Jane Kariuki was my good neighbour in Nairobi, Kenya, in the1980s. We lived in a block of flats near the city centre; the building had earlier been used as accommodation for senior British civil servants, and it had then been taken over by members of the Kenyatta family, Kenya’s first family even today. When I had lived in the block for some years, which housed tenants from many countries as well as locals, the owners decided that it was time to renovate and expand the property. The house rent had been very reasonable since it was regulated by old Rent Tribunal rules and could not be increased above a certain amount unless the owner made major improvements in the property. Hence, the owner decided to do that.
All tenants had to look for alternative accommodation for the time of renovation or permanently. We realised that we would have to pay several times what we used to pay. To avoid too high house rent, I suggested to my neighbour Jane, who was a senior executive in a private sector company, that maybe we should move to the nearby town of Limuru, some 30-40 minutes up the hill on the highway in a particularly picturesque area. No, not at all, Jane immediately replied. She was not going to live with all those Kikuyu people, well, in spite of she being from the same ethnic group herself on the other side of town, or maybe precisely therefore. I was puzzled about Jane’s categorical stand that time, and I have reflected on it from time to time later.
People like to be with their own kind, or so we say. Jane had also realised that she liked to live in a more diverse community. In Kenya’s capital city, she had become used to living with all the land’s 4-5 major ethnic groups, and other smaller groups, plus refugees and others from other African countries, plus foreigners from further afield. During the colonial time, Kenya received a large number of settlers from Europe, mainly the UK, and there are also large communities of Asians, mainly from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Nairobi houses the world headquarters of two UN organisations, and it is in many ways ’Africa’s capital’, with a thriving private sector. It is a melting pot and cosmopolitan city – and the climate is close to ideal.
Jane felt that to move to Limuru would be moving back in history to a homogeneous culture without diversity, dominated by one ethnic group, the Kikuyu. People would perhaps be as modern and up-to-date in a small town as in the big city, but still, they would be less diverse in everyday life. Jane was not going for that anymore.
On that point, let me recall that when I grew up on Norway’s west coast, south of Bergen, Norway’s second city, and in the city itself, it was not in the city that I saw the greatest diversity. It was in the smaller town further south, where we associated with people from many parts of the country (but not from Pakistan and elsewhere since this was before the immigration wave). Some people had come from other parts of the country because of earlier government policies of giving very cheap agricultural land to settlers to cultivate. I remember that there was a Danish family in the neighbourhood, two brothers had come from Sweden and had established a mechanical workshop and a leather factory. There were many from the city of Bergen, especially women having married locals. And then there were people who had migrated to industrial towns and elsewhere to find work, but they would come back during holidays.
All this made the small town look and feel divers, probably not quite unlike small towns in Pakistan. The city had less of that, at least in everyday life; people associated with their own kind, decided by class, profession, religious denomination, and other dividers; and this was even in the otherwise quite international and outward-looking city of Bergen, made up of traders, sailors, ship owners, some from Germany, Denmark and elsewhere, who had arrived a few hundred years ago. But this was ‘big diversity’, not ‘small diversity’, which we could feel in the local neighbourhood.
Over time, maybe when Bergen had grown from a big town to a small city, it had become more inward-looking and self-serving, with less need for borrowing thoughts and ideas from people from elsewhere. It could be added, too, that the proudest Norwegians are said to be the Bergeners, and perhaps that happened as a defence mechanism because the city dwellers wanted to remain prominent, even above others. Over time, the capital of Oslo has become far more dominant. Some of this has since the late 1960s been adjusted by the oil boom, which has affected positively West Norway. That golden age is now flattening out, and change will again occur. The innovative people of the coast have realised that the off-shore and deep sea resources are more than fish and oil. Norway’s two main political parties, the Labour Party and the Conservatives, both stress this, the latter also at last weekend’s annual conference. To be innovative, they need not only good local and indigenous ideas and experience, but also international and foreign ideas, experience, and labour. And they need theories, knowledge and experimentation.
In all this, immigrants are a resource; they may come from within the land, from north and south, east and west of Norway, and from further afield –including hardworking and intelligent people from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, USA, UK, and so on.
The locals know they have something; natural resources, organization, skills, and so on, yet, people may also need impulses and capital to turn it all into success. That is the challenge for people everywhere. Throughout history, people have been innovative and clever – if authorities, leaders, and the wealthy have supported them rather than stand in the way for innovation, change and development.
The anecdote about my Kikuyu neighbour Jane in Kenya at the beginning of my article teaches us some lessons. The stories from my childhood, too, teach us some lessons, and the Bergeners struggle to keep their place in the world, in competition with the people of the capital, teach us some more lessons. In Kenya, the Kikuyu people are very entrepreneurial, but there are also others who are smart, including the Luhya people, and the intellectual Luo people (including President Obama’s relatives!), and the Swahili traders and business people on the coast, with their Arab mixture and links. And there are others, too, also those with European and Asian ancestry. What a rich and diverse land! Jane was right not to opt for the easy solution to move to Limuru, to the homogeneous community she came from; it has many strengths, but much also belongs to the past. Today, we need the openness and innovative thinking that I have seen among impressive people in Africa – and in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Norway, and elsewhere.
The value of diversity – and of multiculturalism – cannot be emphasised enough, in everyday life and for innovation, and for cultural and economic development. I don’t think we have realised this in spite of the globalisation that happens in our time; we seem to say that it is good and well that goods and services, and certainly capital can travel freely. But for some strange reason, we don’t seem to value a diversity of people, immigrants, refugees, foreign workers and others who travel to new parts of the world or move within the country. Sometimes, I think we realise it, but we don’t want to say it. Let us be reminded, too, that the so-called migration and refugee crisis that ‘old Europe’ says it had experienced in recent years, with a peek in 2015, is mainly an ‘administrative crisis’. The countries’ institutions ought to have been able to handle both arrivals and integration much, much better. Besides, we should expect new influxes in future, mainly from the South to North, within countries in the South, and from rural to urban areas everywhere, because that is where most jobs are created under capitalism. Let us not drag our feet and put people last; people should be put first, and the value of diversity must be spoken about to make the best out of the existing world order.
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.