[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 9 January 2006, 17:14 GMT
Respect is deep rooted in Kenya
By Karen Allen
BBC East Africa correspondent, Kenya

Kenyan child in drought
The family retains its traditional importance despite poverty

To strangers Kenya is often portrayed as a lawless, corrupt and corrosive country, where crime is rife in the capital Nairobi, and Machiavelian politicians cynically milk their electorate for votes simply to feather their own nests, rather than for some wider common good.

Some of that is of course true, and there is a lot of misplaced respect for those in positions of power.

However, scratch beneath the surface and you'll find a society where respect is all around.

It's deeply rooted in African history and the clan system, where the good of the community takes precedence over individual desires.

Respectful blessings

Sadly, the erosion of some of these traditions is unquestionably the result of imported Western culture, but the roots are still there.

During a recent visit to Amoseli national park, I got a glimpse of this traditional sense of "respect".

I was invited to take tea with the district Masai chief.

As each of his eight children entered the compound, they lowered their heads so that myself and all the other adults present could touch their heads and bless them.

This was not about being a white person in Africa and therefore being afforded a degree of privilege.

It was about being an adult and it was a beautiful gesture.

I later learnt that this is standard conduct in all Masai homes.

It touched me deeply as a humbling and precious introduction to Kenyan life.

People here are respected for what they have been able to achieve, mainly for their own families, not through education or riches but through human endeavour

In the car journey back to Nairobi I mused how back home in the UK, I've been to friends' homes on many an occasions, and a grumpy teenager has slouched past, without even snorting a greeting.

I'm not offended - but the contrast is startling.

Respect in Kenya penetrates much more deeply than just respect for elders.

Among the middle classes in the urban areas like many other parts of the world, respect is associated with material possessions, wealth, influence and power.

Therefore icons such as Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates and David Beckham have global currency, and the car you drive, determines your position in society.

Football in particular commands a great deal of respect.

When I tell people that my home in London is within eyesight of the Arsenal stadium - they want to shake my hand (unless of course they are Manchester United supporters).

Moral respect

But what about respect among those who have few material possessions and whose daily life revolves around getting enough to eat, and getting home before dark when Nairobi's streets become unsafe?

A missionary whose worked in East Africa for more than 45 years showed me what respect means in the slums of Korogocho - Nairobi's second largest slum.

People here are respected for what they have been able to achieve, mainly for their own families, not through education or riches but through human endeavour.

Many of the health workers are greatly respected in Korogocho.

They're respected yet many of them are illiterate, and they've risen to positions of leadership because of their sense of social responsibility and individual dynamism.

It's a moral respect rather than a respect based on wealth and commodities, and it is very visible everywhere.

Its foundations date back to the clan system where nobody starved to death and nobody was an orphan - everybody looked after each other.

Without doubt religion underpins much of East Africa's sense of respect.

It is not necessarily organised religion, although church attendances in Kenya run at around 90%, and visiting Evangelists attract enormous crowds.

It is religion in the sense of one's place in the world - that individuals are simply links in a chain, and that tomorrow you could lose your job or you could contract Aids, so you're acutely aware of being judged by the life you lead.


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific