Branding is important. This is why Madison Avenue (the global center of the advertising industry in New York City) is a center of influence and of wealth. This is why the hosting television network charges millions of dollars for a thirty second commercial during the Super Bowl (the championship game of professional american football). A cowboy in America’s Old West — or a Maasai olchekut even today — could identify the owner of the herd with a mere at a glance at a cow’s branding mark.
(Note: the Maa word olchekut is usually translated as “shepherd” but is used of cowherds and goatherds as well.)
Branding can work for weal or for woe. If a Maasai teen-aged boy so much as flinches when he is circumcised, he is branded as a coward for the rest of his life. In the 1985 film Back to the Future, George McFly suffered the effects his whole life of having been branded as a weakling as a youth, until his son Marty altered the present by changing the past. Currently nearly half of Americans are horrified at the prospect of their country being branded as “Trump Nation.” Yet nearly half of Americans were terrified at the possibility of their country being branded by the “progressivism” of another Clinton presidential administration. Branding matters.
Countries in Africa (including Kenya) are often branded as backwards, undeveloped, and primitive. This is often done by NGOs and even by missions agencies as they are seeking financial support for various developmental projects. Sadly, this branding often first creates and then perpetuates a cycle of dependency. But this is often done by comparing the poorest of those in the slums with those comfortably middle-class (economically speaking) from suburbs and cities in the West.
Many of you have seen pictures of endemic poverty in African slums in Nairobi (Kenya), Lagos (Nigeria), or Johannesburg (South Africa) and been told “this is Africa.” Others have seen the perpetual corruption and impunity of dictators like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and been told “this is Africa.” Those of you at least our age remember the popular song “We Are the World” and pictures of emaciated Ethiopian children with the swollen bellies of starvation and think “this is Africa.” Still others hear “Africa” and think only of stories of genocide (e.g., Rwanda in 1994), perpetual civil wars (e.g., Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC; formerly called Zaïre), Boko Haram’s atrocities against christians (mostly in Nigeria), social unrest and violent atrocities after a contested election (e.g., here in Kenya after the December 2007 election), or even just of “zoo animals.”
But how many Americans would like the USA to be characterized, branded, only by images of Old West gunfighters, or urban rioters, or the terrible morals in so many Hollywood movies, or the ostentatious conspicuous consumption of wealthy celebrities, or the gruesome practices of abortionist Kermit Gosnell, or by the divisiveness of “the other side” during the 2016 elections? Most Americans would protest, “that is not my America.” And so for those of you who do not live in Africa, we invite you to take a second look with new eyes at the various countries of this continent.
It is as important to celebrate glorious success as it is to bring needs to light. So when we host visitors here in Kenya, we want them to see the rich texture and vibrancy of Kenyan life. We’ll visit a church in the Kibera slum, talk with successful Nairobi entrepreneurs and artisans, swing by a world-class Nairobi shopping mall, sit with small-town church members in their large stone church building, and drink tea in a remotely rural Maasai hut.
Here is one example of positive branding for Kenya. It’s a music video / commercial for Safaricom, the largest telecom and micro-finance service provider in East Africa. It is a celebration of Kenyan life, culture, and people. Like the best advertising, it is not pushing a product so much as celebrating a vision for life. I invite you to watch and listen to this short video (less than two minutes). The lyrics (in kiSwahili) and translation (in English) follow below. This is the Kenya we know and love. These are the Kenyans with whom we partner. Yes, there is still need, which this branding doesn’t depict. But in this season of America’s Thanksgiving, celebrate with us the greatness of Kenya’s people.