Race, Ethnicity, Tribe… and Exclusion
If you are a regular reader of Geography of Grace, then you know that we have been following the distressing story in the wake of Kenya’s disputed presidential election closely. In the month since the results were announced, violence has continued unabated. What initially appeared as a political conflict soon was exposed as something deeper—reaching deep into ancestral roots. But how deep?
Our network in Kenya includes a group of young leaders who gather every few weeks for prayer and reflection. Though they are activists, community developers and pastors, they have come to value the importance of shared theological reflection to help sustain their work in such challenging settings. They have become friends and coworkers, though they represent a variety of churches, denominations, and neighborhoods – and most significantly now, tribal/ethnic communities.
It is this final category – ethnicity/tribe (the two are used somewhat synonymously in this conversation) – that has drawn so much attention within Kenya in recent weeks. Increasingly, news reports focus on the “tribal roots” of the conflict. Kofi Annan said this week that the conflict may have begun as a political crisis, but it has become “something else.” Most people believe that this “something else” is about deep, longstanding grudges between various ethnic groups, which have resulted in an unfair and (now) contested distribution of political and economic resources. Thus, when people ask, “Is this a political conflict, or a tribal one,” the answer seems to be, “yes.”
This awareness is particularly distressing for Kenyans, many of whom had hoped that their country had, at some level, transcended ethnic divisions that have become so globally infamous within other east African nations.
But what is this thing we call “ethnicity” or “tribe?” American readers should recognize how loaded these issues are within our own country, and the sad history around the corresponding debate about “race” (a category of dubious scientific validity). I’m neither an anthropologist nor a sociologist, but a couple of my good friends have provided me with some comments that helped me think about the situation a bit more clearly. I wanted to pass them along to readers of GoG…
Chris Rice is co-director of Duke University Center for Reconciliation Studies, in North Carolina. Chris and his colleagues have been deeply engaged in exploring how God’s people experience reconciliation in the wake of deep, often violent, division – from “racial” conflict in America to “tribal” conflict in east Africa, to religious conflict in Northern Ireland. Chris suggested in an email to me that for the Kenyan context, we must start with the critical question of “whether the category of tribe is even real.”
“In Rwanda,” writes Chris, “Tutsis and Hutus are a creation of colonization. Before colonization, there was little difference between the two—more like the difference between farmers and herders. They intermarried, spoke same language, etc. Then the English and Belgians decided the minority herders were ‘taller,’ ‘European in feature,’ and more ‘kingly’—and gave them a privileged place in terms of political and educational power. ‘Tribes’ in Rwanda are a political reality with a history that can be traced to mythical creation stories cooked up by colonists, ID cards created by Belgians, and privileging one group over another for reasons of power.”
From Chris’s perspective, it is important to pay close attention to the complex history of Africa. Historical study, he believes, would demonstrate that “tribes have a political and economic history… Politicians play on the old stories and the power differences to further their own power. But they [tribes] are not natural, not part of God’s creation story.”
Another member of the Geography of Grace network is Dr. Derrick Hudson, assistant professor of African and African-American history at Metropolitan State College in Denver. Derrick provides four useful categories for the different ways that people think about the topic of tribe/ethnicity. (With only minor changes, these categories apply to conversations we are having in America about race, immigration (particularly by Mexicans), the place of homosexuals in society, and others.)
Primordial – ethnicity is an “end” in itself, deeply embedded within our identity and what defines us as persons. Far from being a “created category” ethnicity is real, and these categories should be celebrated (and even defended, if necessary).
Constructed – ethnicity is still an “end” in itself. But we are aware that the categories shift and change, being created and re-created over time.
Utilitarian – ethnicity is a “means” to other objectives, such as political or economic clout; it can change and shift over time, because these other goals are more important than our ethnic identification.
Transactive – ethnicity is a “means” to other objectives. Even though we are aware that the categories may have been created at some point in the past, they have become deeply embedded as “we” realized that other ethnic groups are competing with us for economic or political clout.
Perhaps it would help to see these categories placed within a grid:
Echoing Chris Rice’s observations, Derrick argues that; “Ethnicity is not an African concept – it’s Western, and was ‘crystallized’ during colonial rule. The state holds the ‘purse’ and ethnic groups, in their interaction with each other, divided along ethnic lines created under the colonial apparatus. Kenyans have an opportunity to not fall into an ‘ethnic’ conversation and realize that this is the neocolonial bondage that must be broken.”
Miroslav Volf, a Croatian theologian to whom we have turned for theological help as we try to make meaning of the conflict in Kenya, argues (in his book, Exclusion and Embrace) that the problems of “identity” and “otherness” underlie many (even most) of the great conflicts that lead to violence around the world. We use categories like tribe, ethnicity, race, nationality, culture, religion, etc. to give ourselves identity. This identity only makes sense when it is contrasted to “The Other,” who is not one of us… and who, as a potential threat to me and my group, must be excluded.
In future posts we’ll explore more of the drama of “exclusion and embrace” found in Volf’s book.
is executive director of Mile High Ministries in Denver, Colorado.
couldn’t have placed Kenya on a map 10 years ago.
serves on the board of Tumaini, a home for orphans in Kenya
Today, many Kenyans are like family to the Johnsens
Their goodness draws him close to God