A Changing Culture

Published October 3, 2008 under Education News

By: Sherryl Broverman

This article was originally published in The Duke Chronicle Online (October 3, 2008)

But that is their culture. You shouldn’t try to change it.” When I hear this comment about my work to improve girls’ education and social capital in Kenya, I want to ask “which culture?” The culture in South Nyanza where women only wear skirts and cover their mouths when they talk? Or the one in Nairobi where girls wear tight jeans and go to discos? Or the culture in Nakuru where women run legal defense and reproductive health programs? Or sometimes I want to ask, why do you think that Kenyan culture must be static, when in the United States we have been in prolonged “culture wars?” But mostly when I hear this argument I want to tell them about Mzee.

I was in Kenya during September for Mzee’s funeral. In a dry, dusty field, with the cattle herd that usually filled the compound temporarily replaced with tents and striped awnings, thousands of people recently congregated to honor Mzee, one of the longest serving civil servants in Kenya. I had only known Mzee in his later years, as a strong handshake, a warm smile, and gravel voiced ‘welcome home’ when I visited his house. In his retirement Mzee loved to sit on his front step, while around him ambled his children (41 still living) grandchildren and numerous cattle. (The last time I saw Mzee he was wearing a Duke Global Health Institute hat.)

As a friend of his daughter, I knew how Mzee’s understanding and practice of culture had changed. Thirty years ago when his daughter refused to undergo female genital circumcision Mzee was furious. When a few years later he arranged for his daughter to become the second wife of a much older man, and she ran away the morning of the marriage, he did not talk to her for years. His daughter went on to complete her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, and become a successful, high profile professional. She and Mzee were eventually reconciled and he came to respect and support his daughter’s mission to empower girls in her home community. Before Mzee died he appointed his twice-rejected daughter as the executor of his estate. In a community where according to “traditional culture” women do not handle money, Mzee gave his rebellious daughter (and not his many sons) the highest honor; the first time a woman was so honored. So on that sunny tumultuous day when thousands of people gathered and stayed to sing throughout the night to commemorate Mzee’s life, there was Rose Odhiambo: honored, respected and in charge. Her worth was declared to the community by Mzee’s last wishes, a man older than Kenya itself, who knew that culture could be as mutable and protean as the cattle herds he loved to watch.

Sherryl Broverman, the director of the Global Health certificate at Duke, is a co-founder of WISER.