I am not Tribeless

I am a Luo, and always will be

IMAGE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

I have just finished a two-week stay down at the Kenyan coast. I did not do much while there, except maybe swim a layer of my black skin off (don’t you worry friend, I have grown much of it back already). The coast made me so lazy, I couldn’t write my regular weekly posts. In fact, I was too lazy even to snap photos and share them on Facebook and Twitter like a normal millennial — I rationalise this by convincing myself that it is irrational to share perfectly personal photos with a group of perfectly strange people. Sometimes, you got to keep some things to yourself.

Nevertheless, I didn’t keep off social media. In fact, I think I trawled through social media more than I normally do this side of Ukambani. Like a snake, I silently slithered across people’s profiles and posts, read their comments, checked what they liked and generally got a feel for the zeitgeist on these platforms. To make sure that I left no trace of having been there, I neither commented on, “reacted” to nor “liked” anything.

From what I read and saw, I can tell you we are setting this country up for a perfect storm if we don’t change the way we carry out the business of politics. The amount of hate, ignorance, irrationality and pure bullshit on display on social media is appalling. The only thing more appalling is that it comes from people who are brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers — in short, from people who, for all intents and purposes, should be normal, but for some strange reason abandon their brains before logging onto their online profiles, the way we abandon our shoes at the door of our aunt’s house before entering.

Of course, like problems, there was no shortage of “experts” with “solutions” to the situation I have described. And given that a big chunk of it can be attributed to tribalism, the most current solutions try to tackle tribalism. And of these, the most radical is this idea of being Tribeless. The term is plastered on profile pictures on Facebook. It peppers comments on Twitter. It is scattered inside blog posts. It is the theme of an entire movement. It is touted as the magical elixir that will take Kenya from the dark ages of tribalism and into the enlightenment of national unity.

And what’s not to love about it? If tribalism is the cause of all our problems as a nation, then why not just erase it and replace it with a supra-tribal identity called tribelessness? Again, I ask, why not? Well, because it won’t work. I think this approach is not only impossible, but also dangerous. Not only does it provide the wrong answer, but it provides it to the wrong question. Because it goes against the very principles on which we could build the national unity it seeks to bring about. I think it is the result of intellectual laziness, of an unwillingness, or at least inability, to properly understand the concept of tribal identity in a multi-ethnic country.

Allow me to use myself as an example here. If you didn’t know it from my name yet, I belong to the Luo tribe, which is one of the four large tribes in Kenya. My people have inhabited what is now western Kenya for over 500 years. I had no choice in the fact that my ancestors left northern Nubia and settled in the Bahr-el-Ghazal before that. Nor did I tell them to run away from that bog and into what is now Uganda when Arabs came and violently tried to convert them to Islam.

Nor did I tell my ancestor Ramogi to leave his father’s home and his brother Podho (know the Padhola anyone? — plus I could be wrong on this part of my history) in Uganda and settle in what is now Kenya. Furthermore, I did not tell the Brits years later to draw lines on a piece of paper and say at some point that the enclosed area — representing the dwelling places of at least 42 other tribes like mine — represented Kenya. And, lastly, I did not choose my Luo mother to be the wife of my Luo father. Heck, I didn’t even choose to be born in Boya hospital in Nyando or to be given the name of the first teacher in my ancestral village in Kisumu West.

These things happened without me. One day, early in my childhood, I learnt that I am a Luo. The identity I developed was a Luo identity, and the person I became was a Luo person. It is not something I chose. It’s like my sex, the colour of my skin, my height or the size of my brain. It’s written in my genes. Without it, a core part of my identity would disappear. I would stop being me and become someone else. Because anyone who does not have my genes is not me. My tribe, like the other components of my identity, defines who I am and distinguishes me from the rest of mankind. The same as your tribe defines you. And that is not a bad thing. In fact, it is necessary. There is no identity without distinction. Ask a logician.

What I am trying to drive at is the simple fact that it is impossible to choose what tribe you belong to. And that, since you don’t get to choose your tribe, it follows that you cannot choose to not belong to a tribe. You can only say you are tribeless, which sounds nice but is not the same thing and, moreover, means nothing. It’s a string of beautiful but empty words. Like an Obama speech.

And please don’t come to me with examples of people from mixed-tribe families or people born and brought up in cosmopolitan areas such that their identities are a meshwork of multiple tribal identities. These apparent exceptions, if you look at them rationally, can only prove my point. I don’t have the space to tell you how. But I know you can think through it yourself, so I don’t need to.

To conclude, I think the evangelists of the tribeless movement are, perhaps without knowing it, barking up the wrong tree. If you think, like them, that belonging to a tribe is a problem, then you are just a whisker away from being a tribalist. Because the cause of tribalism is not the fact that tribes exist, but rather the character of the people who practice the vice. Tribe is not a bad thing. It’s the way we think and talk about it that can be, and often is, bad. That is the problem we should be solving, not burying our heads in the sand and saying, like a hollow tin can “I am tribeless.” Forgive me, but that is lazy nonsense.

Like you, I am not tribeless. I am a Luo.


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