Tuesday, 01 November 2011 09:56


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By Onyango Oloo

The question of race in Kenya is intricately tied up with the country's history. As in all parts of the world, race was/is/will be a social construct. In other words, what is regarded as "racial identity" has to do with a very political, economic system of naming revolving around who controlled power in Kenya.

The broad categories - Mwafrika, Mhindi and Mzungu (African, "Indian" and European) delineated broad socioeconomic categories with class implications, with the Black at the bottom rung, the Mzungu on top and the Mhindi in the middle. Translated into English, Mhindi was not simply Indian but "Asian" and yet this "Asian" appellation somehow excluded such obvious descendants from that largest of continents like the Chinese (Wachina) and the Arabs (Waarabu). Even among the so called "Indians," the Goans were designated as distinct not just because of their Catholic and Portuguese traits, but more so because of their role as supervisors, middle-men and mid-level civil servants in the colonial economy.

Lord Delamere

Indeed it is within the dynamics of the political economy of colonialism that you find many of the most stubborn racial myths that have persisted right into twenty-first century Kenya. The conniving and exploiting Indian stereotype was built on the role of the dukawallahs and other Indian traders who, because they were the most visible purveyors of colonial commerce, were more palpable than the invisible Delameres, Blundells and Bloomfields holding sway in agrobusiness, industry and other commanding heights of the economy. Many people forget that there was a concerted, albeit ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to create an apartheid system in Kenya which in turn created artificial divisions among the indigenous African inhabitants of Kenya; by emphasizing tribal and ethnic distinctions to undercut the development of a non-racial, multi-ethnic Kenyan national consciousness.

One of the places where these artificial ethnic and racial boundaries were most manifest was in the diet of Kenyan prisoners during the colonial era. In a 2003 taped interview with Mutua Kisilu, the man accused of killing Kenyan progressive and radical nationalist hero Pio da Gama Pinto, I found out that the diet was divided into "European" "Indian" "Arab" "Somali" and "African" where sometimes a Mswahili from the Kenyan Coast could pass for "Arab" and a Meru with Somali type hair could pass for "Somali" to qualify for the slightly superior non-African diet.

Another area that manifested these racial/ethnic distinctions was in the designated residential areas, especially in urban areas like Nairobi. Apart from the tribally determined rural "reserves," urban Kenyans were expected to live in areas that corresponded to their presumed racial/ethnic origins. This expectation, linked together with the insistence of the colonial authorities for Africans to walk around with the dreaded kipande reinforced socially constructed racial and ethnic identities.

Sadly the legacy of these colonial edicts survives to this day in ways in which many contemporary Kenyans may seldom acknowledge.

For instance to this day, the majority of Kenyans would not dare to venture after dark without their national identity cards, dreading police harassment. To this day, Kenyans of South Asian heritage are EXPECTED to reside in places like Parklands and Westlands if not Ngara and Pangani which have become more "Africanized".

Even as Kenyan mainstream political contestations become more and more ethnicity driven, it is not often appreciated that the so called "tribal animosities" are in fact artificial fires fueled ultimately by thoroughly racist colonial policies and practices; as opposed to being innate and atavistic ancient feuds from prehistoric times.

One must say that the prevailing hostile attitudes of large chunks of indigenous Black Kenyans against Kenyans of South Asian heritage, has roots in the tensions between petty-bourgeois Indian businessmen and unskilled and semi-skilled African workers.

Quotation the prevailing hostile attitudes of large chunks of indigenous Black Kenyans against Kenyans of South Asian heritage, has roots in the tensions between petty-bourgeois Indian businessmen and unskilled and semi-skilled African workers. Quotation

Jason Dunford

Added to this were the racist attitudes of the colonial state trickling down to the workplace and sub-urban residence in terms of superior master/ inferior servant role plays, with each subject in this unequal equation acting out their expected racial/class roles.

Of course a deeper analysis reveals how shallow and superficial these racial stereotypes are. When it comes to grand corruption for instance it is impossible to miss the complicity and collusion of well-connected indigenous black Kenyan comprador bourgeois fat cats in every scandal indicting a Pattni, Somaia or Alnoor Kassam; nor can one overlook the class (cartoon) affinity between the Delameres, the Mois, the Kenyattas and the Kibakis.


As Kenya matures as a society embracing the Dunfords, the Joginders, the Kipchoges and Oliechs as cross-cultural genuine Kenyan sports heroes transcending narrow ethnic racial confines, the challenge which remains, especially for Kenyan revolutionary democrats is to work towards the realization of a society where skin colour, national origin, language, religion and ethnicity are add-on positive attributes rather than delimiting factors.

One must also caution against the ID Warriors, as Canada antiglobalization activist Naomi Klein refers to them who sees the be all and end all an all out struggle to define oneself in single issue identity terms as " Black"," Indian" or any other appellation.

In order to achieve all of the above, one must transform the socio-economic bedrock which gives rise to social constructs like "race", narrow ethnicity and so on.

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