When Tanzania’s minister for foreign affairs Palamagamba John Kabudi delivered his speech at the official launch of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report, it was widely reported that he had stolen the show.
This verdict was driven by both the volume and number of prolonged cheers he received, largely for the eloquence with which he spoke in both Kiswahili and English, and also for the purportedly new lessons on multiculturalism that he rendered with so much poetry.
I must admit that at the rate of Prof Kabudi’s rhyming couplets and musical alliteration, I readied myself for his reference to D.O. Misiani, the legendary benga musician who was also famous for exploiting his identity as both a Tanzanian and a Kenyan.
But it became clear that Prof Kabudi had a tight script that was dedicated to defanging poisonous (hi) stories about the predatory ways of a certain community.
In the circumstances, D.O. Misiani and his clever escapes from dictatorship in Kenya was, in that moment, erased from Tanzania’s official history.
Reading through the BBI report, titled "Building Bridges to a United Kenya: From a Nation of Blood Ties to a Nation of Ideals", it becomes apparent why Prof Kabudi’s ideas on identity and nationhood were met with so much appreciation.
Compared with BBI’s suboptimal theorising on being and belonging, Prof Kabudi transcended the static colonial classification of peoples and societies that clearly underpins the BBI report and its dubious acceptance of the claim that Kenya is a collection of numbered ethnic groups precariously held together by blood and soil, bereft of ideals and a national ethos.
If it was serious about rebirthing Kenya, and shaping new policies on being and belonging, and if what the Kenyans who appeared before the task force asked for was inclusivity, wasn’t it possible for the task force to rethink the entire premise of ethnic groups?
Why were they unable to embrace in their report the progressive ideas Prof Kabudi was hailed?
Why didn’t they look to cultural theorists like Stuart Hall and Kwame Anthony Appiah, who long dismantled the pseudoscience that 19th century anthropology relied on to classify peoples and societies as it aided the divide-and-rule project of imperialism?
In his posthumously published memoir Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands (2017), Hall interrogates his experience of being from Jamaica and of Britain.
Because, as Prof Kabudi illustrated, it is possible to be both/and, rather than either/or.
Hall is emphatic that “We tend to think of identity as taking us back to our roots, the part of us which remains essentially the same across time. In fact identity is always a never-completed process of becoming — a process of shifting identifications, rather than a singular, complete, finished state of being”.
In the same vein, in The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity (2018), Kwame Anthony Appiah underlines that whether they are personal or national, “identities never have just one interpretation”.
They are neither fixed nor linear, freezing who we are and who we can be.
Where you were born can never change and there may be aspects of that place and time that remain tied to you — like your name, for example.
But these aspects are not the sum total of who you are or who you can be, and neither are they a code through which your beliefs, your virtues and your vices are magically revealed.
When we persist, as the BBI report does, in describing Kenya as a collection of whatever number of tribes who are united by blood and soil, rather than bound by already-existing aspirations — however dubious and dangerous they might be — we are courting the essentialism that Appiah warns against.
Whether one is talking about class, country, creed, colour or culture, essentialism is always a misstep because identity in any shape and form does not confine, it gives choices.
Whatever sits as its essence is entangled in many peripheries that we ought to be free to explore and inhabit.
And this is the foremost problem with Kenya today: the State and its servants are the primary vehicle through which everyone is essentialised as a tribal being, whether or not their personal reality reflects it; whether or not their ideology upholds it.
An immigration officer will hold your passport and ask you what tribe you are without any hint of irony.
A traffic policeman will read out your name and follow it with “ooh, kumbe wewe ni kabila x, as if the penal code assigns every tribe imaginable a designated traffic offence!
When BBI abides by the anthropology of counting ethnic groups, what has it done with the people who — for a variety of reasons — find no affiliation in their presumed tribes?
And in 2019, the design of identity as either patrilineal or matrilineal must be erased to take cognisance of our Constitution, and succession laws which regard children — male, female or otherwise — as equal.
In upholding gender equality, our laws open the door to a person’s freedom to elect the lineage they wish to follow.
There are those for whom the notion of tribe holds value and they must be allowed to wear it on their foreheads if that is what makes them happy, but only for so long as their self-identification is not wielded as a tool to limit the freedoms of others.
The State and its agencies have no business in counting ethnic groups and no business in furthering the idea that an ethnic group can be an advantage or a disadvantage.
Identity, Prof Kabudi demonstrated, is more than shared genes; it is freely transportable from one place to another through the vehicle that we call values.
Next week I will explore two other BBI fallacies — its take on national values and its fanciful search for a comprehensive history of Kenya through a State office that will henceforth be known as the Official Historian and National Archives Service.
Dr Nyairo is a cultural analyst; jnyair[email protected]