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January 21, 2019

Identity Question

Kenyans do love their sports. In fact, little appears to weld them together more tightly than shared support for a team or an athlete. In August 2008, barely six months after the inter-community slaughter that followed disputed elections claimed over 1,300 lives and brought the country to the brink of civil war, Kenyans were united in cheering the country’s athletes at the Olympic Games in China. Today, most weekends echo with war cries as the various soccer tribes meet up to do battle online and in homes and bars countrywide. It is at such times that one can catch a fleeting glimpse of what Kenya truly is.

Last weekend, we had another chance to see it. As politicians did their best to polarise and divide the people, the historic win in Singapore by the national rugby Sevens team was achieving the opposite. These two events did not cancel out each other. The people were not any less divided over local politics or any less fervent in their support for Shujaa - as the Sevens team is sometimes called (mistakenly, according to Wikipedia). Just as eight years ago there was apparently little contradiction in people cheering runners from communities they were at war with.

Being Kenyan appears to demand the ability to inhabit seemingly contradictory spaces and identities almost simultaneously. We can be in both Afraha and Singapore, in Beijing and Kiambaa. We can be the most virulent tribalists while dressed up in national colours.

In his recent columns, economist David Ndii has suggested that there is a contestation to the death between the national and ethnic identity, and that “tribe has eaten the nation”. He has portrayed Kenya as a marriage of tribes, each trying to outdo the others. A Kenyan identity, he seems to say, is to be articulated as an antidote to this infighting, failing which a divorce would be inevitable.

The reality appears rather different. A Kenyan identity sits rather more comfortably alongside a tribal one and people seem to move in and out of them depending on whichever one they prefer to express at a particular moment, in much the same way they navigate their choice of dress. Like clothing, identities are also a means of identification. But Dr Ndii is mistaken when he posits that identity is “about belonging and believing, as opposed to having or not having.” The “belonging” is, in fact, a passport to the “having”. The identity is actually a means to access physical and psychological resources.

Thus we are most Kenyan when we seek the resources that identity offers – be they collective security after a terror attack or vicarious affirmation in a sporting event. We are also most tribal when we seek the resources offered by that identity – most often when demanding our “share of the national cake” or “our turn to eat”. In truth, we have access to multiple, and at times contradictory, identities which we put on and take off depending on who we want to be or seem: racial, sexual, gender, class, etc. The real threat to the national identity thus is not that people have an ethnic one, but that “Kenyan” offers diminished returns. The fact is our ravenous elites have hollowed out the promise of Kenya and few want to put on its tattered uniform.

Our sportsmen and women have always shown us the way to fix this. We must build up the Kenya brand, not by a vacuous “positivity”, but by actually working towards a Kenya that delivers real victories for its people in their everyday struggles.

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