What does it mean to be Kenyan?

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The question of identity has always been both a sensitive and a complicated question, particularly in Kenya. Now, the thorny issue has been taken on by a recent exhibition that combines art and research to explore the topic.  In his regular column for the Daily Nation, Nic Cheeseman joins forces with Wambui Wamae to investigate.

What is it to be Kenyan? It is a surprisingly hard question to answer. Being ‘Kenyan’ is not just about being born within the country’s borders — it is also about what people think it means to belong within the Kenyan nation.
As in all countries, this is complicated by the fact that people from different backgrounds often emphasise different elements of ‘Kenyanness’. It is also complicated because the development of a strong and coherent national identity has been constrained by the strength of sub-national identities.
In the past, this mainly meant ethnicity, but there is now a serious danger that religion will become entrenched as another political cleavage, encouraging Kenyans to focus on what divides them rather than what unites them. As a result, there is no easy answer to the question of what it means to be Kenyan today.
This realisation was one of the inspirations for ‘Who I Am, Who We Are’, a public art project on Kenyan identity that is on show at the National Museum in Nairobi until March 26. The exhibition, which fuses art and research, explores the idea of nationhood and ‘how this is embodied through our sense of identity and our everyday interactions.’
By engaging with a broad range of Kenyans across the country, the artists hope to create spaces where the individual and the collective meet, a time and place of togetherness, stock taking and freedom of expression that can give meaning to the journey that Kenya, and its people, are travelling.
The show is important because it asks vital and difficult questions about how Kenyans understand their own identity, and what this means for the future. Some of the answers are hard to swallow, but that is all the more reason that they need to be heard.
The notion that different kinds of identities compete for supremacy in Kenya is nothing new. Writing in the American Political Science Review back in the 1990s, Stephen Ndegwa argued that Kenya’s failure to transition to democracy was in part the product of the incompatibility of ‘republican citizenship in ethnic political communities’ with ‘liberal citizenship in the national political community’. More specifically, he suggested that ‘the socially enacted relationship between ethnic identity, authority, and legitimacy competes with the legally sanctioned membership, authority, and legitimacy of the nation-state’.
In other words, Kenyans are emotionally pulled in two directions at once. On the one hand, they want to invest in a civic national identity that promotes the common good. On the other, they feel compelled to buy into the kind of sub-national identities that challenge the emergence of a coherent national identity and sustain winner-takes-all politics.
According to Ndegwa, this ‘duality in citizenship engenders conflict over democracy — conceived as liberal majoritarian democracy — and results in ethnic coalitions disagreeing over which institutions are appropriate for a multiethnic state’. Or, put another way, one of the key problems facing the Kenyan state is that the primary loyalty of many of its citizens is not to the national political community, but to their own ethnic group.
A good example of this kind of tension is the 2010 constitutional referendum. This was an important moment of democratic renewal and reconciliation. Two rival leaders that had fought a bitter election campaign against each other in 2007 came together to campaign on the same platform to deliver a new political dispensation that has the potential to deliver a more inclusive and stable government.
But just as one aspect of the Kenyan nation was being constructed, sub-national social divides were generating fresh tensions. On the one hand, many Christian religious leaders campaigned against the new constitution — despite the fact that many of them had supported reform for many years — because they feared that it would strengthen the position of Muslims.
On the other, Mr William Ruto launched his own campaign against the draft, which won significant support in Rift Valley, which was ultimately the only part of the country to vote against the proposals. As a result, a moment of national reconciliation and reconstruction was, simultaneously, a moment of division and fragmentation. This occurred both within the wider society at large and also within individuals themselves.
For example, some members of the Kalenjin and Christian communities were torn between their desire to support political reform and the instruction of their leaders to oppose it.
In this sense, the challenge is not just that Kenya is divided into various competing groups, but that these different identities exist and compete for supremacy within the minds of many citizens.
A new art project by Wambui Wamae Kamiru and Xavier Verhoest explores these different overlapping identities, asking questions such as ‘Who are you?’, ‘What makes you Kenyan’, and ‘Is there a collective Kenyan identity – if there is, exactly what is it?’.
In addition to ethnic, religious and national identities, the project also addresses gender, class and generation, using both conventional research techniques and innovative approaches such as body mapping – a creative tool that involves drawing one’s body outline onto a large surface and using colours, pictures, symbols and words to represent experiences lived through the body.
The project’s findings offer a fascinating and important insight into contemporary Kenyan identity. Some of the ways in which people responded to the project are worrying. A Kenyan of European origin commented that ‘This country does everything it can to make sure that people who honestly want to belong cannot belong.’
Others concurred there was ‘no collective Kenyan’ identity at all. Many of the people who felt this way identified ethnicity as a big part of the problem. According to one participant, ‘I think tribalism won’t go away. It is not easy and we pray it will end. People talk to you in Luo, whether you understand it or not. Or people call you according to the place that you come from rather than by your name, it makes me feel like I don’t belong because I am not from here. Day to day life, people talk about my community.’
The ways in which Kenyans talk about identity reveals an acute awareness of the failure of their politicians, but also the failure of individual citizens to reject voices of division and distrust. In some cases, this led to extremely self-critical assessments of where responsibility lies for the country’s fragile national identity. ‘In Kenya, we are lacking genuine love for others. We have the resources, manpower and institutions but that genuine love for others is missing. Politicians are capitalising on this by sowing divisive seeds to divide us more. We swallow that poison, we talk, we relate but half-heartedly playing games of deception without commitment’.
Other responses illustrate the complexity and fluidity of identity politics in Kenya. A young Somali in Nairobi provided a perfect example of the kind of overlapping identities described by Ndegwa: ‘The question, “Am I Kenyan?” stuck with me all evening and what I came up with at night was; we are what is convenient, we are what we want to be in a particular moment for it to work. If at a particular moment being Somali suits that moment, then I’ll be Somali. If being Kenyan suits that moment, then I am Kenyan. If being an artist suits that moment, then I’ll be an artist. If being from Northeastern Kenya suits that moment, then I’ll be from Northeastern Kenya. This broken system has forced us to be part of that Kenya we suit in at that particular moment. To be chameleons. Does that make me Kenyan? I think every Kenyan does that. A situation whether you are going to align yourself tribally to suit the situation nationally or remove yourself completely as a need to survive.’
Other participants agreed that Kenyans draw on a repertoire of identities to navigate everyday life, but saw this as something that could be a source of strength rather than a source of weakness. In Eastleigh, a participant put this rather beautifully, explaining that ‘nationality gives you pride, ethnicity; identity and religion; virtues. All these are things an individual needs.’ This contribution serves as an important reminder that identities play a positive as well as a negative role. Ethnic identity may be problematic when it comes to elections and the divisive strategies of political leaders, but it can also give communities the sense of belonging they need to come together and look after each other when times are hard.
Many of those who engaged with the project expressed the hope that at some point Kenya would leave ‘tribalism’ behind and find a more inclusive political identity that would focus on what unites Kenyans rather than what divides them. They recognised that this was a long way off, but that it was something worth fighting for. On the whole, people did not have a strong sense of what could be done to reduce the power of ethnic identities, but they tended to agree on two things. First, that talking openly and honestly about what it means to be Kenyan had been an eye-opening – and in many cases a revelatory – experience. Second, that understanding divisive identities is an essential first step to overcoming them. For that reason alone, it is worth heading to the National Museum before the exhibition ends on March 26.
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