Ethnicity Now, or the endlessly dying tribe

In the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth century, individuals we would now term anthropologists embraced a perverted form of social Darwinism. Looking around at so-called primitive communities, they announced that such groups were heading toward extinction and were living archives, prehistoric ancestors of modern people. For instance, W.S. Routledge and his wife wrote about the Gikuyu as a “prehistoric people.”

While the context is very different, I am reminded of this threat of extinction every time I consider my history of ethnicity. As long as I can remember, discussions of ethnicity in Kenya, especially in urban areas, have been marked with a profound anxiety: younger generations no longer speak their languages, no longer embrace their values, no longer know who they are. Simultaneously, the language of ethnic belonging and allegiance supposedly shapes, perhaps even overdetermines, our politics. We “vote,” the newspapers claim, by “tribe.”

We who might claim to be deracinated are thus encouraged—and here I misuse the word “encourage” as a placeholder for the psychic and social work of ideology, catachrestically, that is—to affirm our ever-receding sense of belonging through our votes. In voting the right way, we regain a measure of what we are always losing—and have perhaps even lost. It is no coincidence that I slip into the language of fantasy here, for no other language so aptly captures the slippery way in which belonging functions, as a property we never quite grasp, something imprecise that we desire. (Here, I am reminded of the way certain forms of kissing articulate a demand that is never quite met, hence their slightly rapacious quality. The analogy might make sense.)

For the past few years, I have drawn on my training in a psychoanalytically inflected queer theory to consider the question of ethnicity and belonging more broadly. The concept of desire has seemed incredibly fruitful in thinking about the incoherent ways belonging functions and fails, with that failure being inherent to its functioning. It is, in fact, the failure of ethnicity that subtends its use in political discourse.

For many years, those of us who were born or lived in Nairobi had problems getting identity cards. If we claimed to be from Nairobi, we were told that was not possible. Home was where our fathers came from. It was a claim affirmed in classrooms where teachers asked us to write about “home,” about our parents, about kinship in terms that confirmed the teachers’ sense of ethnic particularity and peculiarity. Ethnicity became a moral imperative in stories that warned of deracinated individuals who incurred ancestral curses and personal failures. Losing one’s ethnicity was the eighth deadly sin. Perhaps it remains so.

I am cautiously optimistic that ethnicity and national belonging need not be antagonistic. In fact, given that most of Kenya’s population lives in rural areas where the pull of ethnicity may be stronger, I believe that we must be more responsible in thinking about the relationship between the two. It is here I depart from thinkers who would dispense with identity categories altogether, embracing a universalism-cum-cosmopolitanism that I find seductive but suspect. (Of course, seduction in literary discourse is always suspect. That, too, is another discussion.)

I have been thinking about ethnicity, tribe, and becoming national as I work my way through Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The River Between. Originally drafted in 1961, it was eventually published in 1965. To my knowledge, no scholar has compared the two versions (assuming the 1961 still exists in some yet untapped archive). The dates are important, as I believe the move from a pre- to post-independent novel brought with it a host of important questions. While the novel remained firmly rooted in the 1930s (when most of the action takes place), the protagonist, Waiyaki, struggles with the idea of becoming national, regional, living within and yet “beyond” ethnicity. He struggles to reconcile ethnic belonging with a nascent national consciousness forged through education.

While he never comes to any conclusion—and is, in fact, killed because of the questions he raises—he anticipates what, to my mind, has been one of the most compelling political issues of the post-independent period: how to reconcile ethnic and national belonging.

To raise this question—and the specter of Waiyaki’s death—is to recognize how the contemporary idea of nation is haunted by the specter of ethnicity, as a bloody, howling, restless ghost. Though, perhaps, we might consider ethnicity to be the haunting undead. Material, visceral, inescapable. To understand this spectral ethnicity as essential to national imaginings, however, is not to concede that this might be the only or necessarily the most interesting way of imagining ethnicity. (Here, I state “the obvious,” but it needs to be stated.)

There is much to be said about the distinction between having and wanting ethnicity, being and acting national, desiring and living post-ethnicity and post-nationality; about, that is, the many inventive ways in which travels abroad, to cities, to neighboring towns and villages have transformed the stories we tell about ourselves and our lives; about the new forms of storytelling we have acquired, are shaping, have started to imagine; about the bodies, lives, and identities shaped and transformed by our stories. (I am, I must confess, much more interested in these narrative possibilities than the much-vaunted economic growth.)

I am a terrible geographer, but I will venture to end on a term whose multiple possibilities enliven me: orientation. To use a queer, been-to sense of dis-orientation to think through ethnicity and nationality as forms of pleasurable turning (here, imagine the child’s delight in spinning around in circles—and the loss of such as one ages).