Friday, December 18, 2009

Oreo Cookies and the African Disposition

*Alanna and I have got under a month left here on planet Normal Life, so I figured it was about time I showed my e-face on what has been up to this point a single-user (though lovely) weblog. As Alanna has been doing a great job of writing about things that actually exist (i.e. real information, facts, maps and graphs and numbers etc.) I've figured it's up to me to write about things that don't exist (i.e. half-baked theories, things that may well be very incorrect, etc). So here goes:

Early in our Africa-related internet-perusals Alanna and I came across this video of a man conducting Kiswahili lessons via youtube:

Basically, it's a man standing in the middle of his wife's kitchen, plucking up objects seemingly at random and naming them in Kiswahili – the catch being that the majority of the objects in his kitchen he proclaims as having "no Swahili word." He also complains about his kids leaving globes everywhere ("what are these things doing here, in the cooking place?"), and at the end pulls out a giant yellow sign to plug his travel website, which he calls "Kenya's official website."

Anyways, Alanna and I found the video pretty funny. I've tried describing it to a few people but it doesn't really translate, so to speak. But in doing so I got to thinking about why exactly I found it funny, and got to worrying that the humour I saw in the video comes from a place of condescension or even benign racism. Alanna and I talked about it and I decided that this isn't true, because for the same reasons I find Mr. Mutooni to be funny, I also find him to be awesome. He's awesome in a way that (to generalize and over-simplify) I've noticed many Africans to be, and in a way that as a Canadian I find enviable.

For me, the humour in the video stems from its amateurishness, and Mr. Mutooni's lackadaisical attitude towards presenting himself on video: he is somewhat unprepared, the kitchen is cluttered, and the camera-person (I'm assuming his wife) endlessly fidgets with the camera (and whispers "peanut butter" when Mr. Mutooni can't remember the name of the jar he's holding – hilarious!). And you'd think that, when conducting a Kiswahili language lesson about kitchen objects, one would make sure the objects that one picked up would, y'know, actually have Kiswahili names.

But that's what makes him so great! If it were a typical North American conducting a similar lesson, he would have adopted a phony on-camera persona, maybe cleaned up, rehearsed, and basically tried to make himself seem cooler, and therefore different, from the person he actually is. And through one of the great Paradoxes of Youtube, the video would have been dull, not to mention I wouldn't have remembered a single new word (as I did with Mr. Mutooni's video: kisu! Knife!).

Though Mr. Mutooni is not typical: perusing his other videos we learn he's a smart, opinionated man who is obviously passionate about his culture, language, and the promotion of Africa and Kenya as tourist destinations (though I'm pretty sure he lives in New Jersey, I'm not sure what is up with that). And it is Mr. Mutooni's lack of need to put up any fronts, to depict anything to the world other than his true self, which I find admirable. Lately there has been a focus in North American culture on personal branding, and in the most superficial of meanings, what with Twitter and iPhone and all the requisites. Yet I seem to find such great examples of people of the African Continent being so comfortable and confident in their own identity, regardless of how others may see them. And it is funny, a lot of the time: dudes doing quasi-traditional dance in front of a giant suburban hedge to a Soulja Boy parody, for example. But it is also fantastic, because there's no whispers of 'trying too hard', or being 'ironic' – it's just untainted pride and fun, which I feel is tougher to achieve in this 'western' world of ours.

Not to mention it's strangely comforting, being Kenya-bound myself, knowing that out of an entire kitchen, the Swahili only have words for about six things. If I've got a hankering for broccoli, all I'll need to say is "broccoli," and that is a huge load off my shoulders.


Alanna said...

What do you mean Campbells chicken noodle soup has no Swahili word? What kind of a language is this?!

Mr Mutooni said...

Congratulations for your opinion.I try to make good out of what i have. Your right our kitchen is not kept to the very best. Remember our house is more of African house than American.
My Kiswahili is basic 101 Kiswahili. its like teaching Bilogy subject to second graders.
I love Kenya and Africa as a whole. Infact the day i became USA citizen i cried, not because of a dreeam of being a USA citizen but because i felt that i was betraying my Kenyan people.

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