Chirau Ali Mwakwere “Zipapa” is a former Kenyan minister and ambassador who is so funny he could make the Sphinx laugh.
He can also belt out a song at a moment’s notice, in Kiswahili, English or Lingala. He speaks impeccable Kiswahili, and claims the language originated from Kwale, his home county, where he is contesting the gubernatorial seat in the upcoming elections.
All the foregoing, however, is not important because what matters here is that “Zipapa” is a Mdigo, an ethnic group that sits astride the Kenya-Tanzania border, and had it not been for the folly of the old buccaneers meeting in Berlin back in 1884-1885, he would have been born in Tanganyika.
The Berlin Conference cut up our ethnic formations into two, three, sometimes four countries and allotted them to different European masters, sometimes giving us away as birthday presents from one monarch to another. To this day, we continue to sit frozen in that time warp that was ordained by Berlin, unable to wriggle out of this old straitjacket.
This situation, in which people from the same “nationality” – for that is what these groupings were to us before Europeans came – find themselves on opposing sides of the border, would have remained odd, something to marvel at and joke over while enjoying a good cocktail.
But tragedy strikes so often in our African setting; every now and then there is violent conflict between two of our “modern” nation-states.
In our present case, were Kenya to have such a conflict with Tanzania – Allah forfend! – Mwakwere would find him on the battlefield shooting the Mwapachus, Mwafisis and Mwajashos, the Wadigo from across the border in Tanzania.
This may sound hypothetical, but it has actually happened in other parts of Africa: The war between Tanzania and Idi Amin; the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea; the war between Ethiopia and Somalia... It is tempting to think that without the OAU (now AU) we would have witnessed many more such conflicts involving fratricidal bloodletting.
For now, most of the conflicts are low-intensity wars between states who are busy expelling brethren – and sistren – from across the border, like the South Africans throwing out Mozambicans and Zimbabweans; Tanzanians booting out Rwandans and Burundians; Mozambicans kicking out Tanzanians, with the pattern repeated across the continent from time to time.
It is disturbing to note the frequency with which this occurs. It is as if every so often we must carry out some act of faith to exorcise demons that would otherwise destroy us, and that act of faith must involve getting rid of ourselves via our fellow Africans.
A friend tells me that this is late delivery of the work done by the apartheid regime over time: The “education” given to the Africans was meant to make them hate themselves so much that when they see someone who looks like themselves, they get angry.
In fact, what has been known as South African xenophobia should be renamed “Afrophobia” because the only people under attack are Africans, not Europeans, not Asians, not Americans, not Eskimos, just Africans.
In fact, come to think of it, if the South African blacks had shown the same enthusiasm they use in expelling fellow Africans in the fight against apartheid, Madiba wouldn’t have stayed in jail longer than a semester.
But such are the sad realities that in the Tanzanian south, villagers on both sides of the Malawi border constructed a few rickety bridges across a river to facilitate contacts between them, which are as frequent as they are multifaceted: They regularly engage in commercial exchanges and they have family ties.
The bridges they put up across the river were such as poor Africans could muster, with their level of technological knowhow and financial muscle. But the Tanzanian district governor on the border was not impressed by this pan-African gesture. The district authorities simply sent in demolition squads to pull down the bridges and build a bonfire out of them.
Chirau Ali Mwakwere “Zipapa” looks like he will win and become governor of his county. We wish him well, and maybe when he is governor of Kwale he will outlaw the expulsion of Tanzanian Wadigo by Kenyan Wadigo. Then maybe he will encourage the building of bridges to shame all the xenophobes in our midst.
Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam.