Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Kenya: Ethnography of the Young and the Restless in Nairobi

Postdoc researcher and director of MA programme Gender, Sexuality & Society at University of Amsterdam, Rachel Spronk, has beguiling paper in the current issue of Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute. The paper is more or less an ethnographic study of Africans she refers to as the ‘young professionals," which in Kenya refers to a relatively small group of young adults who are not part of the "larger impoverished population," nor are they part of the small political-economic elite.

They come from middle-class backgrounds; the kids of rural mission-educated parents, who migrated to the cities. Unlike their parents, the young professionals speak no ethnic languages. They speak English, Kiswahili and Sheng – the slang of the youth sub-culture. They are the blood of the urban nightscape, enjoying some nyama choma and ugali in an open-air restaurant before hitting the clubs. They work out in the gym, swim in one of the many pools of the international hotels, they have unlimited access to the internet... They articulate a cosmopolitanism with a particular Kenyan flavor of which they are proud.

My guess is this sample of Kenya's young and hip at a Goethe Institute showing for the Kenyan house band, JAB, paints a basic picture of those Spronk is trying to describe:



Using a conversation with a 'young professional' who could aptly defend the ethnic Gusii custom of female circumcision, yet it was something he actually loathed and objected to, leads Spronk to an underlying contradiction in the lives of these 'young professionals':
Young professionals perceive themselves as explorers of a contemporary identity of which they are proud; they exhibit half-hearted attitudes towards customary ways of living; they reject ‘Westernization’; and they advocate Africanness as a mode of identification... Their difficulty is that while they are very critical of what they call Western cultural imperialism, they are also part of global cosmopolitan processes that are often interpreted as Westernization. The contradiction is complete when the same processes that enable them to pursue certain lifestyles are also interpreted as causing ‘erosion of tradition’.
Spronk sees the sexuality of the 'young professionals' as a mode for identifying themselves as contemporary persons in a modern Kenya and at the same time observes that, in their heads, sexuality is also romantically linked to their conception of "Africanness," has they have to also contend with an African sexuality structured to anchor them to certain morals and behavioral norms:
The preoccupation of young professionals is Africanness. Contrary to what is often described in the literature on post-colonial subjectivities, for young professionals in Nairobi the heart of the project of modernity is not so much about being modern as a preoccupation with being African. The focus on the tension between pleasure and anxiety of sexuality helps to understand the source of young professionals’ ambiguous position. Sexuality not only entails the promise of pleasure and entitlement to modern personhood, but also harbours a potential for anxiety because of the risk of being considered un-African.
For young women, this is because the dominant discourse understands female sexuality in relation to reproduction, and associates African womanhood idealistically with motherhood, wifehood and the gerontocratic gender order. When sex is disconnected from reproduction, it threatens their reputation as ‘proper women’ and hence their sense of themselves as respectable African women. For young professional men, the anxiety is of a different kind. The dominant discourse of male sexual behaviour has its roots in ideas of primordial Africanness that connect virility and sex. For young men, the new interpretation of sexuality sees sex not as spontaneous, but instead as controllable and partner-oriented; and if perceived thus, sex has the potential to jeopardize their masculinity.
The ambiguity and anxiety Spronk refers to are perplexities I suspect the young professionals actually find necessary and, perhaps, have even come to enjoy. On the one hand the "young professionals" are part and, not a fully cooperative, parcel of the modern project that is Kenya; a project which, from a holistic view of modernity,  they also endanger by choosing to hold on to their "Africaness." On the other hand, the "young professionals" are also progressive stewards of modernity because on its behalf they endanger and erode traditions in numerous ways, especially when sexuality, in their hands, becomes, as Spronk explains, a tool for further identifying themselves as contemporary persons.

Again, like in this write up about Shelby Steele versus Obama, I attribute the paradoxical nature of the young and the restless in Nairobi to being post-modernity's agents in a neoliberalized world, who, on the the one hand, use traditions to resist the oppresive discourse of Westernization, while on the other hand employ western ideals to resist the formidable influence of Africa's traditions as well. In essense, their lot is resistance; their plight is a perpetuity of contradictions; they are postcolonial negotiators.

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