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Ethnicity: The Curse of Modern Day Kenya and a Challenge to Christian Mission
Prof. Joseph Galgalo, A Paper Presented at the Shahidi forum – October 29th, 2016
Revelation 7:9-10 ESV – “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” – Eschatological vision of humanity
There is an English expression which refers to a difficult situation as ‘the elephant in the room.’ The expression uses ‘elephant,’ the largest land mammal as a metaphor for unsurmountable challenge. The expression, ‘elephant in the room’, is a marvel and a reality beyond possibility. It is impossible to have an elephant in a normal size living room, but if it happens, it is baffling that anyone would miss to see it, and even more baffling that anyone would refrain from talking about it. The ‘elephant in the room’ situation is an uncomfortable reality – it is an enormous problem that nobody is courageous enough to address it, try to solve it, or even tell it as it is, its imposing or menacing presence notwithstanding. Our topic today is one of those ‘elephant in the room,’ situation. It is about ethnicity and what it means for us as individuals, as a nation, as Christians. Ethnicity can be as divisive as it can be unifying. For most communities, ethnicity is a source of pride, defining their identity, giving a sense of security, refuge and belonging. Ethnicity can also set communities apart influencing sense of cultural superiority, perpetuating ethnocentrism, bigotry, and xenophobia. It is these negative aspects of ethnicity that makes an inter-ethnic conversations ‘the elephant in the rom’ situation. No one, for example, would be comfortable with someone who would disparage, criticize or express misgivings about ones tribe or would be comfortable to reveal some uncomfortable truths about ones tribe because of the sensitivity of the matter.
In this paper, we make the observation that, Kenya is ethnically more divided now than it was at independence. Africans were then more united in solidarity with one another against British Colonialism. The dream for national unity and social cohesion was more plausible at independence than it is now. Today, the story of most Kenyan communities would include accounts of political domination, economic marginalization or life under the shadow of ethnic tensions, tribal clashes and political thuggery or police brutality. The prevailing ethnic consciousness has created a crisis of confidence in a shared nationhood that can inspire common national values and culture. The political elites have over the years perfected the art of ethnically based political demagoguery with a spinoff that has deeply entrenched ethnic consciousness as the primary identity markers for majority of Kenyan citizens. Whereas we cannot apologize for been born into one or the other of the many tribes making up Kenya, we must also face the uncomfortable truth that ethnicity has become a curse of sorts, a stumbling block to a meaningful social cohesion, as well as a great challenge to Christian mission. We assert that the reasons why various ethnic groups have found ‘tribal enclaves’ as safe spaces, and preferable for them to fully prioritizing a national identity over and above that of the tribe are three pronged – historical, sociological and political reasons.
In the paper, we also explore the question of what would be a helpful theological take on the subject of ethnicity. We contend that shared faith in one Triune God who models unity in diversity can inspire a vision of new humanity, to support a progressive realization of ‘one Kenya,’ a ‘super-tribe’ united in diversity and held together by shared values. We also propose some practical interventions spanning educational, legal and constitutional as well as political and economic re-engineering, guided by a negotiated social contract between the peoples of Kenya. We proceed first by defining ethnicity before looking at ethnicity in the Kenya context. We then attempt a theological approach to the subject of ethnicity and finally make a few practical suggestions and how we may address ‘the elephant in the room.’
Race and Ethnicity
Classifying or categorizing entities according to their perceived value or assigned identity is a major human phenomenon. Race and ethnicity are one of such most basic categories of human identity. Both of these concepts are human categorization of identity to which normally a certain value is attached. Humanity is often seen as a broad category which is often sub-categorized using basic identity markers such as gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, religion and status (with regard to political (e.g. majority or minority, leader or the lead, etc.; and economic categorization e.g. rich or poor). Human ‘categorization’ of these entities are largely a product of social construction. We note that the Bible does not make racial distinctions but regards humanity as one race with a variety of languages, people groups, tribes, families and nations. People groups, technically referred to as ethnic groups or nations as is sometimes referred to, is our concern in this lecture. It will be prudent to clarify what the term ethnicity means right form the onset.
What is ethnicity?
