Dear Hon. Ababu Namwamba,
“Youth, Sports, and Culture matter and they should come home.”
My History with Shairi
The first time I experienced classical shairi(poem) as it was meant to be performed was at the Bomas of Kenya on the final day of the National Music Festival. You read Shabaan Robert in school. In Kiswahili classes, you’re forced to write embarrassing poems that follow the strict rules of shairi composition. Eventually, that is all you remember of shairi; restrictions, and tedium. And that is if you remember anything at all about shairi.
A Boy From a School in Kilifi
He was a solo performer, a boy from a school in Kilifi. He was a finalist then but I would see him in the newspaper a week later shaking hands with the president. There were no instruments on the stage with him and no accompanying chorus. He bowed to the judges and took a deep breath. The entire hall fell silent. Everyone took a break from the adolescent flirting, pinpop-sucking, and nervous repetition of choral verse lines. Everyone listened.
The Shairi was only twelve minutes long, but in it were centuries of coastal history, culture, and heritage. We heard this song stretch across the Indian Ocean flowing into the Congo and trickling home again. It was a call to prayer, a lullaby and a work song for tilling the land. It was a reminder that art is a living thing, not an exercise in a textbook.
“Understanding music is worth it for its own sake.”
I’d like to make a case directly to the new Cabinet Secretary for Youth Affairs, Sports and The Arts and to you, my fellow Kenyan.
We desperately need community sports and art centers, and more funding for extracurriculars in schools as well as more time for them in timetables.
Art for the Sake of Art
Money matters. However, it is impossible to determine or predict which creative or extracurricular pursuits will yield the most profit. Thousands of athletes show promise at long-distance running but only a handful truly achieve medal-winning prowess. Of course, there would be more if they could get to competitions on time and sleep in actual hotels instead of airport lounge floors. Millions of actors, comedians, dancers, and performers of every craft post their videos online and hope for viral greatness. So far, there has only been one Khaby Lame. You may take this stark reality as proof that this sort of investment is a waste of time. But you’d be missing the point.
Understanding music is worth it for its own sake. Performing in a group or playing in a team is worth it even if there is no next level to qualify for. Investment in public art programs, community stadiums, and school extracurricular activities is a practical and excellent use of public funds.
Learning to Approach the Argument from all Possible Sides
Consider the following 5 life lessons:
- Solving a problem by switching perspectives
- Nurturing empathy for others
- Intellectual curiosity and humility
- Accepting failure and rising above disappointment
- Thriving in healthy competition
If you were a teacher and had to impart these five lessons to your students before the end of the academic year, how would you do it?
Would you teach them Plato and Nietzche? And Camus? Would you turn to religious text and leave it to God to provide divine revelation to those deemed worthy? Or would you throw the ministry-recommended textbook at them and quiz them until they could repeat each chapter word for word?
All 5 are crucial lessons for everyone to learn. If mastered, your students could avoid many pitfalls of adulthood. They could create a life filled with kindness to themselves and others.
In public speaking and debate contests, one has to approach the argument from all possible sides and do their best to counter any arguments. Perspective is everything.
In creative writing and art classes, one learns to express themselves and often finds unexpected emotional outlets.
In reading stories or discovering the work of other artists, they explore worlds unknown but find familiar emotional landscapes. Just one place to nurture empathy.
In a play or a choir, you learn that some people are just better at some things. You find your place, wherever it is, and have fun anyway. There are fifty other people who are just as ordinarily talented as you are.
On the field, you embrace the highs of winning and the lows of losing. You learn to be part of a team. To show up, and to belong to something bigger than yourself. You learn about sacrifice and the value of consistency. You learn that sometimes you can give it everything you have and lose anyway.
Hopefully, you learn to get back up and try again.
Research into Neighborhood Health
In looking for the ingredients that affect the physical well-being of people in different kinds of places, Dr. Felton Earls, a Harvard professor of public health, conducted an extensive, fifteen-year study in neighborhoods across Chicago.
His research found that the single most important factor differentiating levels of health from one neighborhood to the next was what he called “collective efficacy.” He was surprised to find that it wasn’t wealth, access to healthcare, crime, or some more tangible factor that topped the list. A more elusive ingredient -the capacity of people to act together on matters of common interest -made a greater difference in the health and well-being of individuals and neighborhoods [¹].
Finding Power in Imagining and Creating Together
Things are not the way they used to be. Children do not play outside and they never see their classmates outside of school. Places of worship no longer offer a sense of community. Who even goes to their local church anymore? Neighborliness is a nod as you pass each other on the stairs. As the distance between us grows, our capacity to build better futures reduces as well. No one person’s ambition can overcome structural problems or loneliness for that matter.
“The single most important factor differentiating levels of health from one neighborhood to the next was people’s capacity to act together on matters of common interest.”
More places that encourage people to gather and create would provide an opportunity to mobilize around common problems, address issues, and connect. They would also provide an arena for developing new ideas, concepts, and solutions. It is like networking but for better living conditions. One of the great comforts of getting to know new people is discovering that you are not alone. This life, has no balance… but the good news is, it is the same for everyone.
Creativity is Every Human’s Birthright
A helpful thing to do is to take the word ‘creative’ as it is used to describe a specific group of people and throw it away. Creativity is every human’s birthright. To paraphrase one of my favorite definitions – to make of the materials of the world something which was not there before. You have done that! If you can’t think of anything then I have one for you. It’s YOU. You are a unique, ongoing creation and you’re the one doing it.
Public funds should not just go to the hardware components of our society. The software matters too. And without the usual monetary incentives driving all creative pursuits, inclusion can be open to all who wish to participate. Members of the community who are often sidelined and whose voices are shouted down (the elderly, the very young, the disabled) can have a place to go too.
Safe Havens: The promise of a Place to Go and Be
An empty plot of land protected by rusty wire fences can be the most dangerous place in the hood. If the grass is tall enough it can hide anything, even muffle screams. If it is ignored for long enough it could become a drug den, a trash heap, or an unofficial graveyard. But turn that empty plot into a football field or a basketball court and it will transform into something else entirely. It becomes a forge for friendships, love stories, and unbreakable social bonds. You’ll have derby days and tourney days. You’ll always know where your daughter is because she’ll be at the weekly ball game, talking trash at the opposing team.
Many a tweep have complained that there is little recreation to be found in Nairobi that does not necessitate drinking alcohol. These tweeps will be countered by others stating that there are lots to do but it all costs money and it is seldom in your neighborhood.
The word ‘neighborhood’ is doing a lot of work in this article. Kahawa West, Pipeline, and Rongai are not neighborhoods. They are collections of overcrowded residential flats accompanied by a few shops, a supermarket, empty churches that make up for it with criminally loud speakers, and a few dozen wines & spirits outlets. They are poorly planned and built for maximum profit. Alcohol and other drugs are relatively cheap, easy to procure, and offer a temporary escape from both boredom and poverty. Crucially, you don’t have to go further than around the corner to get some.
There is a salve for this crisis of disenfranchised youth. A salve that is much easier than creating jobs (although definitely work on that). Transform the empty lots and give people something to do.
Leave Room for Surprise!
It is difficult to allocate funds towards something that does not directly put food in people’s mouths or facilitate the exchange of goods and services. The very suggestion carries with it the echo of a mob screaming that there are more important things. However, we will never know what kind of country we can be until we find avenues for rest, ingenuity, and joy.
The British were defeated half a century ago. It is time to bury their ideas, which can be found lurking in almost every aspect of our society; ideas about Africans’ capacity for imagination and innovation. The marks of inspired invention and generational genius have failed to manifest naturally, perhaps it is time to force it.