Letters from TZ

Made in East Africa

With a general election drawing ever nearer in neighbouring Kenya, age-old tribal rivalries have risen to the surface, as they have done in the run-up to elections as far back as can be remembered. It’s at election time that citizens abandon nationhood and become clannish, choosing to align themselves only with those leaders from their own communities. Common sense is usually the first victim of this ‘our guy’ kind of thinking, because we begin to define ourselves purely by our tribal identity. The swiftness with which the national house of cards can collapse into separate tribal piles calls into question the very idea of nationhood. What does it mean to be a citizen who identifies as being Kenyan? Or Tanzanian? Or Ugandan? If we could distil the essence of nationhood, how would we define the final product? What does it mean to be a countryperson? What allegiance does our country demand from us? What is our national ethos? And what responsibility do we have to observe it?

It seems to me that we cover ourselves in a thin and flimsy film of national unity. One only has to scratch beneath the surface to reveal the disdain with which we hold members of other tribes. Consider this: My father tells a story of the origins of his people. He says the tribe originated in Egypt and were a royal people who wrought implements from iron long before any other tribes. They travelled down the Nile, eventually settling in the Lake Victoria area, on both sides of the Kenya/Uganda border.

In the present day, my father says, one can tell members of the tribe are derived from noble stock. They are recognised as some of the most educated and knowledgeable in the land. Obviously, he takes pride in his cultural identity. He is first a tribesman and then a countryman. My blood however, is diluted. My mother was from the same tribal family but she spoke a different dialect and claimed a different tribal history. One that was not as flamboyant and expressive as my fathers. Therefore, I am some kind of intra-tribal half-caste. We speak the same language, but one half speaks one dialect and the other speaks another. One half came down the Nile, the other probably originated somewhere in the DRC. One half is flamboyant and expressive, the other half is collected and reserved. And yet, they are part of the same cultural collective. As one can surmise, tribalism is not just cross-cultural; it thrives even within communities that are known by the same name.

Children of future generations will likely have blood that finds its source at many rivers. We are heading into an age where words like ‘half-caste’ will lose all meaning, because tribally, many will claim a mixed heritage that will find its origins in several different communities, within our borders and without. When we get there, it won’t be as easy to spot our tribal differences, as we can now.

Today, countrymen and women are little more than human caricatures that are defined by cultural stereotypes. It doesn’t take much to peel back the thin and flimsy film of national unity. Especially when it is held together by factors that we have failed to identify and collate into a cohesive national ethos. These factors can be as random as sporting events or continental reality shows. They can also be spontaneous; say for instance, national disasters or state funerals. Generally, we are forced into togetherness by geography or spurred into it in a random or spontaneous fashion.

But another thing that holds us together, tighter than any illusion of unity, is our behaviour, specifically when we are behaving badly. Just the other day, a colleague was commenting on the aversion of some to the straight and narrow. “Given a choice,” she said, “a Kenyan will choose the crooked path. They will look at the straight path and wonder where the potholes have been hidden. They’ll be wondering where the catch is,” she said.

Sad, but true. I suppose it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for crooked paths to turn straight. This is the reality we find ourselves.

As a peculiar, intra-tribal half-caste, with no real cultural allegiances, I am hopeful for a future where even the word ‘tribe’ ceases to exist in its entirety. I am proudly East African. Even so, there might come a time when even a label as broad as that one will be discarded in favour of a global identity.