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«Laura-Catalina Althoff University of Leipzig Institute of Ethnology lauracalthoff Identities and the colonial past in Kenya and Tanzania BA ...»

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Laura-Catalina Althoff

University of Leipzig

Institute of Ethnology


Identities and the colonial past

in Kenya and Tanzania

BA dissertation by Laura-Catalina Althoff

published as a CERS working paper on the MGR archive


The aim of this paper is to explore the relation between the colonial politics of tribalism in

Kenya and Tanganyika and the present day ethnic identities and conflicts in the two postindependence nations. Reasons for diverging post-colonial developments can be found in slight differences in the colonial administration, but also and mainly in the different political approaches implemented by Kenyatta and Nyerere. Thus patronage led to an essentialisation and racialisation of ethnicities in Kenya, which can be juxtaposed to an almost “ethnicity-blind” situation in Tanzania, created through the radically egalitarian Ujamaa. The argumentation of this study is, apart from the relevant literature, based on nine interviews conducted in Kenya in July and August 2013. These clearly demonstrate the current ethnic tensions in Kenya, but present alternative narratives as to where these originated from, as the colonial “invention of tradition” is not perceived as such in retrospect.

The last section of this paper also considers the most recent developments and detects a renegotiation and convergence of ethnic identifications in Kenya and Tanzania.

Contents Introduction 2 1 Overview of definitions, concepts and debates 5

1.1 Identities 5

1.2 Ethnicity 5 1.2.1 Ethnicity and hierarchy 7 1.2.2 Ethnicity and ‘race’ 8

1.3 Debate between essentialisation and homogenisation 10 2 The impact of colonialism 11 3 The contemporary Kenyan perception of ethnicity as natural 17 3.1 “What makes you Kikuyu, Kamba or Luo?” 17 3.2 “What has colonialism got to do with it?” 18 4 Post-colonial developments 23

4.1 Kenya___________________________________________ 23 4.1.1 The fight for independence and Kenyatta’s formation

–  –  –

Introduction In the beginning I was really sure that […] these guys [=Kikuyu] are not going to just not like me because of my tribe. Until, one day, in my class […] [with] a friend of mine […] I told him 'The politicians should not control our lives.', and he was like 'You are a good person. But the other Luos, I don't like them. And if I'm [=was] given a gun, I would just shoot them. […] If we have to fight, then I will fight for my tribe.' And that's when I realised that tribe [=tribalism] is real. […] So I felt like, maybe if I'm in a group of Kikuyu […] then I would hesitate to start saying, 'I'm a Luo'. That's just for my security.

Adam Onyango (interview no. 5, 1:04:12-1:07:01) This quote summarises the core of the Kenyan tribalism problem, and at the same time illustrates its ambivalence: before engaging more closely with the subject, one might think of tribalism as an


phenomenon that has no place in the real world, and no objective justification. Yet the interview material collected for this study clearly shows that tribalism in Kenya is so real and relevant that ethnicity had to become the focus of this research project on East African identities. In the interviews with Kenyans from various backgrounds, it seemed like tribalism was something that no-one really wanted or understood, apart from politicians who instrumentalised ethnic groups to gain votes, and that otherwise brought nothing but personal harm and destruction. At the same time, potential origins in the colonial past were hard to retrieve.

This absence of reference to the colonial politics in the creation of ethnic identities lead to further questions. Did the European administration practices really have no substantial impact on ethnic identities? If they did, why did this provoke conflict and political tribalism in post-colonial Kenya, but could be utterly counter-balanced by Tanzania’s charismatic leader and unifying political strategy? Thinking about these phenomena more abstractly, we need to ask: what is ethnicity? If it is a historically specific cultural construct, how can it have such real impacts on people’s lives?

Should a conflict between two groups, whose differences seem so small and arbitrary to the European eye, not be easily solvable? Would it be possible to raise awareness about how these identities were actually shaped and invented by colonial officers, rather than having existed since their genesis described in a story of origin? And could this awareness help to abolish ethnic identifications, and thus tribalism? But if ethnicity has its counter-parts in the real world, in people’s minds, in workplace discrimination, in election results that resemble ethnic censuses, can it really just be wished away by means of sociological deconstruction?

These questions shall be answered in the present work. Chapter 1 one is concerned with setting the basis for the debate by defining the main concepts, identity and ethnicity, and their relation to power dynamics and the ascription of ‘racial’ characteristics as one way to exercise power1. Chapter 2 includes an analysis of the historical events and dynamics of the colonial period that critically shaped ethnic identities. Chapter 3 puts this outcome in perspective by juxtaposing contemporary Kenyan’s perceptions of the genesis and content of ethnic identities. Chapters 4 and 5 open the debate about the different post-colonial political strategies and ideologies and their significance for working towards peace and freedom of personal cultural expression: how much expression of ethnicity and celebration of cultural differences is necessary for ensuring psychological health and empowerment for Kenyans and Tanzanians? How much awareness of the historical dynamics, how much deconstruction of tribalism and racialised ethnicities do we need for conflict mediation? How are even the most recent developments linked to colonialism? And can the contemporary negotiation of ethnicity help diminish the significance of negative ethnicity and thus create peace?

‘Race’ is used in inverted commas, following Miles' (2009) argumentation, in order to make it clear that this work speaks about ‘race’ as a social construct that affects people’s lives rather than a biological fact. Similarly, ‘Black’ is spelled with a capital letter and ‘white’ in lower-case in order to highlight that they are not genetically different groups of people, but that ‘Black’ is a self-denomination term used by Black political thinkers and activists such as Noah Sow.

