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Book Examines Culture and Customs
Of Kenya to Dispel Stereotypes

Posted July 1, 2003

HOLLAND -- Through his newly-published book "Culture and Customs of Kenya," Dr. Neal Sobania of the Hope College faculty hopes to help readers see beyond stereotypes and discover the African nation that he has studied for nearly three decades.

Kenya, he notes, is much more than the popularized land of safaris and red-clad, spear-carrying Maasai warriors -- a traditional image that he recognizes is even promoted by the country's significant tourism industry. He also stresses that Kenya shouldn't be pigeon-holed based on incidents of terrorist activity. The reality of the nation, he said, is much more complex, with traditions and international and contemporary influences presenting a rich blend.

"Kenya is a crossroads where peoples and cultures from Africa, the Middle East and East Asia have been meeting for hundreds of years," said Sobania, who is a professor of history and director of international education at Hope. "As a result, it is a land rich in cultural and ethnic diversity, with unique and dynamic cultural traditions."

His book is intended for a general audience, including college undergraduates and upper-level high school students, as well as anyone else interested in learning more about or considering studying in or traveling to this east African nation.

Chapters focus on religion and worldview; literature, film and media; art, architecture and housing; cuisine and traditional dress; gender roles, marriage and family; social customs and lifestyle; and music and dance. The book also includes a historical chronology, and an extensive bibliography for readers interested in learning more.

Sobania cited marriage customs as one way that old and new mix. In traditional practice, he said, an intermediary might bring together two households, for the fathers to agree on the marriage of a son to the other's daughter. The groom's family would bring gifts for the introductory meeting, but the potential bride and groom would have little to say in the matter.

Today, he said, the young couple is likely to meet and fall in love in the city, but may still return to the family farm for a variation on the ceremony as a way for the in-laws to get acquainted. When the groom's party arrives asking for the young lady the son is interested in marrying, the bride's family might parade various female family members before the group one at a time, asking if this is the "one" they think their son is interested in marrying. Everyone from little girls to grandmothers and aunts may come out with the same question being asked: is this the one? He noted that it's all done in fun, and only after everyone has been having a good time will the prospective bride appear.

Today, the gifts for the occasion will more typically consist of cases of Coca-Cola and orange Fanta, with the bride's family demanding a "usage fee" for a bottle opener if the groom's family forgot one, or complaining if the bottles are too dusty and then asking "rent" for the use of a cloth to wipe them off.

"The whole thing is done in a very light-hearted, humorous way," Sobania said. "It's sort of an exaggerated rehearsal dinner--like in this country where the families may not have met yet."

"The purpose, however, hasn't changed," he said. "A bride and a groom getting married is all about an alliance being established between families, and to do this they first need to know each other."

Sobania first visited Kenya in 1974, while conducting field research for his doctoral dissertation, and has returned several time in the years since. He has even been able to conduct research on campus, prevailing upon Hope students from Kenya to help him better understand the culture of today.

He has through the decades written numerous publications based on his research, on both Kenya and neighboring Ethiopia, geared toward a limited, academic audience. For the past 10 years, he has emphasized work with a more general readership in mind, hoping in doing so to honor and thank those he has studied.

In 2002, for example, he co-curated the Smithsonian exhibition "From Monastery to Marketplace: Tradition Inspires Modern Ethiopian Painting," which ran for a year in the African Voices Focus Gallery of the National Museum of Natural History. With Dr. Raymond A. Silverman of the art history faculty at Michigan State University, he co- directed the video "The Parchment Makers: An Ancient Art in Present-Day Ethiopia." He and Silverman have also collaborated on exhibitions of Ethiopian art, and are currently working on a book about Ethiopian church painting and traditions.

"When you conduct field work, you always feel like you're taking from the country or the people," Sobania said. "I see this as a way to give something back, to communicate what I have learned to a broader audience."

"Culture and Customs of Kenya" was published at the end of June by Greenwood Publishing Group of Connecticut. The illustrated, hardcover book runs 296 pages, and costs $45. It is available at the college's Hope-Geneva Bookstore, located on the lower level of the DeWitt Center.

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