Boundary changes and the invention of *tribes*

This is part of a summary of specific chapters of the book by Bethwell A. Ogot: History as destiny and history as knowledge.

For most of the travellers who end up here and are not familiar with the problems of ethnicity in Kenya, you can skip this post since what I talk about may sound all Greek.

In this chapter, the author discusses three boundaries

  1. inter-territorial boundaries which were arbitrarily determined in foreign capitals by foreign diplomats
  2. colonial boundaries or better still segregation boundaries: white highlands, native reserves, outlying districts and closed districts
  3. administrative boundaries

These different boundaries froze, in time and space, movements by individuals and groups from one cultural zone to another. Tribes, whatever it means, is a consequence of these administrative boundaries. Evidence for this can be found, for example, in the researches that show that 40% of Baluyia clans were originally Kalenjin. There are also to be found several Luyia clans of Maasai origin.

The author notes that the claim by the colonialists of perpetual inter-clan and inter-ethnic rivalry and fighting is undermined by consideration of the political, economic and cultural situations in different regions of Kenya during the second half of the C19. He says researches show for example Wayaiki Wa Hinga, a Maasai emerged as a eminent Kikuyu leader. The relationships can be seen too in language where the Kikuyu borrowed from the Maasai such words as Ngai, initiation rituals and military tactics. Similar reciprocal relationships existed between the Kikuyu- Akamba, the coastal nations and even in the north between the Samburu and the Rendile.

The effect of these arbitrary boundaries can be seen in how they separated several ethnic groups with one landing across an imaginary border. Examples include Abakusu/ Abagisu, Saboat/ Sabey and the Luo who would be living together with their cousins the Padhola, Acholi, Lango, Alur and Atwot instead of being isolated in Kenya.

In 1895, the East Africa Protectorate created four provinces; Coast (Syyidieh), Ukamba, Tanaland and JUbaland administered respectively from Mombasa, Machakos, Lamu and Kismayu.

What is tribe? No one knows. The colonial administration referred to the Luo as a collection of twenty tribes. The classification into tribe attempted unsuccessfully to combine linguistic, cultural, ethnic and geographical elements to create homogeneous administrative and political units. Further it can be said the definition of ethnic groups as tribes was both racist and ahistorical to the extent that it regarded the various nationality groups as being static, exclusive and homogeneous. In this sense, therefore, the concept tribe was an intellectual abstraction, a mental invention to portray the picture of a people without rulers, without government, without culture, without history to justify colonialism.

These boundaries, he writes, froze historical processes whereby dynamic interactions among the constituent elements had constantly produced either new synthesis or cultural differentiations.

It is however interesting to note, the Africans themselves, dissatisfied with the colonial tribes decided to invent their own for political purposes. The Kalenjin transformed and combined the Nandi, Kipsigis, Tugen, Pokot, Marakwet, Elgeyo into a bigger Kalenjin tribe, the different Luyia ethnic groups to one Luyia tribe, GEMA and attempts by Maasai and Samburu forming a Maa tribe.

He concludes by noting that the decision of the post colonial government to retain the colonial district boundaries is making it difficult if not impossible, for Kenyans to live in a multicultural and multi-ethnic societies that would encourage diversity and interaction, promote the coexistence of communities with multiple identities, protect minorities and emphasize intercultural dialogue and tolerance.

About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

22 thoughts on “Boundary changes and the invention of *tribes*

  1. Tish Farrell says:

    What very sound observations. I have a lot of time for Mzee Ogot. I think I need to come to Kenya to get hold of some of his books which aren’t available in the UK. And of course people of different ethnicity married. Tribalism was the Brits’ tool of choice: divide and rule. What a pernicious heritage we left behind: independence in name only plus a big mess and a thieving dynasty ruling the roost.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. john zande says:

    Curious, do you have any Azandes in Kenya, or are they all further southwest?


  3. renudepride says:

    Thank you for your summary, my Kenyan brother. It was very informative and eye-opening. There appear to be parallels between the colonial occupations in Kenya (and throughout all of Africa) and the westward expansion of the USA and the treatment and mistreatment of the indigenous peoples here. Once the colonial subjects themselves opted for freedom, they, in turn, became the colonial oppressors of others. Naked hugs!


  4. We have aborginal tribes, & many live on the reserves.


  5. johnfaupel says:

    The dreadful burden of guilt must full on colonialism, but the problem probably began much earlier when, as Rousseau realised: “The first man, who having enclosed a piece of land, bethought himself of saying ‘this is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the founder of civic society” (with all its problems therein). After all, only someone bereft of empathy for anyone but themselves would have contemplated the idea they had the right to make such an outrageous claim.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Barry says:

    We in Aotearoa New Zealand are fortunate that our boundaries have been settled for us by nature. The ocean externally, and mountain ranges and rivers internally. Perhaps the most significant man-made boundaries would be those bounding Parliamentary electorates. Nominally they should be communities of shared interests, but as the maximum variation in size between electorates is 5%, boundaries can seem quite arbitrary.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] of Dr. Bethwell A. Ogot. It is my hope that you did find the first installments here, here, here, and  here and that they were worth your […]


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