Sub-Saharan Sub-Culture: Goths in Kenya

27 Jul

I recently came across a fascinating article from Think Africa Press – a really interesting source of in-depth news, opinions and current events analysis coming out of Africa – entitled “A Day in the Life of a Kenyan Goth.” Of course, as a young professional and scholar focused on East African youth development AND as a former youth who was associated with the term ‘goth’, I couldn’t resist giving it a read (Note: I use this term loosely, because my friends and I – who came to school sporting black pants, chains, spikes, black NIN and Marilyn Manson shirts, black nail polish and black makeup – never cared for the term, but were labeled with it for lack of a better one). Quite entertaining, and a nice departure from the usual op-ed on the struggles of African youth in the face of poverty, conflict and failing education systems.

gothWhile the issue itself is not specifically education-centered or an offense to human rights, I find Rowan Emslie’s piece to provide a remarkable insight into the burgeoning influence of globalization on East African youth, and worth a read and a few remarks. East Africa as a whole seems to me to be a region where pro-Western sentiments and an interest in Western culture seem to be much less frowned upon than in other locations throughout the developing world where influence of tribalism AND often conservative Islamic culture are simultaneously quite pervasive. Far from Huntington’s oft-criticized (for good reason, I think) theory of a clash of civilizations, this Western influence takes many forms that are agreed upon to be positive influences: modern medicine, democratized education systems that stray from elitist colonial education (is that influence in itself a contradiction?), and of course, Coca Cola (a saving grace on many a hot day in East Africa), to name a few. Traveling through East Africa as an American is generally quite positive (just don’t tell anyone if you happen to be Dutch), and the influence of a variety of cultures that permeate the Swahili context are omnipresent. That’s what makes Swahili culture so vibrant, so dynamic, and at least in my opinion, so fluid in a rapidly changing world, giving East Africa the ability to adapt relatively quickly to global trends and even serve as models for the continent as a whole.

This influence of Gothic culture is particularly striking to me, not only because of my personal past affiliation with this subculture, and not only because I never personally came across any examples of it in my time in East Africa (not surprising with an estimated gothic following of around 300 individuals in Kenya), but because of the association made in the article between goth culture and Al-Shabaab, the Islamist Somali militant group whose influence and ongoing campaigns of violence continue to surface in pockets throughout the region. The police officers in this story who forced David to shave his head to avoid any future confusion were clearly caught off guard by the shocking appearance of a subculture that is, in reality, perceived as a shock all over the world (though in a more conservative society like Kenya, I cannot imagine ever wearing my NIN and Marilyn Manson shirts and getting away with it…). But to associate this small movement with a terrorist organization that wreaks havoc on lives all over the Horn and East Africa is very troubling to me, despite my best attempts at maintaining a culturally sensitive position.

This limitation on youth subcultures and alternative youth expression is a huge impediment to the process of self-discovery that youth undergo all around the world. The influence of Western cultures and alternative modes of expression are simply another avenue that youth may explore when riddled with confusion, struggles with identity formation, and the typical angst bubbling up in any teenager. The lack of such alternatives leave youth with few options to constructively formulate their own sense of self, and limited options are precisely what drive scores of African youth and youth all over the world alike to align themselves with gangs, extremist movements and armed groups like Al-Shabaab every year. For the Kenyan police to place limitations on this or any mode of youth engagement with alternative cultures leaves teens trapped in their feelings of isolation and confusion that go hand-in-hand with adolescence, leaving youth with no outlet for the highly tumultuous and volatile inner-turmoil that all humans experience.

What I believe this ultimately comes down to is a global fear of foreign influence, of the impacts and effects of globalization, and even more, of new trends that are often difficult to understand. When goth culture began permeating Western societies (like punk culture, hippy culture, mod culture, hip hop culture – the list goes on…), it was certainly not met with open arms. That is what makes subcultures subcultures. My point is, while I am not claiming that what worked for me will work for everyone, I can say that my ability to express my own identity crisis as a teen through weird dark colored outfits and some nail polish that allowed me to transcend concrete gender categories, I feel, benefited me in the long run. It enabled me to gain a firm and healthy understanding of what it feels like to be viewed as different. It enabled me to gain a sense that I was a unique individual and I could express myself however I so choose throughout life, and that I could choose my own path and still thrive in my environment. Ultimately, dressing like an ‘outsider’ or a ‘freak’ taught me how to think for myself.

That experience fueled my ability to travel through my young adulthood on a path unlike most people around me, and I feel I have become a better human being because of it. I think back to the lack of understanding with which my clothes and music taste were met, and had I let those forces prevent me from expressing myself in the way I saw appropriate, I likely would have taken a remarkably different path, choosing drugs and degenerate behavior over college, community service, volunteering overseas, graduate school and ultimately (job pending) a career assisting vulnerable populations who the world seems to scorn for being different – whether that difference is a stigmatized HIV infection, status as a refugee, or recovery from servitude as a child soldier. When a new phenomenon comes about in a culture, I think it is crucial for people to try to understand the true intentions behind the movement rather than shunning it simply because it is unfamiliar.

I do recognize that many of my ‘goth’ friends took a much less savory path in their own lives, and I also recognize that American and Western cultures as a whole tend to be a bit more accepting of alternative lifestyles. I recall working with a man in Tanzania who preferred to style his hair in cornrows, but wore a hat whenever going out into the village or into town to avoid being viewed as alien to the society that raised him. But I do feel strongly that these explorations of alternative modes of identity formation and expression should be accepted, so long as they are not impeding on the health and well-being of youth and those around them. Taking away the ability for a teenager to express his or herself, whether it’s through tearing all their band posters off their bedroom wall or forcing them to shave their head because their hair looks different, can have disastrous effects. I am interested to see where this movement goes in Kenya, and interested to look further into other modes of expression being pursued in the region.

Comments and experiences, as always, are welcome.

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