material culture?

What is wealth? A 2000W stereo system? A TV + VCR set? A new car?

Today I was informed of just another Harambee somewhere in Kenya where influential Kenyans donated money and goods such as a brand-new TV set to a community project.

Material objects must always be seen in context with the humans who created and used them. It is only possible to recognize and evaluate material culture in connection with human thought and behavior. The material world depends on the immaterial one, and vice versa. Neither sphere can exist without the other.
(JARITZ, emotions and material culture, Austrian Academy of Science and Press, 2003)

Ah, ok. Sorry for being so misinformed, I forgot to appreciate the materialism as lived by many ppl around the world. Just like the pastoral people, whose wealth is measured by their cattle, today’s wealth is still measured by the goods you own and money you are able to share with others?
Just as much as I appreciate the Harambee culture, where funds are collected for an individual by a group of (wealthy) donators, I still have problems to understand WHERE all these amounts come from. Or in other words: since ppl are supposed to donate once they are rich, this obligation also works as an excuse for their accumulation of wealth? A justification for their partly corrupt business strategies?

The day I returned from Kenya, a huge supermarket for electronics opened here in GermOney and ppl where literally storming its premises. Waiting in front of that shop as early as 6 am just to strike a good deal. A new tv set, a new digital vcr, a new notebook etc…ppl consume these goods in a way they also buy their food: on an almost daily basis, as if there’s nothing else one could do with the money. The money? Oh, I thought we are having some sort of recession here, a period of time where ppl would rather stick to their hard earned cash instead of spending it on goods. Hmm…

Wealth for me is having the time to communicate with various friends around the world, reading the newspaper, enjoying a sunday afternoon at home doing nothing important and enjoying life without being forced to spend a lot of money (that I don’t have anyways, but that’s another story..). Even my old car, an ’89 Volkswagen Golf, whose “death” I’ve already considered due last summer, still runs fine and was a blessing to drive after these 3 weeks of bumpy roads in Nairobi. All that leg room compared to the small Suzuki Jimny (hey, I am 6,3) and smooth acceleration – hayyiiiiaaaa….I am truly blessed.

Which of course reminds me of those unfortunate ones who do NOT have Kshs. 3m to share with others. Oh, anyone remembers this story of an MP who accidently “lost” his bag containing Kshs. 1m on a flight? What’s the official income of a Kenyan MP again? Is that still a diet or rather a fat meal?

We keep on blaming our politicians and business tycoons for their greedy behaviour and at the same time, I think, we also forget that this accumulation of wealth has always been considered the main indicator of success and public acceptance. Corruption isn’t a Kenyan phenomenon only – it is everywhere in the world, and pointing the finger on those involved isn’t a solution. Instead, I think, it could help to rethink our values and what else there is to satisfy our short-termed desires.

A new TV set, though, won’t feed 100 hungry children in an orphanage. A donation like this one clearly indicates the insensivitivy with which many ppl tend to ignore the basic issues of the poor and how detached the donators are from the rest of the society. In their understanding, their emotional context, the item of course makes perfectly sense.

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Hi, I am an engineer who freelances in water & sanitation-related IT projects at Saniblog.org. You'll also find me on Twitter @jke and Google+.

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  1. As I read this I surely hope someone didn’t donate a T.V or something of the sort to a community project whose mission is not related to a piece of equipment? There is such a disconnect or an assumed disconnect by the “WEALTHY” people in Kenya on what constitutes a contribution in HARAMBEE especially for a worthy cause like you mentioned “an orphanage”. Do they even familiarize themselves with the cause to which they are contributing or it is another sarturday outing and publicity stunt? Sometimes one wonders whether they are giving from their heartfelt concern Anyway it is materialistic world and they syndrome of “shop, shop, shop till you drop” I guess is some sought of therapy for some people , a feel good moment and a reason to face another day. There are a lot of unhappy people around . Also, the sense of feeling important because someone owns a 102 Inc Plasma T.V . Like you said at times happiness and wealth is the simplest things in life ,like watching the sunset at my backyard , good health and reading this entry and having a good ROFL by this “Even my old car, an ‘89 Volkswagen Golf, whose “death” I’ve already considered due last summer, still runs fine and was a blessing to drive after these 3 weeks of bumpy roads in Nairobi. All that leg room compared to the small Suzuki Jimny (hey, I am 6,3) and smooth acceleration – hayyiiiiaaaa….I am truly blessed.” LOL…

