I wrote this post in 2008, just after the post-election violence – my first attempts at making sense of ethnicity and what we’re always on about in this country. Reading through it now, I feel we’re on a treadmill – running, running, running, and not moving an inch. Plus I never knew the phrase ‘people from a certain community’ could have such a negative connotation!
It takes at least two somethings to create a difference. (…) Clearly each alone is – for the mind and perception – a non-entity, a non-being. Not different from being, and not different from non-being. An unknowable, a Ding an sich, a sound from one hand clapping. Gregory Bateson (1979: 78)
In spite of being united by one language, culture and belief, I’ve often heard people belonging to the same ethnic group make distinctions amongst themselves using their geographical origin and clans. They will describe how regional dialects differ from each other, and outline the varying characteristics of the women and men from this village and that valley. They will find that little something that sets them apart from the larger group. Kenyans feel the need to make distinction upon distinction about their belonging. Some call it tribe. Others call it ethnic group.
Tribe is an ethnocentric term that typically refers to a primitive, homogeneous, static, isolated group of people. Ethnicity on the other hand, refers to aspects of relationships between groups, which consider themselves, and are regarded by others as being culturally distinctive (Eriksen, 1993). Anthropologists view ethnicity as a coping mechanism to social and political circumstances and a way of getting through the challenges we face in life. So, although the two terms are used interchangeably in the Kenyan context, a more accurate description of this social phenomenon would be ‘ethnic group’, being dynamic culturally distinctive groups of people, not existing alone, but with relations to other groups.
We are social animals, who in this country as in many others, cleave to our ethnic groups, whether we’re in constant contact with other group members or not. Seeking a sense of identity and belonging, and being proud of the distinctive characteristics that make a positive and valuable contribution to the larger group, which we call nation, can never be wrong.
Having been lumped together by historical events that we had no control over, Kenya is a plural society that has to acknowledge differences and respect them. This would in fact make it easier for us to become as loyal to the state as we are to our ethnic groups. We should strive to bring the best that our diversity has to offer to the table for the benefit of the nation.
Under the still prevailing conditions of inequity, injustice, marginalization and polarization, this may sound like a Herculean task. But every journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.