Ethnic (note – in the original usage, was rather pejorative/negative) – According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word Ethnic originated or came into common usage from about 15th century, meant: “pagan, heathen,” from Late Latin ethnicus, from Greek ethnikos “of or for a nation, national,” by some writers (Polybius, etc.) “adopted to the genius or customs of a people, peculiar to a people,” ..from the word: ethnos “band of people living together, nation, people, tribe, caste,” also used of swarms or flocks of animals, properly “people of one’s own kind,” … referring to [among other things a] social group. Earlier in English as a noun, “a heathen, pagan, one who is not a Christian or Jew” (c. 1400). In modern noun use, “member of an ethnic group,” from 1945.”
The Septuagint (LXX) Greek translates the Hebrew word goyim, plural of goy as ta ethne. In the Hebrew the word translated into Greek as ethne meant “nation,” especially with regard to non-Israelites, or “gentile (foreign) nations, who are deemed not worship the true God. In later Christian writings the word ethnikos is used to connote a “the pagan (non-believer), the gentile.” As different from Christian. This alludes to early Christians’ understanding of a creation of super Christian tribe as opposed to those alien to the worship of the Christian God.
What is Race?
The word race, means common descent or a shared lineage/ancestry. Its’ first usage in English can be traced back to about 1580. Its origin is probably from Old French ‘rasse’ or Italian root, ‘razza.’ “An earlier but etymologically distinct word for a similar concept was Latin genus meaning birth, descent, origin, race, stock, or family; the Latin is cognate with Greek “genos” (γένος) meaning “race, kind” and “gonos” meaning “birth, offspring, stock ….” (“Online Etymology Dictionary“. genus. Douglas Harper. Retrieved …).
Origin of Races and Ethnicity
The Bible affirms that all human beings are descendants of one ancestor – Adam (Genesis 1 – 3). The Bible also makes it clear that only Noah and his three sons – survived the catastrophic floods, making him as the second common ancestor of all human races. Genesis 10, 11 records how Noah’s descendants separated and grew in diverse ways. Various differences spanning geographic, cultural, physical traits, religion and social groupings now play key role as human identity markers. Three factors seem to account for the existing differences: The origin of different languages; splits and separations into different language groups, environment into which groups settled.
Science, generally speaking, attests to common human origin based on close similarity of human genetic composition (cp. For example, in human genetics, the Mitochondrial Eve (also mt-Eve, mt-MRCA) is believed to be the most recent woman from whom all living humans descend). There is even a theory which believe all human beings share a common ancestor originating in Africa, the cradle of all human kind. The theory holds that it is through migration and adaptation that brought about vast changes translating into existing differences.
A Point to Note
Definitions of the terms ethnicity and race can get complex when we analyze differing views of biologists, geneticists, social anthropologists and evolutionists. We have here chosen to simplify these definitions. Although there are major overlap between these two categories (race and ethnicity); and although the two terms may be used interchangeably, a case for a clear distinction between the two can be made: whereas race is a biological category, ethnicity is a cultural category. Race is a category that emphasizes sameness or differences of people according to biological traits such as skin colour or general physical appearance. Ethnicity emphasizes shared cultural traits, common history and sometimes shared religion and language. Note:
“Although humans are sometimes divided into races, the morphological variation between races is not indicative of major differences in DNA. For example, recent genetic studies show skin color may drastically change in as few as 100 generations, spanning 2,500 years, as a result of environmental influences. Furthermore, the DNA of two humans chosen at random generally varies by less than 0.1 percent. This is less genetic variation than other types of hominids (such as chimpanzees and orangutans), leading some scientists to describe all humans as belonging to the same race — the human race.” (www.livescience.com).
This view agrees with the biblical teaching that there is only one human race but with a multiplicity of languages, nations or ethnic diversities. The multiplicity and diversity of the race rather than of its common origin has continued to define human relations. Ethnic, regional, religious or national differences have been source of untold suffering across the world. Our differences rather than our common humanity has been used as a basis of political exclusion and discrimination, negative profiling and stereotyping, historical biases and justifications for conflicts. Over a 100 wars are on-going in the world today, and most are ethnic based conflict including some of the longest running ones such as the Afghan war, Algerian civil war, Basque separatists conflict, Burundi, Burma (Myanmar), Kurdish independent movement, Kashmir and Tripura conflicts in India, Sri Lanka, and Yemeni tribal conflict, among others.
