You know the kind of news that gets me excited. Last week, I pricked my ears at the news that the Maragoli people in Uganda may soon be recognised as one of the country’s indigenous ethnic communities. The Ugandan Parliament will be considering an amendment to the Constitution to formalise the addition of the Maragoli to the 56 communities currently recognised as indigenous.
This development interests me on three main counts, a personal one, a cultural one and a historical one. The historical angle is the most obvious one to most of us. We have read or heard of the complex patterns of the migration of our peoples and their settlement in the regions where they live today. Yet a closer look at the historical constructs of our scholars can really startle us with their impact on contemporary practical decisions, as in the case of the Uganda Maragoli.
Part of the schedule to the Constitution under which communities qualify as indigenous Ugandans states that such people (or their predecessors), should have been living in Uganda as of the first day of February 1926. Now, some historical sources suggest that the Maragolis or their ancestors might have been on the ground in Uganda, settled in the present-day districts of Masindi and Kiryandongo, as far back as the 18th century (1700-1800)! That makes 1926 look like a mere yesterday.
But let us get on to the personal level of my own involvement with the Maragoli. I have a host of men and women of Maragoli origin among my many Kenyan colleagues and close friends. Indeed, trying to mention even a few of them, especially in the academic and literary circles, would sound like snobbish name-dropping, so I will skip it.
But I will certainly be discussing with them the significance of the Ugandan Maragoli phenomenon. Why, I might even be a Mulogooli who stayed in the old homestead as my more adventurous relatives moved further afield. I told you once of how I was struck by the similarities between Francis Imbuga’s home speech and my grandmother’s Runyakitara language.
On the cultural, and maybe political, front, the prospects of indigenous Ugandan Maragoli underline my constant advocacy of an open-minded and flexible understanding of our identities, whether these be ethnic, national or transnational. The “village-focus” mentality that brands anyone from across a stream a “foreigner” is simply untenable in a progressive, globalising world.
Identity, whether individual or communal, is not a fixed, divinely ordained compartment. Rather, it is a continuous creation, or construct, that we gradually develop in our search for the best way to adapt to our physical and social environment. The primitive “us-vs-them” myths (whether ethnic, nationalistic or xenophobic), seeking to build walls around communities, instead of bridges among them, is a false fabrication of opportunists, often politicians, for their own selfish ends. “Our” true people are those with whom we live, and who are willing to share and respect the best of our ways and the best of their ways, regardless of whether they come from Maragoli, Makueni or Milwaukie.
I know from practical experience that this open and receptive acceptance of our fellow human beings makes life truly enriching, productive and enjoyable. I am sure this is what it will do for the Ugandan Maragoli, as it has done for me in my own insatiably nomadic life. Kenya’s openness on this front, embracing those who will embrace her, has given us many genuine gems, among them our grandfather raconteur-in-chief, Dr Yusuf Dawood, of the Sunday Nation’s “Surgeon’s Diary” legendary fame.
Speaking of lives and careers that Kenya’s and East Africa’s welcoming policies have shaped reminds me particularly of two departed colleagues. These are George Menoe, the first African director of the Kenya National Theatre, and my former housemate and co-author of The Skills of English, James Park. What connects the two in my mind just now is the sad fact that I am yet to learn of the details of their departure.
Menoe apparently passed away recently in South Africa, as we learnt from an FB message from a mutual colleague, Mhlangbezi Vundla. James Park, on the other hand, died quite some time back, in Uganda, but I did not get to find out until some Kenyan friends asked me about him.
George Menoe, who, like Vundla, had escaped as a young man from the horrors of South African apartheid, assumed leadership of the KNT in the wake of the epic battles that wrestled it away from foreign groups and audiences back in the 1970s. An accomplished theatre artist, like his compatriot Vundla, who had also made his home in Nairobi, George steered the Theatre into a golden era that saw African theatre flourish. Both Menoe and Vundla are our “compatriots”, as they have family in Ukambani and in Nyanza.
But “compatriot,” too, was James Park, whom I had nicknamed “Juma Bustani” when he wanted a pen name under which to publish his lovely young people’s books, like the prophetic Saving Lake Nakuru. Jim was a teacher through and through, although he was also well-known in Nairobi rugby circles, both as a player and an umpire at the mighty Harlequins.
His last teaching stint in Kenya was at the Braeburn School but he had also taught at the Highlands (today Moi) Girls High School-Eldoret and later Maseno School.
On leaving Braeburn, he had returned to Uganda, where he had started his teaching career, and founded an international high school, which he headed until his death in 2018.
Jim belonged to a generation of Brits whom we called “TEAs” (Teachers for East Africa). Newly graduated from British universities, these young people took their postgraduate education diplomas at Makerere and they taught in our schools as a form of technical cooperation between Britain and East Africa. Many of them stayed on, even after their British contracts expired. They had fallen in love with our land and our people.
Would it be an exaggeration to call Jim Park and his mates “indigenous” Kenyano-Ugandans?
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]