Thursday, June 01, 2006

Kalinjin Culture

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about culture. It would seem like missionaries have really done a lot of damage by tearing down culture for the sake of making others not just think like we want them to think, but also dress like we do and sing like we do, to name just two examples.

Often, when I'm in Kenyan friends' homes, they'd make statements such as, "You know, we didn't want to have anything to do with that part of our culture, because now we are saved." Granted, some practices are harmful and should be done away with. But during a conversation with one Kenyan yesterday on the topic of piercings, the person brought up the fact that Kenyans traditionally wore the big earrings etc but "We stopped that because we are saved."

It made me think a lot about talks at Urbana 03 by a native Canadian worship group who said that for so many years, missionaries told them their pow-wows and music was bad, but they started thinking about it and decided to make music on their instruments, wearing their traditional clothes etc to glorify God. They redeemed the good in their culture rather than throwing it all away.

There are customs in this culture that are truly good, the rite of passage for young men being one. True, it's gory (to say the least) to have someone be circumcised at age 14 or above, but with this comes a month's training on what it means to be a man and taking care of your family etc. At the same time, though, the female right of passage (FGM) should totally be done away with! Many churches are stepping in and teaching girls the right stuff, but without having any circumcision, which is good.

Anyway, so what made me think of all this is the conversation I had, and the fact that Jesus lived cross-culturally and challenged the culture within which he lived. I'm trying to read the gospels looking specifically for Jesus' approach to culture. But that's another issue.

Back to Kalinjin customs. Some of the customs which blow my mind are the following:
  • A young man (above 18) should not sleep under the same roof as his parents. It is considered unacceptable. Even people with little or no money build a hut for their sons when they reach the age where they should no longer live with their parents. When a Kenyan student returned from college earlier this week, he was frantically looking for bedding etc to stay in one of our guest huts. When I suggested that he spend the night in his parents' house, he laughed at me. "Not under the same roof as my parents! Never!" Though I don't understand this custom, it's not offensive. I simply don't get it.
  • Married men are not supposed to spend any time with their mother-in-laws. When a colleague's wife recently had a baby and went to live with her mother for the first month after the baby's birth, the colleague broke tradition by going to his mother-in-law's home to see his wife and first-born baby on a daily basis. How could he get away with doing this? Every day, before entering the yard, he would call his wife on his cell phone to let her know that he is coming. That gave the mother-in-law time to disappear rather than spending time with her daughter's husband! To me, this is one of those customs which I think is more damaging than good. But one of my colleagues told me, "Come home with us one weekend, Adele, then you'll understand." I sure hope I do. Until that time, I'll wonder about the good of this custom!
  • I was visiting friends recently when we had to carry a few trays of food from one building to the next. The pastor couldn't help carry. They were saying that it is a taboo for him to be carrying food--another one of the customs which got me thinking about servant leadership. Somehow I doubt very strongly that carrying food (or helping in a kitchen, for that matter) was below Jesus!
There are many things I find beautiful about this culture. From time to time, however, some customs make me wonder... But I would not want to be guilty of the same mistakes earlier missionaries made and simply forcing change that is not merited. In the meantime, though, it's tough at times not to say something about customs I find illogical...


  1. Great thoughts Adele! I often have similar thoughts go through my mind. And that music group from Urbana 03 was one of my favorite things about the whole conference. Their story reminds me that Jesus came to "save the world, not condemn it." There is a positive perspective change when you really start to think about what that means; it means embracing, and not rejecting.

  2. Laura, my thoughts exactly. Jesus lived cross-culturally and the values of the Kingdom took precedence in his life over Jewish values. The challenge is to distinguish God's kingdom from our culture.

  3. Very thought-provoking and good insights. :) I agree--no need to totally throw out a culture but also need to be careful about syncretism. Thanks for writing! :)