I proceeded likewise for terms like ‘tribe’ or ‘tribal’ and ‘tradition’ to stress that they are often abused with the aim of depicting African societies as backward, static and conflict-ridden. While the terms are still necessary for the argumentation, they were put in inverted commas in order to deconstruct their common usage as objective designations and thus the belief that ‘tribes’ are natural and that certain cultural practices are static and regressive.

On the contrary, racism and tribalism represent forms of discrimination based on the very beliefs that ‘race’ and ‘tribe’ are natural categories, and as this discrimination is real, the terms need not be challenged or deconstructed, which is why they were not put in inverted commas.

Besides theoretical approaches and historical analyses drawn from literature, the argumentation is based on nine interviews conducted with Kenyans2 and personal encounters and experiences made in Kenya. This means that the focus is unwillingly slightly biased towards the Kenyan case, because a broader and more graspable picture of Kenya could be gained, especially on contemporary Kenyan politics and ethnic tensions. Amongst the informants, Luo preponderate, which may prejudices the argumentation against other groups. Yet in the context of the existing literature on Kenyan ethnicity, which is mainly concerned with the Kikuyu, this work may contribute a new perspective. Further, while the literature was wide-ranged, reliable and well-balanced between the two countries concerning the colonial period, specific accounts of ethnic relations in the post-colonial period in Tanzania were scarcer than for Kenya, which may also have influenced the focus.

Yet the lack of sources also indicates a relative absence of strictly ethnic conflicts in Tanzania. Religious and ‘race’ conflicts have greater relevance and thus superpose ethnic conflicts in academic research. For example, articles about ‘ethnic conflicts' in Tanzania (such as Campbell 1999) often concern themselves solely with conflicts between whites, Indians and Black Tanzanians, and no ‘tribal’ conflicts in the narrow sense are mentioned. Thus the close focus on inter-ethnic conflicts may have somewhat distorted and dichotomised the comparison between Kenya and Tanzania by creating the impression that Kenya is more divided, when, with a broader understanding of ethnicity, ‘tribal’ conflicts in Kenya could have been compared to ‘race’ conflicts in Tanzania. Yet the emphasis is deliberate and seems justified against the background that a predominant majority of Kenyans and Tanzanians are, of course, Black Africans (e.g. 98% of Tanzanians in 1961, Ghai 1974, p. 109).

A text in its linear form is not always ideal; and complex contexts can sometimes better be mapped in a diagram. This is why, for a better understanding, the argumentation has been visualised in three diagrams, which can be found in the appendix.

Further information on the informants and on how to read the interviews can be found in the references part at the back and in the appendix.

Chapter 1: Overview of definitions, concepts and debates Before starting any argumentation about identity in the colonial and post-colonial contexts it is inevitable to first define what identity is and how identification works.

The focus of this work is ethnicity as one facet of identities, which is particularly relevant in the studied context. It is clear, however, that it is impossible to treat ethnicity separately from other divisive forces such as ‘race’.

1.1 Identities As Fuss (1995) elaborates, identities are produced in the process of identification, which is ambivalent in two ways. Firstly, we define our identity with regard to what divides us from others, yet simultaneously take into account our similarities with others and our wish to belong to their community. Secondly, we have some space for individual negotiation and self-definition, while our identity always remains dependant on how others perceive us and what qualities they ascribe to us. Therefore, identification is always a balance between dissociating oneself from others on the one hand, and trying to belong on the other, which means questioning and renegotiating the self. This dynamic, which can lead to ‘othering’, exclusion and segregation, but also “alignment”, “assimilation” and “submission” (ibid.), happens not only at the individual, but also at the collective level: individual agency and negotiation are limited by the structural forces of society, i. e. the leading discourses and representations available for identification. Considering this dialectic character of the formation of identities, it becomes obvious that identities are multi-dimensional and fluid, that is, constituted of many different facets, layers and roles. This is how the use of ‘identities’ in the plural is understood in this work.

1.2. Ethnicity “Ethnicity is the enduring and systematic communication of cultural differences between groups considering themselves to be distinct. It appears whenever cultural differences are made relevant in social interaction” (Eriksen 2002, p. 58). Ethnicity is thus produced by a specific form of identification, one that takes culture as a starting point.

Ethnic identity formation, same as identification in general, can be seen as more or less stable, according to how culture is defined: ethnic groupings can be seen as clear-cut, concrete and unchanging boundaries defined by characteristics such as language, dress, food, symbols, and also geographic origin and ‘memories of a shared past’ (Bulmer 1986, cited in Ratcliffe 2004). Other perspectives question the objectivity of ‘culture’, which they see as a historically specific social construct, and therefore see ethnicity as more situational, negotiable and political (Eriksen 2002, pp. 53f). These sociological approaches have been termed ‘primordialism’ and ‘situationalism’ or ‘instrumentalism’ (Young 1986, pp. 449f).

Primordialists present ‘pluralist theory’ as a concept to explain intercultural difficulties in post-colonial societies. In his analysis, J.S. Furnivall states that at the colonial encounter, pluralist societies were created in which ethnic groups were integrated through economic symbiosis […] and the political domination of […] the colonial masters, but [they] were otherwise socially discrete, as well as being distinctive concerning language, religion and customs. There were no shared values in these societies [...] (Furnivall, cited in Eriksen 2002, p. 48).

M.G. Smith defines the plural society as “a unit of disparate parts which owes its existence to external factors, and lacks a common social will” (Smith, cited in ibid.). In this way, cultural differences and the colonial encounter could be seen as simple reasons for post-colonial conflicts.

This the part about cultural differences has also commonly been voiced by

contemporary Kenyans, yet could be criticised as too simplistic and deterministic:

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