Africa: Thoughts on Tribalism and Identities

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In December of 2012 I took a trip to a museum in Kenya nestled next to the infamous Nyayo House. For those who do not know Nyayo House is the building which houses Kenya’s immigration offices and also the site where many political detainees were tortured during the time when President Moi was in power. The museum was of interest to me not only because it is free but also because it housed a very memorable exhibit: Kenya Burning.

Kenya Burning is an exhibit which showcases the events that happened after the botched 2007 elections in Kenya. The exhibition starts from the time when Kenyans came out in droves to elect their next leaders to the time when Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki signed a coalition government agreement. The pictures are vivid, painful and even shocking. There are bodies burnt beyond recognition and men in the act of killing fellow men using clubs and machetes. Women and children can be seen on the run with only the clothes on their backs, road blocks and burning tires defined almost every city in the country. But the most painful part were the morgues and funerals. There are pictures of dead bodies lined up, and relatives already distressed from days of running and loss of livelihood and property are queuing to identify a relative or friend. The bodies are placed side by side with the faces uncovered, there is no refrigeration. Many of the bodies are short beneath the sheets, they could be children and are badly mutilated. I almost cried as I viewed the funeral of two boys, their faces charred by fire, they were placed in makeshift cardboard hearses, their feet were sticking out from one end.

Kenya Burning is a story of a nation torn between the past and the future. When Kenyans started killing neighbors and friends, they were not butchering people they knew, they were protecting an identity that was so deeply rooted within them it was almost instinctive. There are two main reasons why I think Kenyans turned on each other after the elections. Of course people felt disenfranchised and there was political fraud but that happens in other places too. I think there is more to it than what is on the surface.

In Kenya, at least for my generation, we are first taught our local tribe dialect (mother toungue). Only then do we move on to learn Swahili and English, the national languages. Because as children we are mostly exposed to the rituals and beliefs of our tribe, they form our identity from a very young age; which is why I believe we instinctively self-identify by our tribes rather than the country. In addition to passing on language and culture, anecdotes passed on from generations past help each tribe to set itself apart from another tribe. These anecdotes unfortunately sometimes paint other tribes in a less than appealing light and while they help one understand the history of one tribe they also set the stage for needless mistrust and perpetrate negative stereotypes. As I grow older, I suddenly realize that I am more often conscious of my tribe as I begin to see the differences between my tribe and other tribes. However, I am lucky enough to be able to think through it logically and ask questions. I have often asked older men and women in our tribe to explain to me deep rooted enmities with other tribes and more often than not I have found the reasons to be more emotional than factual and also very general and stereotypical. For these reasons I think that if we can retain our culture without demonizing other tribes then we will be on our way to true unity. Differences can unite us, but they can also lead to our death.

These are my thoughts as a person seeking to understand why and how I could turn on my neighbor of 10 years and kill them. I consciously try and live my life in a way that does not support tribalism but at the same time does not erode identities and culture. It is a hard line to draw and I need a lot of self-control. There are still people out there who define me using my negative tribal stereotypes and others in my tribal community who perpetrate negative stereotypes of other communities. However, I have learnt to consciously walk away from conversations that cannot be redeemed and openly correct people who define others using negative tribal stereotypes. I have realized that it starts with me. It will take a while for us to fully and truly unite as a nation. Kenya Burning is an exhibit that helps people process the difficulties of uniting a nation but even the vivid and sad pictures are not enough if we do not realize that it all starts at home. Unless I change the instinctive negative identities that have been passed along to me from generations past, then I will pass these on to the next generation and true unity and harmony may only be a dream.

In February 2013 I took a trip to the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg….

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