'Fly to Nairobi with Korean Air,' the advert ran, 'and enjoy the grand African savannah, the safari tour, and the indigenous people full of primitive energy.' The airline was obliged to withdraw its ad and apologise after an outcry from indignant Kenyans. 'That's insulting, illiterate, and clearly written by someone who has never left the Korean borders,' wrote one furious correspondent. 'My Monday primitive energy is overwhelming,' quipped another. 'I'm thinking of hanging out with the lions chilling on Kenyatta Avenue.'
Even the dictionary tells us that the word 'primitive' can be offensive. However clumsy the wording, though, it is surely obvious that the Koreans did not intend their pitch as an insult. Why would they bother trying to entice tourists to take a flight to Kenya, unless they thought there was something special to be found here? Tourists are hardly likely to be attracted by the promise of crowded cities, ugly high-rise buildings, horrendous traffic-jams, shopping malls, and men in suits. They're up to the gills in all that at home.
While there may not actually be lions on Kenyatta Avenue, there certainly are in Nairobi National Park, which is proudly presented as the only park in Africa near a city centre. And after all, Kenyatta Avenue isn't that far from Lang'ata, where, for the past nine months, lions have been regularly roaming suburban gardens, much to the thrill of many local folk. Where else in the world can you find lions, leopards, giraffes, warthogs, monkeys, or hyenas in your back yard?
Kenya has many things the rest of the world envies, and those things are not cell phones, supermarkets, computers, modern offices, or blocks of flats. They are to be found in the unspoiled natural landscapes, the stunning variety of wildlife, and yes, in the diversity of indigenous cultures that preserve something of the traditional ways. There is nothing to be ashamed of in such cultures, and much to admire. Many indigenous communities live in close harmony with their landbase, without destroying nature, following sound values of sharing and cooperation that modern society has lost. Far from being 'primitive' in the sense many Kenyans construe the word, they live a sustainable life - they are wise in a way that industrial man, in his rush pile up money, to modernise, to dominate and destroy nature, is not.
'Monoculture' is the key word in industrial society: monoculture in agriculture, forestry - in everyday life itself: Nature is only raw material to be converted into cash. Corporate culture demands conformity - same clothes, same cars, same food, same tastes. There might be different niches in the market, but essentially corporations want everyone in the world to live the same lifestyle, distinguished only by what kind of computer they favour, or what brand of toothpaste they take.
Industrial culture spreads across the Earth, gobbling up nature and spewing out in its place an artificial machine-like world, where human beings are expected to conform to identical ideas and values. The main problem with this process is that it's unsustainable. Since infinite growth isn't possible on a finite planet, sooner or later, it will have to stop.
Most tourists to Kenya come from areas where the natural landbase, wildlife, and indigenous cultures long ago vanished. The vast forests that once covered Europe, teaming with bears, wolves and wild aurochs, inhabited by nature-based communities, have given way to a the gray monotony of concrete, steel, glass, power lines, and smoking chimneys, or else to empty fields and stark plantations, serviced by machines. The last of the USA's old growth forests fell under the chain-saw only a few years back: wildlife species, like the buffalo, the grizzly bear or the passenger pigeon, are either sadly reduced or extinct. Sustainable native American cultures were wiped out in the scramble to extend the technological vision to every corner of the Earth.
Tourists come to Kenya looking for something they sense is valuable, but which their own societies have lost - inspiring natural panoramas, wildlife of every description, indigenous peoples who retain a special vitality, and a close connection with the Earth. Maybe 'primitive energy' is one way of describing that connection: maybe the tourists, like the rest of us, can learn something from it. Diversity, not conformity, is the key to evolution. Do we, in Kenya, want to continue destroying that diversity?
Will we be satisfied when the whole of this nation is one vast complex of power-stations, motorways and supermarkets, when its forests and savannahs are gone, its wildlife confined to ever smaller reserves, when no alternative cultures exist to remind us that there actually is a different way of life? Kenyans are not, of course, primitive people, but neither should they be ashamed of their rich indigenous heritage, nor of the startling natural diversity which makes their beautiful country unique.
Asher is an author and explorer based in Lang'ata. He is a member of the deep ecology movement.