The Kenyan context: Our ethnicity, our deadly weapon
Does Kenya comprise of one ethnic group or 42 as is often cited? If we accept the definition that ethnicity is a group identity marker or a people-category based on shared culture, language, history, customs, geographical area; then we have more that separates us than those that unites us as a single entity called Kenyan nation. This makes Kenya a complex multi-ethnic nation. It also raises the need for ‘identification’ and ‘construction’ of a unifying factor that can help build Kenya’s various ethnic nations into one nation. With this regard, it may be helpful to appreciate some complexities: Multiplicity of ethnicities Challenges the national assertion that Kenya is composed of 42 tribes. This is more complex when some ethnic communities often categorized as sub-tribes under certain bigger ethnic groups challenge such categorization. According to the Encyclopedia of the Third World, “There are over 70 distinct ethnic groups in Kenya, ranging in size from about seven million Kikuyu to about 500 El Molo who live on the shore of Lake Turkana. Kenya’s ethnic groups can be divided into three broad linguistic groups Bantu, Nilotic and Cushite. While no ethnic group constitutes a majority of Kenya’s citizens, the largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, makes up only 20% of the nation’s total population, The five largest – Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kamba and Kalenjin- account for 70%. 97.58% of Kenya’s citizens are affiliated with its 32 major indigenous groups.” (Source: Kurian, George Thomas 1992. Encyclopedia of the Third World, fourth edition, volume III, Facts on File: New York, N.Y., p. 970).
Kenya, as we know it today came into being following the British conquest. Large parts of tribal countries were slowly annexed and integrated into what became part of British Empire from 1895 and renamed Kenya colony in 1920. The British main interest was trade and land, and had little interest in the conquered peoples except as source of cheap labor. They imposed direct or indirect rule in order to control the conquered populations. This interrupted the tribal lives of those both under direct rule or indirect rule – and their socio-cultural existence, economic activities and political organizations were all affected. Some of the ethnic communities suffered more than others while others benefitted particularly from improved economic status mainly through the commodification of land, but also direct benefit from modern education. Communities on the margins of the country they found themselves in saw no benefits that would endear them to the new nation state.
There are communities to date after over 50 years of independence are resentful that the national government does not accord them full recognition. The TJRC, which was created by the Parliament through the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Act 2008, outlines a number of grievances that Kenyans’ expressed as making it difficult for them to feel fully Kenyan. These includes: human rights violations (particularly by state security agencies); crimes against humanity, historical injustices particularly issues surrounding distribution and ownership of land, social-economic marginalization of communities and economic crimes including impact of corruption.
Kenyan communities are capable of and do partake of multiple identities. Citizens could identify themselves by a preferred religion, or the region they come from. Identity could also be attached to status or class such as elitism. They could also identify themselves simply as Kenyan or Africanism. These array of choices pale when presented in completion with that of ethnic identity. When Kenyans are faced by such choices the primary identity of each Kenyan remains that of their ethnic identity. This raises one fundamental question: What are the reasons why Kenyan communities refuse to be subsumed under homogenizing national identity or culture? Why do we resist to assume national identity or Christian identity as our primary identity?
The historical and socio-economic context in which the analyses of the issues raised in the TJRC report is grounded explains to a great deal why Kenyans would choose their ethnicity as their primary identity marker over and above that of their religion or nationality. Four of the major challenges that prop the enhanced ethnic consciousness and works against national cohesion can be identified as: historical injustices, political and economic domination of some by others, marginalization and ethnically supported politics of demagoguery. It is because of these factor, but mainly because of ethnically supported culture of political demagoguery that Kenyan communities will continue to be entrenched deeply into ethnic groupings, and less and less endeared to the nation as Kenyans. The political elites will only strengthen ethnic sentiments as long as ‘tribes’ serve them as power base that provides them with effective political bargaining chips. It is in this regard that we conclude that ethnicity in Kenya has become a tool for political hooliganism and demagoguery in the hands of political elites.