  2. I’m a white American. Really through a series of chance events got interested in how the Internet provides new ways of talking across boundaries. I’ve been putting stuff up online about Africa and my interest to promote more dialogs between Americans and Africans. As a result I’ve gotten all sorts of comments about how much sensitivity to cultural context I lack. Wow, it comes from all directions.

    It’s hard to be self-aware, and if reports are good indicators, I especially lack self-awareness. I suspect I plug away more from stupidity than masochism, because I don’t really enjoy the criticism. Still, I think there’s value in persisting.

    I know your thoughts are directed at Kenyans when you write:

    “Or in other words: since ppl are supposed to donate once they are rich, this obligation also works as an excuse for their accumulation of wealth? A justification for their partly corrupt business strategies?”

    But it’s a relevant question for Westerners like me too.

    The importance of emotional context can’t be over-estimated. There are good arguments against charitable schemes that involve “child sponsorships” for example. A rather fundamental problem is the inefficiency of them. But while we might understand that a direct donation to an orphanage might have more bang for the buck, the connection to a real child through sponsorship provides emotional context.

    One aspect of emotional context is that in dialog people are opened to being changed by the contact. Other Americans point to how I operate from a presumption of white privilege. Are my efforts an attempt for me to justify my own cultural decadence? I’m not sure, but I do think there’s some value in being in being skeptical about my presumptions, and behavior.

    Is it wrong to pay attention to the relatively more advantaged when so many others suffer in life from far less than they truly need? I don’t have a quick answer, except that it seems to me important to try and make mistakes than to do nothing at all for fear of not doing just the right thing.

    I like how you tag this post: “thoughts.” I’m posting a comment not in disagreement, rather in solidarity with the notion that “thoughts” are an appropriate response to things. Who cannot be moved by all the troubles in the world today? Knowing what to do is a difficult matter. I certainly don’t have the answers, and many of the answers I come up with I’m sure aren’t quite right.

    The important part of the idea of emotional context is that the contexts are never fixed. Impersonal donations might well be the most efficient in providing aid of a material sort. The quote you proffer reminds that the material and immaterial worlds are dependent upon on each other. The motives of Western donors may be all screwed-up sometimes. It’s in real engagements with real people that the feedback can being to alter what’s screwed-up. And it’s not just what’s screwed-up vis a vis, say Americans towards Africans, but that such feedback can prove corrective about the ways we compose our lives right where we stand.

    I’m a very insecure person who always seeks approval. So, as I point out, criticism directed my way is painful. It’s good for me nonetheless, and not just to toughen my hide, As I sail through life into uncharted territories, it’s useful to have some of the shoals and obstacles marked. I may run aground anyway. But the anticipation that just over the horizon something good and wonderful will be discovered encourages me onward. So the criticisms of my naive motivations and cultural assumptions aren’t meaningless;I tentatively note them on my mental map and proceed with caution and anticipation.

    No matter where we live, all of us are passengers on this planet Earth. Ignoring others seems the greatest folly. Sure we must make judgments about where our attention gets placed. We’ll never be perfect in our judgments, but at least we must try.

  3. JKE, when i look at Waruku for example and the neighbouring Muthangari estate what do you see?

    Opulence against extreme poverty.

    I have had the mis(fortune) of spending some nights at Waruku a story for another day but i have no strength to ever go back there.

  4. @Jon: thanks for your lengtly comment, I like that!

    @Shiroh: Waruku vs. Muthangari: I guess it all comes back to Binyavanga’s “two different worlds” for Nairobians and how we manage to put them in one big picture.