New freedoms awaken Kenyan culture

When Koigi Wamwere went to work recently here in the Kenyan capital, his supervisor kicked him out of the office.

Mr. Wanwere's misstep: wearing clothes that weren't deemed proper.

It's not that his pants were too ragged or his shirt too casual - quite the opposite, in fact. Wamwere was wearing a beautiful West African robe. But for a politician in Kenya's National Assembly, it was tantamount to a violation of parliamentary procedure.

Under rules dating back to colonial days, clothes worn by Kenyan parliamentarians must meet a "decency" standard. For men, that means suits and ties. So Speaker Francis ole Kaparo ordered Wamwere to leave.

In times past, during 40 years of single-party rule, Wamwere might have had to accept his fate quietly.

Now, a small storm is brewing over Kenya's dress code - just one example of a flowering of indigenous cultural expression that's been given fresh impetus by the new government.

From clothes to art to literature, areas where other African countries have been making significant contributions for years, Kenya is just beginning to define what it means to be Kenyan.

"It's getting to the top of a wave that's been building," says Joy Mboya, an entertainer and coordinator of the newly built Godown Arts Center in Nairobi. "This opportunity for a change in government has only increased that confidence. The business in Parliament [over the dress code] is just a part of it."

Four decades of control by one political party stifled much of the creativity that flourished in Kenya's immediate postcolonial period. The country's literary promise stagnated throughout the 1980s, with writers fearful of getting on the wrong side of the government and ending up in exile like novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o. But even he has said he will return because of the changing government.

While leaders in other African nations actively promoted cultural expression as an important part of their heritage, Kenyan politicians voiced platitudes about identity, while suppressing art that questioned the status quo.

"There was a perception with previous governments in Kenya that people in African dress were communists," says writer Binyavanga Wainaina. He says past governments were made up of people tightly linked to the colonial machinery, for whom credibility was defined as looking and sounding British.

As a result, Kenya was not producing anything near the indigenous cinema of countries like Burkina Faso and Mali, the music of Congo or South Africa, the fashion of Nigeria, or the literature of Senegal.

But that's changing. Fresh Kenyan plays are being staged in Nairobi theaters. The mushrooming private radio stations are placing new Kenyan bands in heavy rotation on their play lists. Kenyan films are appearing at international festivals. Clothes designed by Kenyans are gaining popularity. And for two years running, the Caine Prize for African Writing has gone to a Kenyan: Mr. Wainaina took the award in 2002.

While no one suggests the new government of President Mwai Kibaki is responsible for all this, Kenyans involved in the arts say a certain euphoria has arisen from the mere fact that voters were able to get rid of a party that appeared to have a stranglehold on power.

"There's a kind of cultural awakening happening," says Kithaka wa Mberia, chairman of the linguistics and African languages department at the University of Nairobi. "People are feeling freer to express themselves."

Playwright Andiah Kisia scored a big hit with Nairobi audiences earlier this year with "The Roosting," her darkly comic play about senior government officials who take refuge from advancing rebels in a cell with the political prisoners they had once jailed.

In Nairobi's clubs, young people dance to the Swahili-language rap of Gidi Gidi Maji Maji, whose hard-driving song "Unbwogable" - street slang for unbeatable - was chosen by the opposition National Rainbow Coalition as a theme tune for its successful election campaign. Old hat in the West - but groundbreaking in conservative Kenya.

The national elections last December brought the biggest shift in Kenya's ruling class, with more than half the Parliament changing and an unprecedented number of new faces in the cabinet. With them came the new attitude among politicians that government must be responsive to the people.

In turn, the government has taken steps toward creating an "enabling environment" for cultural expression, says Ogova Ondego, publisher of Art Matters, a newsletter.

The government is drafting a cultural policy for the country and actively seeking input from the artistic community, something that was simply not done in the era of former President Daniel arap Moi. In the Moi era, Kenyans didn't have the luxury of debating whether African-style clothing was appropriate in Parliament, says Jimmy Ogonga, program director of Nairobi Arts Trust. "Every morning, you would wake up and think about everything that was going wrong. Now people wake up with an open mind."

It helps that members of the ruling National Rainbow Coalition are shaking things up a bit. A few days after he was ejected, Wamwere led a small group of Rainbow parliamentarians into the National Assembly, all wearing African clothes. The fashion-statement protest had the desired effect: the Speaker ordered a committee to come up with new rules and grudgingly agreed to let the members stay, so long as they weren't naked or barefoot.

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