- Historical injustice
There are various ethnic take on the subject of historical injustice. Whereas there are plenty of real historical issues, there abounds also skewed perceptions mainly colored by historical readings by present today interpreters. Perceived or real, issues often categorized as historical injustice are mainly about community grievances regarding loss of ancestral land. This has its genesis in the colonial days. As Timothy Parsons observes, “Faced with a confusing range of fluid ethnicities when they conquered Kenya, colonial officials sought to shift conquered populations into manageable administrative units. In linking physical space to ethnic identity, the Kenyan reserve system assumed that each of these ‘tribes’ had a specific homeland.” (Timothy Parsons, “Being Kikuyu in Meru: Challenging the Tribal Geography of Colonial Kenya,” Journal of African History, 53 (2012), p. 65-86).
The colonial government also, as Maurice Makoloo observes, secured “large chunks of land using various means. These included treaties of forceful conquests, such as the Maasai Agreements of 1904 and 1911… [and] several land laws to support these acquisitions, … [including] the Crown Lands Ordinance of 1902 and 1915. (Kenya: Minorities, Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Diversity A Report of Minority Rights Group International and CEMIRIDE, By Maurice Odhiambo Makoloo). After independence, whereas dependency on land as the major economic mainstay became a reality, skewed land distribution, and issues of historical displacements were never addressed. The Kenya policy ‘willing buyer, willing seller,’ (Sessional Paper No.10, 1965, African Socialism and its application to Planning in Kenya, paragraph 80) was a further injustice as it only made land ownership a preserve of the economically empowered few. The Sessional Paper no.10 of 1965: (see paragraph 39), targets foreigners to sell also other investments to African stating in part, “Foreign investors must be willing to sell an increasing number of shares and in some cases perhaps all to Africans.” The paper also although expressly based on a stated philosophy of African socialism emphasizing such principles as at the same time states that state resources will be channeled and allocated as a matter of priority to ‘areas of great agricultural potential.” (Par. 102). This deliberate policy choices laid a firm foundation for economic disparity and outright marginalization, especially of communities in areas that are comparatively less arable.
Land and huge economic disparities were not the only challenges that faced Kenyans after independence. Majority of Kenyan populations had to retreat to their ethnic domains to find ‘security in numbers’ in the face of grand corruption, politics of patronage and domination by political elite, weak legal system, dominance and control by the ruling elite, persecution by state security agencies, and lack of economic empowerment and access to opportunities for meaningful social mobility and progress.
The Sessional Paper No.10 of 1965 recommended a policy to develop ‘high potential areas’ in believe that the move will accelerate Kenya’s overall economic growth. This move overlooked emerging marginalization; and historical issues such as displacement from ancestral lands. With time there emerged a two-tier society one ‘endowed with land’ and the other, ‘a group of landless’ and disempowered communities. The seriousness of the matter cannot be overemphasized given that land became a prime economic commodity and a primary means of social mobility. For example, until very recently land served as a collateral asset for credit facility without which one cannot access credit. This explains why land redistribution remains so important to most people; who historically feel they were short changed.
Beside the commodification of land as a means of economic empowerment, land also has one other significant role in the lives of most Kenyans. The African culture is deeply entrenched in a land-centred worldview. Land ownership is intricately connected with the concept of personhood and directly impacts a person’s self-understanding, sense of worth and identity. (For example; a landless person is a ‘nobody’ and is identified using such demeaning terms as a squatter. Land is not only important to the living but also to the dead. One who is buried in their ancestral land receives the honor to rest with their ancestors, where you belong. This gives a sense of permanence of identity, and status, meaning that land plays a constitutive role in the African identity. Such a land centred worldview, coupled with the emerging reality that land is a means of economic empowerment deepens the sense of belonging to an ethnic group and the orientation to embrace the conviction to secure ethnic territory giving it a sense of sacredness especially when it is seen as ‘ancestral land.’
Under successive independence governments, economic disparity led to ‘conflict and tension’ between various groups. The prevailing situation lent urgency for communities to mobilize ethnic solidarity to find strength in numbers and heightened sense of belonging. There emerged such social categorization as ‘us’ and ‘them’ as ‘ethnicity’ became an attractive ‘bargaining power for political gain’ or a model of economic empowerment through perceived or real access to the elusive ‘national cake.’ The present state depicts potential fragmentation, descent into anarchy and lawlessness, epitomized often in frequent cattle rustling, ethnic clashes, political conflicts and violent activism, and riotous protests. Ethnic conflict/tribal clashes, for example, has now become perennial feature on our political and ethnic landscape since 1992. This almost always happens around election times to displace and disenfranchise those seen as opponents, to impoverish communities opposed to the ‘dominant community’s’ political ambitions, and in order to grab and keep political power and perpetuate dominance.
