What is Killing African Art?

tAfter living in the United States for the past 8 years, I recently returned home to Nairobi, Kenya, my birthplace and where I grew up. I love this country and I love Nairobi. In fact, I love it even more so now that I’ve seen the ‘other side’ and lived in the western world for some time. So, coming home has been an exhilarating experience. What’s more, is after being away for so long, it sometimes feels like I’m experiencing my country for the very first time, and it is so exciting.

Though I must admit, it hasn’t been easy. I’m learning slowly. And though I consider myself fully and wholeheartedly Kenyan (whatever that means) — I do sometimes feel like a foreigner in my own country. Sometimes this makes me insecure, but other times, it makes life so much more interesting.

Of late, I’m slowly realizing the various ways that my time away has changed me. It’s as if my experience abroad has given me the ability to see my country differently. And now, for the first time in my life, I am experiencing Kenya without bias or partiality and seeing the Kenyan people for who they actually are. It’s extremely enlightening.

In doing this, I’ve noticed some things. Things that weren’t obvious to me before; certain behaviors and traits of Kenyan people that I see as crippling to us as a country and a community. Lately, I’ve been questioning where these ugly habits and behaviors come from, and I believe that they are a result of a much deeper and detrimental mindset that is common to Kenyans and Africans alike; The Scarcity Mentality.

Many people are unaware of what the scarcity mentality is. So, I will explain with a recent experience.

When I tell people that I’ve decided to come back to Kenya for good, they are often surprised. They act like I’ve made a mistake, like staying in the United States was obviously a better decision. But what I realize is that, in their minds, the United States is the ‘land of opportunity’, where talent is allowed to thrive and where anyone is more likely to be successful. Kenya, on the other hand, has no real opportunities and it is very hard to ‘make it’ in Nairobi. It’s from this outlook that they pity my decision.

The crazy thing is until I came home, I believed the exact same thing; it was what was always communicated to me. It was so deeply engraved in my subconscious that “There is just no real opportunity in Kenya”.

This is what the scarcity mentality is. It is believing in lack and poverty; believing that there is just not ‘enough’.

For me, this is the one thing that Americans and people of the western world have over Africans in general. That is, they truly and patriotically believe in abundance. In America, they believe you can be, do and have anything you want. They believe that there is ‘enough’ of everything for everyone and opportunity will never run out. Americans have been taught to believe in abundance.

The opposite goes for countries like Kenya. Here, perhaps because of our past, we are so stuck in believing that there is not ‘enough’. There is not ‘enough’ opportunity, there is not ‘enough’ money, or food, or anything. And this is so reflective in our actions.

We drive like there is not ‘enough’ space on the road for other motorists. We interact with strangers like they are trying to take something from us. We even get afraid to share things; I know entrepreneurs who are scared to share their business ideas because they fear they will be stolen, and there are not ‘enough’ ideas to go around. What does that say about our business environment?

We have politicians and civil servants that steal government money that is meant to better their own people. We have policemen who are willing to take bribes (Kitu kidogo) instead of enforcing the law. We have corrupt systems where Kenyans are willing to cheat and steal from each other to get ahead — again because there’s just not ‘enough’ for all of us.

It’s sad.

The other day I stood before some of Kenya’s aspiring artists, poets, actors, singers, writers etc. We spoke about the country’s education system. They felt like Kenya’s schooling system doesn’t sufficiently support its more artistically gifted students. To an extent, that may be true. There are artists in foreign countries who have been nurtured and supported from very early ages to become what they are today. But the same cannot be said for Kenyans. Here, we are supposed to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, and businessmen. Not artists. “You’ll never make any money doing that”.

Why? Again, because we believe there is just not ‘enough’ opportunity to be successful as an artist in Kenya.

But what if we could enlighten ourselves to a new possibility.

What if the belief that “there is not enough opportunity in Kenya” is just the story we have chosen to tell ourselves, and not necessarily the reality?

The truth is there are struggling artists in Hollywood California, at the artistic capital of the world, who also believe that there is no opportunity for them. In fact, whilst I was in the United States, I met artists who had chosen to stop performing because they said it was “too hard to make it” there. So, if they can’t make it in America, what chance do we have as Kenyans living in the “land of No Opportunity”?

We should probably just quit now. Right?

But what I’ve come to realize, is that opportunity is in the eye of the beholder. The opportunities we see are a product of the lens we choose to see the world through. If you view the world with a mindset of scarcity, you will never have enough of anything. But if you choose to view the world through a lens of abundance, then you will instantly change your circumstance.

So, as I stood before all these artists of Nairobi, I tried to challenge their thinking. I told them that during my travels, I began to see the world differently. I realized that we, as artists of Kenya, have a unique voice. A voice that the world has never heard before and a voice that they are willing to listen to. Given that, we have two choices; we can either embrace that opportunity, using our voices to pioneer an art culture that the world can fall in love with, or, we can bury our talents, and choose to believe that there are just not ‘enough’ opportunities in Kenya. Either way, we will choose scarcity or abundance. The choice has always been our own.

3 Replies to “What is Killing African Art?”

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