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‘Hustler nation’: A Kenyan cultural crisis? 

Jomo Kenyatta’s ‘Harambee’ movement in 1963 sought to unite the then newly formed Kenyan Republic, assembling from smouldering ashes a sense of cooperation and kinship. Through the implementation of collective fundraising efforts, it cultivated a solidarity amongst the divided tribes – fostering a Kenyan identity built on fraternity and mutual achievement. A concept derived from the African cultural tendency to favour one’s community over oneself, culminating in the ancient African philosophy, Ubuntu – taken from a Bantu word meaning the act of showing ‘humanity to others’. 

The practice of ‘Ubuntu’ is a commonality shared throughout Africa. Despite the rich diversity within the continent there lies a joint understanding in the importance of a common humanity. A common humanity communicated by means of the most subtle gestures, like sharing crops with one’s neighbours or welcoming a stranger with a steaming hot cup of tea. This is certainly what I am told is the norm in my mother’s place of origin. As a begrudging child, learning to share my toys, my mother would enlighten me with the same knowledge bestowed upon her by her mother. That it is of the most importance to share everything and anything all the time, regardless of how much one has – using the example of splitting a grasshopper’s head to share amongst friends. 

However, recently it seems as if Kenyan attitudes to the collective have changed. The incumbent President, William Ruto, has introduced the Western concept of ‘hustler culture’, akin to that which can be found in TikTok rabbit-holes and on the profiles of Instagram ‘micro-influencers’. As one Gerard Irick of the Urban Dictionary rightly puts it, aspiring to be “someone who uses their skill, talents, or instincts to make a quick buck”. This is epitomised in the characterisation of his political party, the United Democratic Alliance, which communicates the slogan “Kazi Ni Kazi” or “A job is a job; All hustles matter”. 

A self-proclaimed hustler, Ruto’s rise to fame saw a ‘rags to riches’ transformation in which he rose from his position selling chickens at the roadside to his ascension to the Presidency. He claims that this course of action allows the greatest way to rejuvenate young Kenyans, inspiring a generation to work hard to achieve their aspirations and likening his belief to the famed ‘American Dream.’ 

This connection with the West extends closer to home. Ruto’s apparent doctrine of ‘grafting’ as hard as one can poses an interesting synergy with the rhetoric of Thatcher’s neoliberal economic policy and dissident approach to society. She even claimed the latter not to exist, stating: “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” Maintaining the primary objective of ensuring one’s own (nuclear) family the support they desire over the needs of the collective, a distinct contrast to Ubuntu

Thus, it must be considered to what extent Ruto’s proclaimed desire to build Kenya into a ‘hustler nation’ symbolises an implicit preference to favour the individual and his family’s personal goals over the betterment, or building, of society. More importantly, if – by extension – an adoption of Western ‘individualist’ doctrines has impeded on the preservation of Kenyan (and, consequently, African) cultural habits. In the wake of sowing the seeds of hustler culture to nourish the individual, Ruto is forgetting about the most intrinsic aspects of Kenyan society – considering your neighbours, and their circumstances, over your own. A belief so integral to the country’s development and legacy that the mere word ‘Harambee’, used by Kenyatta in his campaign of the same name, is adorned on the country’s insignia. The physical manifestation of a Kenyan’s commitment to their community, one which is not to be taken lightly. 

This ‘grindset’ of individual satisfaction undeniably seems to be an accepted ideal for several Kenyans. Glances at the ‘Kenyan side’ of Facebook, at least, convey this blatantly. The lifestyle of the ‘hustler’ provides a newfound motivation for my cousins, too, who report these ambitions online, littering their social media accounts with pictures of material goods they so desire to attain – the newest sports cars and flashy clothing decked out in luxury brand names. A drastic change in behaviour. No longer does my mother hear stories of community ‘get-togethers,’ neighbourly friendships or joint efforts. These, once normalised, events are exceedingly rare, replaced with high-rise fencing, dividing adjacent plots of land and the people inhabiting them. It seems as if the community-central attitude of Ubuntu ceases to exist. 

This begs the question, what is the drive behind this cultural shift? Why is Ruto so set on proposing an agenda of self-betterment? I would suggest that Ruto’s hustler ideology emphasises a greater yearning to replicate his Western counterparts.

It is undeniable that the president’s intentions lie in his belief that fostering a ‘hustler nation’ would provoke somewhat of a ‘modernisation’ of the country – perhaps allowing for a growth in industry or through diversifying the market. Yet, it seems to me that Ruto is attempting to emulate a foreign culture. A culture of independence, of caring purely for one’s own and, therefore, the very antithesis of the African tradition of Ubuntu

Why does an attempt to modernise Kenya have to follow a Western blueprint, especially when it risks losing the rich heritage being replaced? 

Thus, the problem with this momentous change in perspective is that there is a very potent possibility of losing one’s Kenyan identity. Ruto’s ‘hustler’ movement – or, rather, his desire to imitate the rhetoric of the West – signals an imminently emerging catastrophe. One which makes itself abundantly clear. Post-colonial Africa no longer has an identity of its own. The precariously teetering balance between a need to refashion our image on a global scale and the desire to preserve the practices previously denied to us has brought about an immense cultural crisis. A climate where the ideologies of the West seem to, continuously, trample on the beliefs of our ancestors. It is this balance Ruto must aim to strike, ensuring that his opinions do not insult the legacy left behind by those who fought (and died) for Kenya’s status as a Republic. 

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