- Political/economic dominance of some by others
Political and economic exclusion and neglect of the plight of the minority and marginalized groups has made opportunities for service in public sector a preserve of some (e.g. there are communities in the country who will never be elected to lead the country or hold any elective position even in their own region. With ethnicity becoming a primary factor of consideration when it comes to elective politics, ‘merit is never an adequate substitute for one from a minority ethnic group’). As absurd as it is, all members of a dominant tribe collectively share blame of ills committed by their leaders. Prejudices and biases arising from perceptions of their leaders’ behavior becomes a collective burden for the entire community. Regardless of such absurdity, two categories of people must be distinguished: the political elites (who abuse and use the numerical strength of the tribe for their own gain) and the large number of masses who play into the hands of the elite class for reason of believing that their destiny is with each other as a tribe.
The constitution, under Article 260 defines marginalized community as “A community that, because of its relatively small population or for any other reason, has been unable to fully participate in the integrated social and economic life of Kenya as a whole.” Majority of the most marginalized groups are small in number, dominated by their more numerous neighbors, often cut off and exists in the remote, hard to reach parts of the country. These communities lack access to opportunities such as education or good schools, access roads to markets, amenities such as health and lack such basic needs as water and are food insecure. They are also often under threat of insecurity, at risk of losing their ancestral land, livelihood, culture and identity. Majority of those in this category are mainly the indigenous communities including “but are not limited to the Ogiek, Watta, Sengwer, Maasai, Samburu, El Molo, Turkana, Rendile, Gabra and the Endorois” (“Engaging Minorities and Indigenous Communities in the Kenya TJRC Recommendations and Comparative Practices,” Briefing Note 2010 CEMIRIDE (Nairobi, Kenya).
The plight of these communities ranges from systematic marginalization to losses at the hands of state agencies. TJRC, for example, records a long list of massacres suffered by various communities from 1963. Disenfranchisement as in the case of the Nubi and land grievances are some of the other case of marginalization. Endorois case, for example, is a good case of displacement and state perpetrated injustice. “In the 1970s, the Kenyan government evicted hundreds of Endorois families from their land around the Lake Bogoria area in the Rift Valley to create a game reserve for tourism. The Endorois, an indigenous people, had been promised compensation and benefits, but these were never fully implemented, and the community’s access to the land was restricted to the discretion of the Game Reserve Authority. This prevented the community from practicing their pastoralist way of life, using ceremonial and religious sites, and accessing traditional medicines.” etc.) In 2014, the Ogiek community filed an application in the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) contesting forced evictions from Mt. Elgon and Mau forests.
The constitution (2010) recognizes the rights of minorities and marginalized groups including indigenous communities. It also contains a very progressive Bill of Rights that guarantees individual rights of access to education and opportunities for meaningful livelihood. For example, Article 56 provides that “the state should put in place affirmative action and programs designed to ensure that minorities and marginalized groups participate and are represented in governance and other spheres of life; are provided special opportunities in education and economic fields; are provided special opportunities for access to education; develop their cultural values, languages and practices; and have reasonable access to water, health services and infrastructure.” Article 44(1) further states that, “every person has the right to use the language, and to participate in the cultural life, of the person’s choice.” Despite these progressive constitutional provisions, practical benefits are not being realized because of lack of political will, weak legal system and skewed resource distribution and misplaced priorities. In the circumstances, the minorities are confused about their role and place in the life of the state. Their continued marginalization and exclusion from the mainstream of Kenyan society and economy is a setback for national unity and social cohesion.
- Political hooliganism and Demagoguery
Competitive politics have turned ‘ethnicity’ into a crude weapon of sorts in the hands of politicians to help them ascend to elective positions. Political positions have become so lucrative that politicians have found political hooliganism and demagoguery effective means to aid in grabbing and retaining power. Political elitism have become about ability to fan tribal sentiments, build ethnic power base and use ‘tyranny of numbers’ to keep less populous groups from ascending to power. This has breed a culture of political patronage, impunity and political demagoguery. Politicians have perfected the art of using popular prejudices and false claims to promote ‘ethnic think’ for their person gain. This has created ‘a state within the state’ where the majority, using their ethnic numbers continue to entrench political dominance by one or two communities over the others. Devolution, under the new constitution serves as a good attempt to address this problem but also runs the risk of being evolved into ‘ethnic enclaves’ or ‘tribal chiefdoms.’
