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If we fail to become authentic, we fail at everything

Jun 20, 2004 Success, Sunday Nation

Here’s a story often told in management circles when discussing culture and change. It concerns an experiment involving some chimpanzees in a cage, a bunch of bananas and a hosepipe:

Five chimpanzees were put in a cage. In the middle of the cage was a step-ladder with a bunch of bananas placed on top of it. Very soon one of the chimps noticed the bananas and tried to climb up the ladder to get to them. However, as soon as he attempted this, a warder standing outside the cage unleashed a powerful jet of water on him from a high-pressure hosepipe. The same hosepipe was also turned onto the other four monkeys.

After some time, another chimp tried to climb up the ladder to get the bananas. The punishment was repeated: all the chimps in the cage were bombarded with water, howling and screaming. Every time a chimp tried to climb onto the ladder, retribution flowed out from the hosepipe. In time, an interesting development was noticed. Not only did the chimps ignore the bananas totally, they also began to attack any of their number who forgot about the hosepipe and tried to climb the ladder.

In time, another twist was added to the experiment. The hosepipe was put away, and one chimp was released from the cage and replaced with a new one. The new chimp, noticing the succulent bananas sitting on top of the step-ladder, naturally tried to climb up and get them. To his amazement, the other four monkeys all pounced on him and assailed him mercilessly for doing this. He had no idea why they did not want him to get the bananas, and sat dumbfounded in a corner. After a while, he tried again, and was duly attacked once more by his four cage-mates. Soon, he, too, gave up on the bananas.

Shortly afterwards another old chimp was replaced by a new one, and the same cycle ensued. The new monkey would go for the bananas, be attacked savagely, and learn to leave them alone. Among the attackers would be new chimps that had never had any experience of the hosepipe. In this way, all the original chimps were released and replaced by newcomers.

In the end, five chimps sat in the cage. None of these five had ever experienced the force of the water-jet, but would not now ever attempt to climb up to eat the bananas.
All of them would attack any of their number attempting the feat, without ever knowing why. At the end, no warder and no hosepipe were needed to protect the bananas. The monkeys did it themselves.

I was reminded of this story last week when watching the annual budget speech read in parliament. The event is presided over by a man wearing a white wig and red robes, called a “speaker”. The “honourable members” all sit in rows and kick their feet to show their appreciation. All the men are dressed in western suits and ties; they are not allowed to wear traditional African garb. The speech itself is read out, painfully slowly and ponderously, and takes three or more hours to complete. During this time, the honourable members can be seen to lapse into advanced states of stupor.

Forty years after the colonial masters packed up and left us to ourselves, we still haven’t been able to eat the bananas. We are stuck in the modes of behaviour that they taught us with the hosepipe. These modes applied to a different place at a different time, but we willingly propagate them when we are free to do our own thing, on our own terms.

The finance minister talked of us being in the “information age”. But has anyone considered that there is indeed an alternative way of conveying the government’s annual financial statement? Does it even occur to us that long lists of figures are almost impossible to follow when read out aloud? A young minister armed with a “PowerPoint” presentation, consisting of tables, graphs and pie charts could, I wager, complete the whole thing in under an hour. If done in this way, the speech would be appreciated and understood by everyone, immediately.

But no, we must do it the way we’ve always done it. We must do it the way we were taught to do it. Even if that way is tedious and puts its target audience into a trance, we mustn’t argue with tradition. We must wear the clothes, speak the words and dance the jig, no questions asked.

This behaviour extends to many other aspects of our life. We live in a hot country, but men are still required to wear a scarf knotted tightly around their throats and a bulky woollen suit if they are to be taken seriously. Women must pay great attention to western magazines and learn how to paint their faces very expensively, if they are to be seen as attractive. Our judges must dress, in the words of my friend P.L.O. Lumumba, “like Father Christmas”.

Those of a certain age in this country ape the British of yesteryear in everything they do. They sit in stuffy clubs and converse in hushed tones to cultivate the airs of “gentlemen”. They exercise the same snobbishness on newcomers that was once imposed on their fathers. They have allowed themselves to become fossilised in the irrelevance of somebody else’s past.

Those of a certain youth ape the Americans in everything they do. They hang out in noisy clubs, mouthing the words of a foreign culture received straight off the TV set. Only the values of the street urchins of Los Angeles and New York matter; only the clothes of pop stars are worth wearing. They have allowed themselves to become entranced by the irrelevance of somebody else’s future.

Everything, from our laws to our words to our technology to our economics, is received from elsewhere. Nothing is authentic. Nothing is thought up by us to apply to us. Nothing is relevant to our landscape and to our setting. We either dance to the eerie tunes of a haunted past, or imbibe the intoxication of a future that is not ours. Should it really come as a surprise to us that we are always at the mercy of others? That the holders of foreign capital are able to sit down and dictate the terms of their engagement with us? That the producers of Hollywood films and TV programmes can tell us what we should be?

Without authenticity, we will remain puppets. I am a victim of this, and so are you. Without a meaningful attempt to understand our own nation, our own origins and our own values, we cannot possibly map out a future of any relevance to us. ‘Kenya’ should be more than a shell containing the ideas and opinions of others (my lords). It is a long, long time since the warders left, but the bananas are still out of reach.

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