Oral culture has blocked wealth creation

Former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication, Bitange Ndemo. Photo/FILE
Former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication, Bitange Ndemo. Photo/FILE 

Steve Jobs said “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life”.

Our future therefore can only be predicted by connecting dots backwards and having trust in something. Dots of oral traditions and oral lore. My gut feeling tells me that our oral past is affecting our economic progress and if we want a wealthy future we must build trust in something - ourselves.

Wikipedia defines oral tradition and oral lore as cultural material and tradition transmitted from one generation to another orally. The messages or testimony are verbally transmitted in speech or song and may take the form, for example, of folktales, sayings, ballads, songs, or chants.

In this way, it is possible for a society to transmit oral history, oral literature, oral law and other knowledge across generations without a writing system. Research tells us that culture can be very important in shaping some fundamental aspects of the human mind.

Shinobu Kitayama, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan for example, demonstrates that culture can influence what appears to be a very deep part the human mind, something that happens automatically and continuously. Unfortunately, African cultures have been distorted beginning from the colonial era to the present. We have never delinked from our oral past to present day print and electronic. There is no repository of our cultures.


What we have is a hodgepodge of cultures that lead to nothing but total confusion and a hindrance to economic progress. Our moral code even within the religious circles is inconsistent with the level of trust we need to propel ourselves from economic abyss.

It is worth noting that reformation of the Western world starting with Germany is explained in terms of theology. Specifically the works of Martin Luther, John Calvin in the creation of the Protestant Ethic in early 16th century when majority of the people were illiterate and relied on oral traditions.

In The Puritan Gift, the Hopper brothers attribute much of economic progress in the western world since the 16th century to the Protestant Ethic and the Puritan movement in Britain. These codes of ethics were transmitted to the United States by immigrants and later to Japan (which had to subscribe to it as a basis of trading with USA after World War II). The trust virtue was established and propelled commerce between the two countries leading to the eventual economic progress.

In the modern world, the saying “Get it in writing”, warns us, implying that this is the only real and binding form of communication or contract. Cultures that have moved on from oral past, separate folklore and oral tradition from the facts that we put into writing. But the cost of not getting it in writing continue to bile up on us.

From our art to music folklore, we have not only been unable to protect our intellectual capital but refused to put it in writing.

The Japanese by simple process innovation, patented the kiondo, something our people have made for centuries. Nyatiti today is played better by foreigners and will not take long before they make and patent an electronic one.

Elvis Presley shot to fame by recreating African American music from the slavery period simply because there were no records as to who composed the music. Michael Jackson tussled with West Africa on some of the African beats in his music but there was no proof that Africans had the beats patented or written anywhere. I will not be surprised if mugithi reappears in new forms somewhere outside of Kenya.

As I write, virtually all Africans do not use any culinary recipe to cook. Yet lack of recipes contributes to about 10 per cent of food waste in countries that are food insecure. Further, some lifestyle diseases such as hypertension are on the rise and could be as a result of lack of recipe. African restaurants fail due to lack of consistency and product development.

Wealth and subsequent economic development comes from knowledge – the intellectual property – that God gave us. Available print and electronic repository technologies offer us a great opportunity to develop our past and present content for posterity and wealth creation.
The author is a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication and a senior lecturer at University of Nairobi.