The heightened ethnic consciousness weakens allegiances to the nation and trivializes such serious malpractices as nepotism, tribalism or ethnocentrism, abuse of office, official discrimination and ‘stealing’ from public coffers, and sometimes shamelessly in the name of a tribe. This works against national unity and social cohesion causing ethnic tensions among competing communities. One sided political domination is perhaps the great threat to Kenya’s future as a stable and united country. The secessionist sentiments (NEP, MRC/coast) may as well have its roots in resentment of ‘political domination.’
To address this problem, it is perhaps time we questioned the fundamentals of our democracy. ‘Is majority always right?’ Is political representation really necessary? Can we find alternative system of governance that guarantees prudent management and fair distribution of resources? Is it prudent to promote alternative descriptors and identity markers such as religion to counter the negative impact of ethnicity?
Is ethnicity God’s design for humanity? Theology, Ethnicity and Ethnic Relations
The Bible recognizes one human race with one common origin and ancestor, Adam. The Bible, however mentions families, tribes, peoples, and nations, as distinct sub-categories. Interpreters do not all agree that the Bible attests only to one race. The story of Cain and Abel have been used by some interpreters, for example, that the mark God had put on Cain was a racial identity-marker such as skin color, to set Cain apart as a separate race. Such a view is not supported by the text or its specific context. Contenders for distinct human races have also appealed to the story of the Tower of Babel citing this incident as the possible origin of human races. The story, carefully read does not support such an interpretation. It is about the origin of languages and geographical dispersion that led to the rise of ethnicities. We conclude, therefore, that God discerned one human race out of which developed ethnic groups as a product of separate culture developments. Environmental adaptions, may overtime, have brought about physical distinctions.
The New Testament envisions a reconstituted new humanity in Jesus Christ, where all who believe in him receives the “right to become children of God – born not of natural descent but born of God” (John.1:12), and thereby becoming member of God’s new family. The reconstituted new humanity finds its basis in Jesus, the new Adam. This new identity does not replace ‘ethnic identities’ but transcends it and redefines ethnic relationships, where those who share common faith in Christ Jesus become brothers and sisters. The new relationship, as is the old, is a blood relationship. Just as ethnic descent share blood relations, those born by ‘water and the spirit’ (John.3:5) share in common the blood of Christ, which makes all believers one family. Every Christian is now a blood relative one with the other through the blood of Christ that makes them one family. Whereas the ‘blood of ethnic animosity’ can be termed as ‘bad blood’ between communities or nations, the blood of Christ is redemptive with the power to reconcile and redefine.
God in his wisdom allowed creative freedom that even though believers are ‘one people of God,’ individual members are of diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. The various diversity, if patterned on the nature of Triune God who is one yet manifests himself in three ways can be a dynamic model for creative management of ethnic and racial diversity in the world. This requires aligning the world to God’s desire for harmonious co-existence in order to achieve a diverse but just and stable world. This appreciates human diversity while at the same time recognizing the priority of shared faith that points beyond the differences to the ‘oneness in God.’
The book of Revelation 7: 9-10, points to a future time when believers “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, [will] stand before the throne of God” and celebrate their salvation as one people of God. Full ethnic integration and harmony is an eschatological project, which can only be achieved at the eschaton, ‘when God will be all in all’ (I Cor.15:28). Perfect unity properly belongs to the eschaton because the present human relations are distorted by sin. Discriminative ideologies such as ethnocentrism and racism which divides people along ethnic or racial lines are a product of sin. In the present life, the believer is called to practice the ethic of the Kingdom of God, and with regard to ethnicity guided by the call to ‘do the right thing’ for “in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” (Acts.10:35). Those who by faith embrace others and see them as the ‘children of God’ (John 1:12) are admitted into God’s own tribe, and each stands a chance to celebrate in the eschatological celebration of salvation (Rev.7:9-10). Galatians 3:26 -29 greatly clarifies the nature and basis of what we called God’s new tribe. It says: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (cp. Romans.10:10-13 and Col.3:5-11). Notice that the ethnic distinctions ‘Jew, Greek, Barbarian, Scythian, etc. do not just fall away or disappear. Rather, they cease to be the primary identity markers for the believers. It means these categories must not be allowed to be a reason for division, conflict, social prejudice and discrimination. As Gordon Fee observes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” — is not a call to erase ethnic, class and gender diversity in an ontological or absolute sense. Rather, it is a call to break down any existing barriers and inequalities between them) Gordon D. Fee, “Male and Female in the New Creation” in Discovering Biblical Equality, IVP 2002, pp. 172-185).
