Book Examines Culture and Customs
Of Kenya to Dispel
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
"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
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
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
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
"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