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Mimicry is limiting our ambition

May 01, 2005 Strategy, Sunday Nation

Oh, colonisation! We’re still paying a heavy price, after all these years. We seem unable to move on, leave our history behind us and just get on with things. New books like ‘Britain’s Gulag’ and ‘Histories of the Hanged’ have disturbed our old wounds, have rekindled the demands for reparations for ancient atrocities. But that is a debate for other people. My concern is at a different level. I am worried about the colonisation of our minds, which proceeds apace.

We all watch the military march-pasts when the President is officiating at a function. We all see how our boys walk like stiff clockwork soldiers, and how they twist their necks at a dangerous angle to look at the dignitaries as they walk past, whilst maintaining that ridiculous forward-march gait. We see it, but do we ask ourselves: who taught them that? Why do they still do it that way? Is our idea of martial discipline still rooted in the colonial experience? Should we, by now, not have developed our own practices, our own codes, our own rituals?

Why do our worthy judges still look like Christmas decorations, wearing those amazingly comical blonde wigs? Why is a practice that emerged from the Britain of centuries past still enforced in a modern African nation? Why do these people address each other as ‘lordships’ and ‘learned friends’? When will we rid ourselves of this archaic pomposity?

Why is the Speaker of the ‘august’ House dressed like another cartoon character? Why does he not allow any of his parliamentarians to wear local garb? Is the suit and tie still the only hallmark of professionalism and seriousness that we can imagine in a hot African republic? And why do those people in there all applaud with their feet, like over-excited little children?

Oh, those Brits left an indelible impression on our minds. It matters because it goes to the heart of our identity as a nation. Who are we, and what do we stand for? How can we possibly tell, clothed in alien attire and steeped in outlandish ritual? And how can we become something different, something better and something authentic when we were never able to shed the skins given to us by our conquerors?

It goes beyond clothing and ritual, this identity problem. Our religions, too, did not originate in our own lands. They came from the hallowed soils of old Judea, from the minarets of Arabia, and from the temples of ancient India. They are received religions, and we received them without question. They are not the only doctrines we import. Every year, we are forced to recite the fiscal and monetary mantras of the high priests from the World Bank and IMF. If we sing in tune and don’t go off-key, a collection plate is passed round to raise some “development assistance” for us.

In our offices and boardrooms, we worship something called ‘best practice’: the business processes and systems of other countries. We follow these things with religious intensity, because we have no business models to call our own. Our indigenous business successes are few and far between; multinationals clearly set the pace, and that is where we all wish to work. Why hurt yourself trying to think differently when these things are tried and tested, are proven on the international stage? Why, as we often say to ourselves, reinvent the wheel?

And when we relax, what do we like to do? Watch the overcooked sexual intrigues and marital discord of Mexicans and Americans in those appalling soap operas that are dumped on us and always race to the very top of our viewing charts. Or sit in large groups in bars watching the latest battles between Chelsea, Real Madrid and AC Milan. When we read (which isn’t often) we read the pulp offerings of Grisham and Collins (with baffling pride).

Have we not become what another novelist, the acerbic V. S. Naipaul, unkindly called “mimic men” – desperately trying to copy the successes of foreigners without any real base of authenticity? But then he himself abandoned his third-world birthplace at the first opportunity (and used the comfortable base of England to nurture his undoubted literary talent) so he is not perhaps our best guide in the matter.

The crux of the matter is this: no one makes it by simply copying. Cultures and practices evolve in specific settings; they are the products of local forces and local conditions. When we assume, wholesale and without question, the practices that evolved elsewhere, we are doing ourselves no favours. Best practice does not push the curve out. Accepting the wheel as the only means of locomotion keeps us from looking beyond the current reality. The Wright Brothers reinvented the wheel – they added wings to it and created the airplane! If we limit our thoughts and ideas to what we have read and received, when will we generate original ideas for others to copy?

This is not an argument for being static; it is not a paean to a pre-colonial past. Culture is dynamic, and must absorb all influences and grow in all directions. But it must have a foundation, an authentic core to call its own. A “mitumba” culture that happily embraces the cast-offs of others will always be second-best. The Japanese and Koreans did not get to world product leadership by mimicking western business practices; they developed their own, based on their particular view of the world. Mahatma Gandhi did not kick the British out of India by copying their methods or playing by their rules; he introduced them to the very Indian concept of non-violent resistance.

When we look for it, authenticity is all around us. We are entirely capable of designing our own attire, writing our own books and developing our own arts. We have entrepreneurs who would refine their own business models to great effect. We have scientists who understand local conditions very deeply, and can devise excellent technologies, cures and solutions. What we don’t have is the vision to get behind these people, to back them and encourage them. Instead, we mock them and jeer at them. When I was at school, “native!” was the greatest insult that could be aimed at one’s fellow Kenyans.

That is a failure in all of us. When we fail to take someone seriously because they aren’t wearing a western suit, we are jeering at ourselves. When we stick to the tired norms of decades past, we are condemning our own ability to develop. When we reject a business idea because it isn’t expressed in PowerPoint, we are putting our own limitations on display.

When we learn to value our own authentically generated ideas and initiatives, we will learn to build a cultural core that we can call our own. Then we can assimilate the best from the rest of the world, safe in the knowledge that we are using outside ideas to grow and improve ourselves, not to stifle our own creativity and deaden our own minds. Until that time comes, we are dealing in counterfeit development.

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