God’s Triune model of being inspires the embrace of unity in diversity. Whereas ethnicity may be a valid distinction, it does not have to be our primary identity-marker, and least of all, a reason for divisions and conflict. The ethics of the Kingdom requires embrace of each other by doing the ‘right thing’ and accepting the invitation to join the reconstituted new humanity. This is the call to all believers – that they become one through the blood of Christ that makes them new family.
Envisioning the Kenya we want: Re-imagining Ethnicity
In the last section we observed that although the distinctions of being ‘Jew, Greek …’ may not cease to exist when one believes in Christ, these distinctions do not have to remain a believer’s primary identity markers. Here we propose a balance between a ‘theology of cultural blindness and the ‘politics of difference.’ Cultural blindness is exact opposite of cultural incapacity, a belief in ones culture as superior to others. On the contrary, cultural blindness overlooks all cultural differences and embraces all as equal. Both of these terms have negative connotations but there is something helpful about cultural blindness. An attitude or belief which overlooks the difference in the other is a good thing especially if such attitude leads to inclusivity and equity in the judgment and treatment of persons. Applied to ethnicity, it can, for example, guard against ethnocentrism. We need to construct a positive cultural blindness. Positive in the sense that we can be ‘open’ enough to remove cultural barriers that separate various tribes, but also be honest enough to correct where such correction is called for.
Is a theology of ‘cultural blindness’ if balanced with ‘politics of difference’ help construct one, all-inclusive identity marker – that sets each Kenyan apart as a ‘Kenyan’? The kind of “cultural blindness” we have in mind can be summarized in the words of the apostle Paul as: ‘for those who are Kenyan, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, and in this case, Samburu nor Rendille, Aweer nor Nubian, Kuria nor Meru …’ (cp. Rom.10:11-13; Gal.3:26-29; Col.3:10-11). The only challenge with this kind of ‘cultural blindness,’ is risking the failure to recognize legitimate differences and may undermine necessary interventions like affirmative action. Given our Kenya experiences of gender, ethnic and such other disparities, there could be a good reason to treat ‘cultural blindness’ with hermeneutic of suspicion. It could easily be abused as ‘we are all Kenyans (no male or female, tribe A or tribe B) – no one should be considered before anybody else for whatever reason. This could be balanced with ‘politics of difference,’ which can provide policy framework that ensures necessary interventions that can bring about equity and just distribution of resources and access to opportunities are put in place. ‘Politics of difference’ is about appreciating the ethnic differences and using those difference to build synergies for constructive engagement with the ultimate aim of national unity and cohesion. ‘Political difference’ can recognize and correct historical injustice, remove political dominance of one by the other, and bridge social and economic disparities but only if inspired by the positive spirit of cultural blindness as in ‘one Kenya – no Jew nor Greek …’. This will lessen the need for ethnic based politics, and endear people more to the nation and thereby promote cohesion. To achieve this end, a number of measures need to be put in place.
- Strengthening national legal and constitutional framework
As mentioned above, the constitution (2010) has a strong Bill of Rights and envisions opportunities and justice for all. Whereas we have a good constitution in this regard, the national institutions are not empowered enough to deliver ‘justice for all.’ Needless to say, weak institutions are a recipe for disaster (generating either impunity where the powerful can do anything and get away with it; or breeds corruption. Weak institutions can then easily become fertile ground for bitterness and despair especially among the most vulnerable of the ethnic groups and eventually a cause for social strife and ethnic conflict. It is necessary to strengthen the necessary national institutions to safeguard the interest of ‘one Kenya.’ Also, put in place legal and constitutional mechanisms to ensure equitable sharing of national resources, and safeguard disintegration manifesting itself often in ‘creation of chiefdoms’ or tribal enclaves and political domination.
