Last week, I argued that ethnic identity is a social construct.
No one is born with an ethnicity written into their genes. Everyone is socialised into an ethnic identity by being exposed to its rituals and value systems.
But ethnicity is more than the language of the home, otherwise many would be labelled Swahilis.
It is possible to carry the blood of two Kamba-speaking people who have never left Ndithini and end up with Nandi ethnicity because the mores of that community are the dominant ones you have been exposed to.
Consider the case of Nadia, the girl who was rescued from a forest in Masinga four years ago, adopted by Deputy President William Ruto and given the name of his mother, Cherono.
In his memoir Dreams in a Time of War (2010), Ngugi wa Thiong’o reveals that his paternal grandfather was Maasai.
If the Maasai are patrilineal, how did Ngugi become Gikuyu? His grandfather strayed into Murang’a — “a war ransom … or an abandoned child escaping famine”.
He was given the name Nducu, a guesstimate of the Maa word he kept uttering.
Anecdotal evidence reveals that William Wamalwa, father of the late Vice-President Michael Kijana Wamalwa, was born and raised as a Sabaot.
How he became Bukusu and acquired the name Wamalwa, meaning one who brews alcohol, is the story of mobility and integration common to all communities, traditional and modern.
This is contrary to the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report’s assertions that identity is untidy and culture is hybrid, often “operating between two or more sometimes contradictory worlds”.
That is why a people who first encountered the Bible barely 80 years ago in oppressive conditions now recite it as part of their ancient lore as they complain about foreign influences.
The examples of numerous Kenyans — including former Vice-President Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi and my current MP, Dr Swarup Mishra Kiprop arap Chelule, who had lived in Kenya for just 20 years before he was elected to represent the people of Kesses — demonstrate that cultural identity, just like national identity, is mutable.
It can change over time through socialisation and be legalised.
The BBI is therefore right to posit that we can map what Kenyan identity should look like by establishing the values through which we will learn how to be Kenyans.
But BBI gets it wrong in its implicit assumption that at present, Kenyans do not have national values, that the only things that hold us together are blood and soil.
They may be unwritten and distasteful, but here are the values that shape our consciousness and determine our everyday actions — the ones we must unlearn.
We glorify being first — look at the annual headline splash over Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) “winners”, or the “overlappers” on our highways.
We glorify being right — for the sake of winning, not in pursuit of justice.
We worship being seen in church — not in contrite search of wisdom, but in a wanton show of might.
We place a high premium on amassing certificates rather than on gaining knowledge.
We value conspicuous consumption over humility, so we shy away from asking where one got the money to live as large as they do.
Acres of vanity press refer to a “businessman”, without ever seeing the need to name what they produce and how many people they employ.
Kenya was founded on the ethos of harambee, pulling together. How quickly we corrupted that spirit!
The BBI report says “the behaviour of the State and its leadership was too often at odds with what it was preaching”. Indeed.
Harambee cards to raise funds became part of the tyranny of the State in chiefs’ offices.
They also became the excuse for the State’s underperformance in guaranteeing food security, health and education.
We are still trying to “Paybill” our way to health, and fundraising for imaginary burials and weddings is now part of our social fabric.
Clearly, our problem is that we do not have humane values, the kind that condition one to forever want good things for other people.
The word “other” is important here because it raises our eyes beyond those who we think are like us, to those who paint as different.
Humane values, like empathy, decentre the self. They privilege the vulnerable majority. They diminish the private and elevate the public — public spaces, health and education.
Some will argue that being first and amassing certificates are not values but the wayward behaviour of a few.
But when the wayward behaviour of a few is rewarded by the State to the point where it is coveted by a critical mass in order to bag the society’s markers of success, we have moved from wayward to value.
We won’t redefine our values until we redefine success.
The highest incentive for upholding a value is the reward earned for doing so. That reward should be your peace of mind.
When our idea of success is revised, BBI’s plan to use cultural initiation programmes to teach national values will be great.
But the clash between some ethnic values and some constitutional rights prevails.
Many initiation rites would have to be remarkably reworked to erase toxic attitudes that condition boys to disregard girls, contributing to an already out-of-hand culture of rape and femicide.
Expanding cosmopolitan initiation programmes where boys and girls are initiated together and taught the values of (self) respect, among others, may be worthwhile.
Last week, I indicated that Prof Palamagamba John Kabudi was less than comprehensive in his history of identity politics in Tanzania.
Forget his erasure of DO Misiani, whose story would have forced the professor to acknowledge that Misiani was fleeing the intolerance of the Moi State, Prof Kabudi was also silent on a more urgent question.
Is Tanzania today a tolerant society, free of othering on the perceived basis of origins and ethnic language?
Can it honestly describe itself as a capitalist nation that has disavowed ethnic identity as a tool of accumulation and a vehicle to access and retain power? I have it on good record that it can’t, not anymore.
The control of a society’s memory — regulating what is remembered and what is ignored or erased — is a valuable tool for maintaining and legitimating political power.
When the State oversees the writing of history, it obliterates whatever threatens it.
Chinua Achebe declared, “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”.
When BBI talks of “an official and inclusive” history, are they promising that this government is now ready to disclose all the official records it holds with regard to the acquisition of certain lands and the murders of Pinto, Mboya, Karumba, JM, Ouko, Msando, and all those others for whom every stone that would have led to their murderers remains resolutely unturned?
What would a comprehensive history of the Turkwel Hydroelectric Power Station or the Kisumu Molasses Plant look like?
What would an inclusive history of the 1969 oathing in Gatundu include?
The only business the State has in documenting histories is to make robust funding available to journalists, scholars, curators, and artists to do their work.
That funding can be managed by the National Academy of Sciences or better still, by the long-awaited National Arts Council.
Armed with the requisite political will, the revamped Ministry of Culture that BBI dreams of, and a progressive Ministry of Education, can consort to conceive policies that will flatline ethnic suspicion and recalibrate national values. Ask me how another day.
Dr Joyce Nyairo is a cultural analyst; [email protected]