large must wrestle with how to curate a postcolonial African identity — an identity we can call our own. There is an understanding that the pre-colonial identities we once adorned and cherished are long gone. Kenyan life before British intervention has been almost entirely erased, so while we can try to retrace it, we can only recover part.
However, even with the little we can recover, we can still redefine what it is to be African. The path forward for many African countries must be to find how traditions and cultures that had been erased fit in the world we live in now — the world that was imposed onto us by colonizers.
Therefore, we must actively debate, fix, unlearn, adjust and create new cultures together. We must understand that development for us will look very different from having endless skyscrapers, building powerful manufacturing industries, or beating the dollar, as is the common vision in Western nations. Development for Kenya may take the form of sustainable agriculture, which has been shown to enhance economic growth while reducing carbon emissions. Our development may be stimulated by Africa’s abundance of renewable energy sources. Or it may come from technological innovations that suit the particular needs of Kenyans. Such unique trajectories of development constitute the complexity of Kenya and should not be stunted by repressive Western ideals of progress.
The rest of the world, however, doesn’t seem to envision this complexity, or simply chooses to ignore it. The true Africa contradicts the Africa that the rest of the world, particularly the West, wants to see. The world wants an Africa that is free of modernization. An Africa with purely “traditional” cultures that are untouched and remain static for the world to appreciate with ease – a cultural museum of sorts. A Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dream”-esque Africa, one with beautiful lush savannahs and bright orange sunsets but without Africans in it. The world wants an Africa that is riddled with problems, impoverished and unable to help itself, constantly in need of relief and salvation. The world wants to see an Africa where oppression is all there is, where democracy doesn’t exist, where no one has rights: an Africa to demonize in order to uplift Western civilization.
At Harvard, and in academia at large, such a retrograde understanding of African identity permeates discourse on Africa. People engage with African identity by flattening it out to simplicities. From class conversations to political debates, there seems to be very little appreciation of the complexities of African culture and identity. This shouldn’t be the case. The Africa the rest of the world fantasizes about is not the Africa that exists in reality. Africa is evolving on its own path, and it is high time the rest of the world contends with this.
Joshua Ochieng ’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is an Economics concentrator in Quincy House.