Ethnicity and Nationalism: Are The Two Concepts Reconcilable in Our Kenya Today?

By Immanuel Lokwei,

(With The Recent Ethnically Charged-Tana River Massacre In View, Is It Time We Give Up Hoping For A Unified Kenya?)

How are we, as Kenyans from different ethnic backgrounds, going to celebrate the ethnic diversity in our country and yet uphold in practice our newly adopted identity, that of “Kenyans-extraordinaire?” Let us face the facts. The concept of being a Kenyan is a new one, just a handful of years old. (There is no point in debating how we acquired this concept; not one of our ancestors was, or was ever invited to the 1884-85 Berlin conference and you know that.) It was only out of necessity, that we, or to be precise, our freedom fighters started to use this concept as a means out of the grim bondage they were in.

While the colonialists’ concept of Kenya was purely territorial, our freedom fighters (Mau Mau) polished this concept to include a supposed amalgamation of different cultural identities in Kenya. Had the “benign” imperialists not intervened before the emergence of Mau Mau, we would probably have enjoyed staying within our ethnic borderlines. That being said, the supposed amalgamation of cultures in Kenya, which conceptually inspired our freedom fighters and manifested itself through their death for our freedom, and which, it was hoped, would reflect the national spirit of the new Kenya – has not yet been realized in the current pretentious exercise of this freedom even after 45 years have passed since we got it. Okay fine, since our freedom fighters got it for us.

More than 61% of our Kenyan population live in rural places, which means that our view of ourselves is more ethnic than Kenyan. On rare occasions, one or two immigrant families in these rural places may be absorbed by the ethnicities that define the local culture, and that are the guardians of these special rural localities. But these cases of diversity are an insignificant drop in the bucket given that the vast majority of these special rural places are usually dominated by a particular ethnic group.

With only one’s own culture at the closest proximity, the real definitive factor, regardless of the secondary methods (radio, literature, etc.) employed to nurture a nationalist perspective on one’s self, in how one sees and understands oneself is the immediate culture one is immersed in or surrounded by. The reality then is, as much as I would like to identify myself and live as a Kenyan, and I really do wish to, I am a Turkana or a Nandi at the core.

My ethnic proclivities impinge on my nationalistic aspirations because I am mostly what my immediate culture makes of me. That is why it is so easy, as even evident in our past and tragic Post Election Violence, to revert back to ethnic standpoints at crucial times. Even fully rational and grown up individuals would act in a completely depraved way if it so suited their ethnic security and reaffirmation. In short, In Kenya we so wish to see ourselves as Kenyan though our ethnic factors bounce to the fore at the most demanding times and override everything we believed in or thought we believed in. Belief therefore becomes a farce that we would like to entertain ourselves with, as Kenyans.

I am not suggesting here that the Kenya government should, as a way to counter the above observation, introduce a law that obligates ethnic diversity in all of these rural regions. I do not believe that this can be achieved through force or law, as anyone would probably agree; except for the police force who are campaigning for a legislative approval to use force and bullets to intervene in ethnically torn parts like Tana River. The solution is simple and implementable. We should just be told the truth. Or to put it better, the truth about us should not be withdrawn or euphemized; remember, refusing us access to it is also tantamount to denying us the knowledge about the crucial catalysts in our situation.

The truth is simple. First, we should admit our cultural differences since they are most powerful and often resurface in our actions despite our efforts. We may disguise our ethnic sensibilities with political rhetoric but we cannot really keep them covered for long. Second, we should, at a reasonable age in our high schools, be taught about the foreignness of this concept (some may call it Kenyanism).  And not just an historical explanation of this concept but an analytical one too, in order to support the explanation of it and this way help us understand and frame it within the context of our contemporary Kenyan life and strife. Third, we should be reminded every now and then of the necessity that brought together and motivated our freedom fighters to act under the umbrella of this concept.

So basically, the fundamentals of each of the above points are: Admit our cultural differences, learn about the foreignness/artificiality of the concept of Kenya, and thoroughly reexamine the necessity of the Mau Mau struggle and the rationale behind it. Otherwise, we can only hope for a miracle savior.

We cannot hope to be truly Kenyan by negating our ethnic identities; for, as implied by our ironic Kenyan aspirations, being the former presupposes suppression and eradication of the latter, a transcendence of ethnic identities.

The talk against tribalism is useless if this means non-acceptance of the fact that we are hugely what our tribes makes of us. Once we accept this fact and at the same time apprehend the necessity of the Mau Mau spirit, then we will be able to not only accept but also embrace the need for and live out this foreign concept. The emphasis that we are Kenyans is counterproductive in that it has dampened our Mau Mau spirit. It is like, we have already achieved the goal, what next?

Surely, we have achieved, let’s call it, our constitutional freedom. But we have not yet achieved our political freedom; (not to waste the time even mentioning economic and social freedom). I am confident that our freedom fighters could have substituted the word Kenya for Freedom if that would have helped clarify their goal or add force to it. But the implication of our proclamations that we are Kenyans leads to nothing but a complacent drag and preoccupation with our ethnic tendencies.

The Mau Mau struggle is not confined to the 1950s. Perhaps the Mau Mau fighters who refused to leave the dense jungles of Mt. Kenya after our independence was declared were prophetic of the times to come in Kenya. We are not yet what we want to be, to be free Kenyans (as envisioned by our liberators), and this should rather be emphasized.

One might argue that by claiming that we are Kenyans, we are motivating ourselves to become Kenyans and eventually live as Kenyans. In a real sense, these claims overshadow the underlying cultural factors that come out into the open when we least desire them to. It would be nice if the claims only just motivated. But one does not win a contest by downplaying one’s opponents (cultural factors) but by actually confronting them head on.

We need to be reminded every waking moment of the necessity that brought together the freedom fighters. Why they united despite their clan and tribal backgrounds. We need to be reminded of the common enemies we are facing today. Preoccupation with our ethnic tendencies might perhaps make one tribe more materially superior or militarily versed than others but we are not judged as a clan or tribe but as Kenyans, because we cannot really run away from this identity, foreign though it may be. And let the ever-so-wishful clans and tribes learn from the French revolution that no material superiority or group’s security can secure them from a future revolt by the subordinated groups; the internal contradictions of our political and social system, however long suppressed they may be, will eventually vent out either as PEV or Tana Clashes or Pokot-Turkana cattle raiding. The basis of our judgment then is Kenyan nationalism, how well we uphold this idea. The consequences of our ethnic predispositions are so clear.

The first step in any amalgamation, and this may prove very helpful in at least pacifying the tempest that is, for instance, the Mombasa Republican Council (a coastal group advocating secession from mainland Kenya) is acknowledgement of the cultural differences, however inconsequential we might think they are.  And acknowledgement does not mean submission per se, but it is a sign of maturity, sincerity to oneself, a sign of the goodwill and confidence to address the issues at hand.

Acknowledge, instead of covering up or shunning the talk about our ethnic and cultural differences; acknowledge the foreignness of Kenyan nationalism; and frequently re-educate (not just from an historical point of view like we said) us about the necessity that propelled Mau Mau spirit and why we should always revisit these lessons. Otherwise, the issue of tribalism is here with us to stay.

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