Practicing Ethnicity

How did circumcision become the singular event—the conditio sine qua non, to use Kenyatta’s terms—through which Gikuyu gender and personhood was figured?

To write about Gikuyu practices in Kenya’s new post-ethnic ethnonationalism is to risk not only complicity—the condition of all intellectual work—but, more egregiously, to consolidate post-ethnic ethnonationalism as the horizon of discourse, the thing that one/that we can never get past

If intent matters, I’m trying to unsettle by re-framing

Given the role circumcision plays in Kenyan histories and politics, I want to provide alternate sets of possibilities for how it emerged as the singular event that bestows political personhood, especially given how this personhood functions within what Wambui Mwangi has recently described as Gikuyu patriarchal politics in Kenya’s ethno-nation.

Professor Mwangi notes that Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Agikuyu did not so much describe Gikuyu identity as produce it. Along similar lines, my current writing project—the unending chapter—examines how and why Kenyatta fabricated Gikuyu identity. I am especially interested in how he figured gender and sexuality as the foundations for identity, a process that helped to stabilize Gikuyuness itself.

Historians of the Gikuyu—Godfrey Muriuki, John Lonsdale, Tabitha Kanogo, Luise White, Derek Peterson—have argued that, as with groups such as the Luo and the Luhya, the people now known as Gikuyu consolidated as such during Kenya’s colonial modernity. Practices of trade and experiences of domination and resistance produced collectivization in the late nineteenth century. Prior to this period, Gikuyu-ness was relatively porous

The historical narrative is murky, produced as a set of desires termed ethnographic history: the question, “what is a Kikuyu,” produces an answer, descriptions of social practices trapped in note-like observations, circulated as administrative reports, brief scholarly articles, thick books, factions we still use

Jean Davison’s wonderful co-authored book with the women of Mutira—a series of interviews with rural women—restores a dynamic sense of Gikuyu-ness as ongoing ritual practices. Gikuyu-ness was ongoing work and working—a working on self and community—that was as pleasurable as it was precarious

not precarious in the sense that one could “lose” one’s embedding; rather, one’s embedding needed constant affirmation. One writer on the Gikuyu complains about their seemingly endless list of thahu (proscriptions), each of which demanded some kind of cleansing ritual. I suspect a better reading of thahu would focus on how its inevitability produced ethnicity as a constant engagement with rituals of collectivity; thahu might be read as a demand for intimacy

Colonial modernity rearranged Gikuyu practices of sociality. Shifts in labor practices, the growth and spread of urban centers, and the introduction of residential missions and schools interrupted the rituals of self-care and community surveillance that had anchored embedding. Elspeth Huxley’s Red Strangers vividly illustrates how colonial modernity deracinated young Gikuyu men. In the novel, young men return from World War I in a near-catatonic state. Their fellow villagers discover that these young men served as porters in the war, where they were forced to carry dead bodies, thus incurring thahu. Distanced from communities who could purify, and thus, re-integrate them, and compelled to repeatedly bear dead bodies, the thahu compounded, so much so that the young men felt they incarnated thahu and had been fully deracinated.

I digress – on a path I might take one day, thinking about death in colonial modernity and the peculiar and particular rituals of intimacy around death

I have been focusing on how young urbanized/educated men—who were not necessarily the same, but formed an alliance I have yet to see described properly—attempted to manage colonial modernity’s disruptions. The well-trodden, much-told story of the late 1920s and early 1930s circumcision controversy around women’s bodies, framed as Christians vs. Traditionalists or colonial government vs. an alliance of conservative elders and educated young men, has rarely been written about as a strategy by urbanized young men to produce a singular event that would confirm ethno-gender.

By elevating circumcision to the singular event that conferred personhood as ethno-gender, confirming one as an appropriately gendered Gikuyu, young urbanized men found a way to re-think Gikuyu-ness, to manage its demands, to exploit the possibilities of colonial modernity. Simultaneously, these young men who were effectively wards of urban women, who had negotiated urbanity much more successfully, used the circumcision controversy to transform women into men’s wards: as needing protection from colonial intrusion, on the one hand, and being denied full personhood if excluded from circumcision rituals, on the other.
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Making circumcision the singular event through which stable ethno-gender was conferred allowed missionaries to fabricate mission-based circumcision events that carried the same weight as those in Gikuyu communities. Indeed, the turning of circumcision into the doorway to ethnic personhood made Gikuyu-ness less inclusive and less dynamic, less based on mutual obligation and surveillance, even as it was predicated on this. Indeed, to stretch an analogy: circumcision became similar to the colonial government’s mandatory identity requirements, a kipande system that favored all men, and especially urban men.
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Because the urban is so strategically absent from Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya, and because scholars invested in ethnicity have so often figured ethnicity as bound to the rural, it has been difficult to read how Kenyatta’s work caters to urban-based young men by stabilizing ethno-gender. Kenyatta fabricates circumcision as the singular event that bestows full ethno-personhood, minimizing, if not erasing, the entire assemblage of practices that made Gikuyuness an ongoing practice of self and communal care.
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All possible and alternate narratives create their own foreclosures, their own impossibilities, their own exclusions, and I feel those exclusions weighing heavily on this writing. Much of what I’ve written here feels like it will seem improbable; while all of it is grounded in historical research, this writing is still speculative, more in the realm of “theory.” It abstracts from many messy contexts to produce a kind of story that hinges on a notion of “change” or “transformation.” This is a convenient fiction, for lives and experiences and feelings always exceed whatever paradigms we use to apprehend them.

There is something not quite right about this writing. Something even wrong and perhaps dangerous. But I can’t tell what it is right now. I hope it does not damage as it travels.