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Dying of tribes is the only way to end tribalism

Friday March 5 2010

By TOM ODHIAMBO

Every now and then, there is a wave of concern about the likelihood of the extinction of some ethnic group or other. Politicians, anthropologists, historians, archeologists, linguists, sociologists and even journalists are usually enjoined in this seemingly worrying possibility.

The fear is, in most cases, based on statistics on people who can speak a specific language associated with an ethnic community. What is the fear really about? Is it about some minority disappearing, hence making it difficult for the larger tribes to find someone to feel superior to?

For instance, should non-white immigrants in Europe and America raise the spectacle of the disappearance of whites? Wouldn’t it be ironic for whites, who colonised America and nearly exterminated the native tribes, to fear that they may disappear as a distinct racial category because of racial mix?

Wouldn’t we be all happy if we woke up one morning and discovered that we belong to one “tribe”? There are many Kenyans who are only Bukusu, Luo, Kikuyu, or Maasai by name. They do not speak the language, hardly practice the groups’ cultural rituals, do not have any relatives in the so-called ancestral lands, and would get very exasperated if you identified them by the ethnic group to which they, apparently, belong.

If you are a Suba or Tachoni or El Molo and are worried about being “swallowed” by the Luo, Bukusu, or the amorphous Kalenjin, on what basis are your fears founded? Do you fear that these “other” people will raid your tribe, kill your people, and take over your property and land?

Assumed origins

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That fear may be justified, in some historical sense, but it may be hard to argue that such an eventuality will happen in a modern state. Also, why would a Suba or a Tachoni who spends most of her time with Luo or Bukusu neighbours start to insist on difference and separation? When they claim difference, are they claiming identities based on their assumed origins from Buganda or from among the Bongomek?

If we worry about the death of tribe A or B because of genocide and other premeditated actions of other, majority people, then there is a serious intellectual and moral point to be made. If you want to know that we are probably on our way out, think back to when you first applied for your national identity card. There was a section asking for your “door” (mlango in Kiswahili).

How many of us can remember what their “door” is? All that has disappeared and people are marrying members of their clans. Inter-marriages will erode most of our ethnic identities. If the clan is getting extinct, and many of us don’t even know the word for family in our mother or father tongues, why are we so worried about tribes getting extinct? Isn’t the disappearing of tribes the way to end tribalism in this country?

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]