The Forum

Searching for an African Identity via Turkana Desert

By Immanuel Lokwei,

Is the question about what an African Identity is of littler importance now than it was, let’s say, before the 21st century? How much less important then would an inquiry on an identity supposed to represent a smaller fraction of “Africans” be? An identity limited and defined by its own cultural bounds and yet still caught up in its own time; the last century. This is the Turkana identity.

As many of you would probably know, African-ness as a cultural concept and a form of identity is a balanced summation of thousands of micro-identities within the African territory. An ideal African identity would be the totality of this equation without one of the many culturally specific and unique identities in Africa being left out.

But is the question of Turkana identity, let alone the broad and almost abstract African identity, that easy to deal with? Can understanding Turkana identity help in understanding the African identity? What is the connection between these two identities, and how can I be persuaded or feel compelled me to have an affinity with either or both of these identities?

There are two reasons why I entreat these questions. The first is the shock I felt when a Kenyan friend living in America acted very indifferently to the topic of Race Identity when it popped up in our conversation. His argument was that no one who is reasonable enough in this technologically equipped era bothers themselves with such outdated trivialities such as Race Identity. The second reason is that a Jamaican friend asked me whether I also identified as black or just African.

While the first friend’s reaction implied that we should do away with racial dichotomies, the second friend’s question was even more provoking in that it suggested that there could be a distinction between identifying oneself as black and as an African. In my mind, African-ness and Blackness are two sides of the coin. Choosing between them is a matter of preference, as I see no real distinction between the two.

The Kenyan friend’s reaction nearly threatened my very existence in a way. Never before had it crossed my mind that I could doubt my subscription to an African identity and that I could even cancel it like a Netflix account and see myself in terms other than those that imply African-ness.

Efforts to understand my Turkana identity, in the hope that moving from a particular, more concrete and immediate aspect like Turkana culture would enable me to understand what the meaning of the broad African identity is—these efforts met with little success.

First I thought Turkana identity could be equated to the main cultural activities that all or most Turkana people do. But their (Turkana people) nomadic lifestyle is fairly diverse, and not specific to the Turkana as a people. You could not say that there is a special nomadic activity that makes one a Turkana. The same activity could be found in other nomadic communities or slightly different activity (e.g. ritual) but same central meaning of this activity across multiple cultures.

Second, I sought to look at our history after failing to pinpoint an activity that is centrally and uniquely Turkana. But our history has suffered a double-tragedy. Its narrative over time has been changed and part of it lost, since it relied heavily on oral transmission and as you can testify memory is not the best of media out there. The rest of the story that early inscribers of history (mainly “outsiders”) were able to document from our living ancestors was lost in translation. What we have is but fragmented history: a history supposed to be history. Our belief in documented history has failed us—we need to recognize that this form of history is but one version and does not represent the whole and true history of Turkana.

Then I thought perhaps starting from the abstract concept of African identity might help understand the Turkana one. But again I encountered the same challenges. An African Identity is usually invoked in relation to certain historical episodes.

As you would expect, African Identity is a collection of diverse historical episodes. But it is quite hard to see the connections between one episode and the other under this huge umbrella of African Identity. For instance what has Maninka Empire to do with Turkana’s decentralized political-structure? Maybe little depending on your point of view with regard to this issue.

Subscribers of African identity share in the glory of any beautiful or great feats conducted by fellow subscribers, both individual and tribes as a collective. The use of historical events to explain what an African identity is, is inadequate in that these historical events do not capture the meaning that the actors of different epochs had placed on specific historical events. Furthermore, these events do not represent common activities that occur through out in all African communities. I am a Turkana and am not familiar with the values (except maybe musical) that say, indigenous West African drummers see in their music. This value could be more than just musical harmony; it could go beyond cultural-musical connections.

At this point I felt that my fate of never finding an answer was sealed. Fortunately, there are no dead-ends in a desert (refer back to the title of this article). And then…

There is one fact that struck my mind, and it revived my belief in African and Turkana identities, despite my hesitancy to claim that I really know what an African or Turkana identity is. Let’s call this fact “undeniable consequences of being,” either Turkana or African.

Existence of racism, witnessing or becoming a victim of it, this experience stamps one’s conviction that they are of a particular identity. This also applies to Turkana identity. When other tribes, for instance our rivals the Pokots, point at you and say “We are coming for you”, you don’t need analysis of history to know who is the “who” being referred to and why. Thus this consequence of ethnical tension becomes the pillar of faith and conviction of what a Turkana identity is. For the tribes perpetrating this ethnic tension, my identity is their tool to identify and isolate me, whether in a crowd or even when shepherding in the bushes. Amazingly, this tool has served them well since they’ve always been consistent in isolating me whenever they felt the urge.

When one experiences many times these “undeniable consequences of being”, there is a higher likelihood of identifying strongly with the state of being (African, Turkana, etc.… identities). But when times are relatively non-incidental, non-incidental for instance in the sense that there are very few “undeniable consequence of being” a Turkana, one is less attached to these dichotomies.

So the African and Turkana identities become a part-time subscription when the consequences of these identities are minimal but a full time occupation in hard times (whether one likes it or not, identifies himself/herself as part of these identities or not). And so you buy in into other people’s way of isolating you out.

This brings us to one of our final points that African and Turkana identities are only for those who suffer the consequences of these states of being. Someone could suffer as either being a spectator, when they feel a dissonance at the perception of the “undeniable consequence of being” these identities, or he or she could suffer as a victim.

Therefore ethnical struggle of Turkana people and racial sidelining of the African people become the primary (perhaps the only ones) factors that ground my faith in subscribing to these identities that actually hurt my existence.

This method of affirming one’s identities might seem negative since it is dependent on the acts of the perpetrators of racial and ethnic antagonism. But does it not capture the crisis involved with racial and ethnical dichotomies? How could one have a positive African or tribal identity that does not rely on analysis of history and perceptions and acts of ill-willed perpetrators of these dichotomies; a free-willed or a biological African or Turkana identity that depends solely on the inherent qualities of these identities? For now, I will rest content with this negative strategy of affirming my identities.

The arguments of this article should not be interpreted to mean that perpetrators of ethnical and racial violence are doing me a favor; that without them I lose my identities and faith in these identities. These arguments rather aim to point out that ethnical and racial dichotomies are mostly necessary in tense ethnical and racial environments. They do not hope yet to comment on the relevancy of these identities in harmonious and peaceful environments.

Enjoy this tune by Famara – Toubab man (African in a White skin!!!).

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