- Education for all
The Constitution (2010) Article 43 1 (f) “recognizes education as a basic socio-economic right for every person;” and specifically provides for the rights to education and access for persons with disabilities (Article 54 1 (b); marginalized communities (Article 56 1(b); and youth (Article 55 1 (a). It gives a strong foundation for the state’s obligation to provision of education, and strengthen the education through appropriate policies, laws, and curriculum reforms. The role of education in national cohesion and development cannot be overemphasized. Education is a key driver for ‘social integration.’ To achieve this, the country could prepare and implement a national educational system with a curriculum that can unify Kenyans of different ethnic backgrounds. Some practical steps towards his end could include a common curriculum, strengthening national schools, promoting a common national language, inter-ethnic teaching, and delivery of programs to promote national ethos and values.
- State sponsored programs for social integration
State sponsored social welfare project aimed particularly at reconstructing bonds of affinity, identity and belonging can promote national unity and cohesion. Inter-communal settlement – urbanization and ethnicity (cp. Nairobi – ‘who settles where?). Inter-marriage – incentives for this (example of Gaddafi – marriage and housing considered as basic human right and state sponsored – with first marriage and first family house fully paid for). Reconstructing bonds of affinity, identity and belonging – state sponsored social welfare – to the extent that loyalties and allegiances shift to state as a benefactor replacing the ethnic group.
- Religious and moral education
Kenya has established institutions to promote national cohesion, integrity. The realization of the goal to have an ethical society is as remote as when these institutions were first put in place. The desired national values, ethics and morality will remain a dream without a strong religious grounding. Moral and religious education can be promoted to inculcate national culture of ethics and integrity from early in life. Also religious values to be inculcated with the goal that religious affiliation can become primary identity markers. The desired outcome would be that a Christian is first and foremost a Christian defined by religious/spiritual identity and secondly belonging to an ethnic group. Unity in Christ through shared faith does not mean that ethnic and cultural differences disappear but rather, ethnic and other categories (economic, gender, etc.) cease to be definitive identity markers. Galatians 3:28 – only presents distinctions that are primarily about the question of how to be ‘one church’ in the context of varied ethnic membership of the believers. “The issue of common faith … [can] help equate all the different people groups, and makes them one new community in Christ Jesus.” (“Racism, Revelation and Recipes: Towards Christian Inter-Cultural Communities,” in Christian Educator’s Journal, April 2008).
- A Politically negotiated Social Contract
Initiate and implement a politically negotiated social contract to guard against political domination of some communities by others. What is needed is an all-inclusive political power sharing pact between all Kenyan communities. A government ministry/institution mandated to design and implement social reforms aimed towards integration of ethnic groups.
- Industrialization (Development)
As part of tackling poverty ensure that the country’s economy is managed in a better way in order to spread equity and create opportunities for all. Such a program will definitely undermine or lessen but hopefully even substitute the pervasive ‘group think’ that peddles ethnicity as a ‘social safety net’ and a political capital. A sustained economic growth through industrialization will not only address endemic poverty but also can create a ‘working class’ of urban socialites and help build ‘common’ national identity.
Conclusion: Christianity in Kenya: A Mission to the nation
Land plays a constitutive role in any African identity cp. Historical injustice – the land issue, inter-tribal wars and displacement, – the unfolding saga of ‘power, space, belonging and identity,’ may never end but ‘identities’ may change, and the defining factors such as changing economic securities, social compositions (intermarriage), status – as the new identity marker, etc. e.g. Note: although ethnicity can be very enduring, it still requires a level of maintenance through “reiterated practices and transactions.” (Mark G. Brett, Ethnicity and the Bible, Brill, 1996)
In conclusion we propose that Christianity with such great following should be challenged to take lead in a ‘mission to the nation’ – with the goal of cultivating and strengthening national values such as unity, justice and peaceful co-existence. Christianity’s primary mission to the nation should embrace ‘personal and communal transformation’ where believers become effective advocates for transformative leadership and inclusive and sustainable development, positively influencing Kenyans to embrace the vision of one Kenya through meaningful social integration.