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A legacy unravels?

Jul 01, 2005 Awaaz Magazine, Leadership

It took a long time to build what South Asians have in Kenya today. Dana April Seidelberg called us ‘mercantile adventurers’: for more than 2,000 years we have been arriving on African shores as traders, investors and artisans, part of the age-old Indian Ocean trading triangle with its corners in India, Arabia and East Africa.

It is hard for us to imagine the nerve and tenacity of those who set sail in makeshift vessels across uncharted waters, seeking opportunity in unknown lands. There is little with which to compare in today’s networked globe, where trade is done in delegations and fairs, using catalogues and computers. Undoubtedly, those who arrived with sacks of sugar and cotton and organised trading forays into a hostile interior were of a hardy breed: the type that builds industries, economies and nations. They were our forebears: rugged individuals with commerce on their lips and the whiff of profit in their nostrils.

They built the railway, and then proceeded to put up shops along its length. They made furniture and beat metal. They became salesmen, middlemen and aldermen. They milled flour and sold currency. They made big bets and small ones. They fought oppression in the streets, in the courts and on the editorial pages. They are our legends, our larger-than-life ancestors whose accomplishments loom large in our imaginations.

Our fathers and grandfathers we don’t need to imagine or read about: we saw them in action. We know very well the single-minded dedication with which they built up their businesses and professions. We observed how they went about their days: very early starts, usually with a brief prayer session; long hours spent in dark dukas, cluttered offices or noisy industrial plants; dinner eaten with an extended family of a dozen or more people; and a suitably early bedtime. Repeat.

We watched vast trading empires and professional offices of great renown emerge before our eyes, and we know how it was done. The work ethic, for one thing, was tremendous. They were dedicated to their work, our dadas and dadis: no easy afternoons or cocktails by the pool for them. They had a single focus: to work, to achieve, to build something for their children. They were not great consumers: their lifestyles were simple, their needs basic. A limited wardrobe, a simply furnished home, the same food week in, week out. Their thrift yielded savings, which became the investments on which great businesses were built. That is the essence of the South Asian story in Kenya in the 20th century: discipline, frugality, dedication, spiritual anchoring and an unbending sense of identity.

Somewhere in the 1980s, it all began to change. A new generation was arriving at the wheel, and this one was different. Born into well-established businesses, and knowing there was serious money in the bank, this generation began to play the game a little differently. It was sent to the ‘best’ schools, where the car you arrived in every morning began to count for something. Teenagers began looking for nightlife, and a host of clubs and bars sprang up to absorb their spending power. The emphasis on education by their parents was still very strong, and so these young adults were sent to Oxbridge, the London School of Economics, McGill and Yale, and to the best business schools. A new generation of sophisticated, well-educated debutantes emerged, ready to take the reins. All should have been well.

It isn’t. My generation is a disappointment, and the one after it is worse. Is this perhaps a natural consequence of capitalism? The journey of accumulation is filled with urgent and spirited adventure; but is its destination a place of slothful indulgence and lethargy?

Hard work is alien to us now. We sleep late, rise late, arrive late and leave early. We perfect our putts in the afternoons and rest our butts in the evenings. We delegate, like they taught us to at B-school. We sign the cheques and resign from responsibility.

Thrift? You joke, yes? We are spending machines. Luxury cars are toys that we buy and discard. We pick our way through fine whiskies, sniffing our disdain for lesser brands. Every birthday and every anniversary is an excuse for a lavish bash at a five-star venue, where the food is rich and varied and the music is live and loud. Our weddings are just plain ridiculous. We have dozens of outfits hanging in wardrobes that we will neither wear more than a couple of times nor donate to others. We have it all, and have our eyes on more.

Our forebears struggled with the Queen’s English, and so urged us to learn it well. They encouraged us to speak it at home. If only they’d known. Today our knowledge of our own tongues is minimal: just enough to gather what’s going on in the latest Bollywood blockbuster; no more. Certainly not enough to interpret a folk song, be awed by a couplet in a ghazal, or understand the deeper message of a hymn in a holy book. English is enough. It is the lingua franca, the language of business. It’s all we need. We teach our children nothing else now: just how to say ‘I want more’ in the correct accent.

Our religions we comprehend dimly as a set of outdated rituals imposed on us by our unreasonable and unsophisticated parents. We refuse to prostrate ourselves before books and idols. We’re too clever to accept myths and tall tales about miracles. We’re too busy (see above) to spend time interpreting the symbolism of ancient texts, working out the meaning of allegories, or understanding messages from the mystics about love and compassion. Why bother, when everything you need is on TV? Our lives are soap operas in themselves, so what else would we choose to be entertained by?

The new generations are not wrong in questioning the obsessive and often unhealthy fascination with work shown by their predecessors. They may be right in needing to “get a life”. They can only be correct in diagnosing a need for old-fashioned businesses to modernise and automate. All of that is healthy examination, a much needed dose of new thought and progressive ideas. But what is the result of this examination? What new mantras have emerged in place of Save and Invest, Work and Duty? Wine and Dine, Delegate and Abdicate, Me and Mine?

I am, of course, being sweeping in my judgements. You know that. Not every Kenyan South Asian under forty is a dissolute wastrel. That would be implausible. For one thing, not everyone was born into money. There are many leading simple lives in trying circumstances. But walk around and look around. Peep into parties, wander into wedding halls, perambulate past putting greens. You will see the scale of the problem. The inheritors of the pioneer legacy are not building on it. They are dismantling it, brick by brick, value by value. When you are mesmerised by the trappings of wealth, bereft of roots, language and identity, and flaccid from years of soft living, then there is only one outcome awaiting you.

Here’s the funny thing, though: nothing I’ve written here applies to South Asians alone. The children of the moneyed and landed Wafrica and Wazungu are exactly the same. The new Kenyan Cowboys are doing little more than preparing horses and cars for the next big race; the new African bourgeoisie are immersed in accumulating ‘bling’ and living the party life. This disease jumps across race boundaries.

The work values of all our ancestors may have allowed them to build a country: but their separate cultural values meant that they built a nation of ghettoes. Imbued in colonial apartheid, they were unable to walk over the beacons and shake hands, even after the walls had tumbled down. That failure is the dark side of the legacy.

So here’s the bleak recipe for a new racial integration, then. Yesterday, we were separated by strong cultures and work ethics; tomorrow, we may be united by our lack of distinctive identity and merge in our mediocrity. As we collect baubles together and intoxicate ourselves in unison, there will be nothing to separate us. But who will build for the future?

A new togetherness looms, then, but it is not one that will take us very far. Emerging generations need to pull off a very difficult trick. The first part of the trick is to understand why decent values are necessary for development, why a vision for a better future demands investment, and why a focus on trivial self-gratification is the most base of standards by which to live. The second part concerns integration: appreciating why we can no longer co-exist across walls and barriers, and why we must build a nation as well as a set of communities. And the third part of this balancing act? The enduring need for identity and roots, language and culture. Integration is not a melting away: it is an act of appreciation. It is an embrace, not a copulation. Without a clear sense of identity, we become rootless tumbleweeds, tossed this way and that by marketing gimmickry, unable to discern the real from the unreal. And one of the realities we must keep reminding ourselves of is this: for all the investment and business-building, partying and decadence, this is still one of the world’s poorest countries. Our work is still undone.

We will get there. But only if we keep stopping, briefly and regularly, to reflect on the journeys of our ancestors and the destinations of our children.

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