Politics and policy
Policymakers grapple with cultural shocks as East Africa focuses on social integration
Posted Wednesday, February 8 2012 at 18:22
Although they maintain that unity in diversity is the utmost goal, government officials say a degree of social convergence was necessary to cement economic stages of integration. “The cultural and social aspects of the integration may not have received as much prominence as economic and political aspect but they are recognised by the EAC treaty as central theme,” says Mrs Agnes Sila, director of social affairs at Kenya’s EAC ministry.
She cites the recently launched Swahili Commission and cultural festivals featuring music and sports as some of the progress on the social and cultural front. “We are holding our meeting in Arusha this week to come up with calendar for integrating the remaining aspects of our cultures,” she told the Business Daily.
By creating cultural harmony, policymakers hope to build trust among hundreds of ethnic communities, economic and political players involved in the regional integration.
On their own, governments usually have nothing to sell and can therefore not be the source of numerous non-tariff barriers that are troubling the region. In most cases, it is the private sector, which uses politicians to erect trade barriers against perceived rivals, creating multiple barriers in the region.
Other countries have taken the cue. Three years since it committed its country to regional integration, the Government of Rwanda says it is going back to its citizens to gauge their feelings about a process that will radically alter their social, cultural and economic orientation.
“We have launched a perception survey to find out what our citizens think of what we are doing,” George Kayonga, Rwanda’s East African Community PS said in Nairobi last week.
The country – seen as a front runner in the reforms towards setting up a regional market economy – says the survey will guide its future plans. If the survey reveals negative attitude, it will form ground for an aggressive campaign to educate its people on integration.
Otherwise, the tiniest EAC member by geographical size, intends to entrench EAC agenda in its development plans, starting by mainstreaming it in the country’s medium-term development plans and finally, in its Vision 2020, Mr Kayonga said.
While membership to EAC was initially associated with market expansion and wider political space (envisaged federation), it is the disruptive social and cultural changes evolving out of increased interaction with neighbours that states ought to have prepared their citizens for. Rwanda, a french-speaking nation (francophone) , has lately been recruiting a growing number of teachers of English from Kenya in one of the signals that the country will have a radically different cultural outlook in the coming few years.
The neighbouring Burundi, another francophone member of the EAC bloc, also faces the same dilemma. Probably due to language barrier, just a handful of the citizens are bothered about regional integration.
“Few of our people initially followed what was going on until we started sensitising them to create hope,” said Mr Jeremy Ndayiziga, director general in charge of political and diplomatic affairs at Burundi’s EAC ministry.
“We have started an interesting programme of training in English as part of confidence building,” said Mr Ndayiziga.
Among the founding members of the EAC, Ugandan citizens are increasingly under pressure to learn some Swahili to trade with Tanzanians and Kenyans. Kenyans who have set up shops deep in the Ugandan towns of Kampala and Jinja have also been forced to spruce up their English, which ordinary Ugandans use to communicate with foreigners.
For policymakers in Kenya, the tales of communities such as Maasai and Teso who are also found in Tanzania and Uganda respectively inspire hope that cross-border cultural integration will be easier.
On the ground, however, traders from Uganda who sell mainly maize and horticultural produce at borders points such as Busia and Malaba have discovered that Swahili is the second most important tool of trade after money.
Policymakers cite such regional traits that are evolving naturally out of cultural diffusion as evidence of the ongoing social integration.
For Kenya, where the Constitution places public participation at the heart of everything that the government does, the citizens may still demand a say in social integration.