There is a hearty debate going on in the West about whether the word ‘tribe’ should be used at all when referring to whats going on in Kenya. Some say the term is a loaded one with degrading insinuations of uncivilized barbarians. Others argue that Africans themselves use the term and it doesn’t matter what word you use, Kenyans are still killing each other based on perceptions of their, and each other’s identity. Still some find comfort in the term.
Since I’m going through a very Mamdani phase right now I thought i’d share something he wrote that is very germane to the ongoing discussion. Its from his essay on Identity in a collection edited by Nadia Tazi:
He distinguishes between ethnicity as a cultural identity and ethnicity as a political identity. When it reflects cultural identity, ethnicity is based on a shared culture and it is consensual. When it is a political identity, the legal and administrative organs of the state enforce it. “After making a distinction between ethnic groups, between those considered indigenous and those not, those organs [of the state] proceed to discriminate between them; those considered indigenous are granted rights considered customary, such as the right to use land, but those considered not indigenous—no matter how long they may have been resident in the land—are denied these same rights”
I think those who, like Gukira, find comfort in the term are refering to ethnicity or tribe as cultural identity, the source of story. Unfortunately, there is the other side of ethnic identity. The side we saw in Kenya last and this month. Where those who are from a different region, be they Luos in Tigoni or Kikuyus in Rift Valley, are violently sent packing for they are not ‘indigenous’