A colleague visiting a club in a foreign city was surprised when a stranger came up to him, enveloped him in a bear hug while pumping his hand.
Speaking in Kiswahili, the man said he was happy to see him. My colleague was surprised, since he was certain they had never met.
It turned out the stranger had recognised him as a countryman from the identity-marking Maasai armband he was wearing beaded in the colours of the Kenyan flag.
As the evening progressed, my colleague would go to the bathroom and leave the stranger watching over his drink and vice versa.
They chatted about work and football. Knowing each other’s ethnic community or where they came from was not a priority. The flag armband had eclipsed identities such as religion, political persuasion, ethnicity, and even historical experiences.
My colleague later reflected on the evening with nostalgia, concluding ironically that though it was the Kenyan flag colours that had created the bonding, that scenario was not possible at home because of ethnic differences.
A meeting with an enthusiastic arm-shaking stranger in a club back home would—flag coloured armband or not—be met with apprehension about his identity and intentions. Clearly the armband as an identity marker is defined by the culture and context around us.
Not everybody has such positive experiences with identity-marking items. Some years back, there was a swoop in Kenya against foreign nationals.
A certain Kenyan businessman was mistakenly taken to be from a neighbouring country because of his Cushitic looks and was arrested.
He walked out of confinement with two separate items in his hands. His cap and a label he had torn from it on which was written, “Najivunia kuwa Mkenya” (I am proud to be Kenyan”).
Just a day before, he had been proud to wear a cap with the words on it. His emotional reaction was a consequence of the prejudice he experienced.
He now looked at his identity in a new way; it had been challenged to the core.
Identities ascribed at birth include date and place of birth and ethnicity or country of origin.
Those ascribed after birth include religion, education, and political heritage. Social boundaries and reproduction of identity markers that allow assertion of claims to belonging are especially visible, like happened in the club, when people are away from home.
This explains why, for instance, “Me, I love Kenya” gift items are popular with Kenyans in the diaspora.
It is said one can identify a Kenyan in a foreign country by listening to whether they will use the words “me, I”.
Maintenance of ties with home requires the reproduction of identity markers – Me, I Love Kenya T-shirts, Najivunia Kuwa Mkenya caps, flag coloured beaded armbands – to assert claims of identity.
The reaction of the businessman who tore the badge from his cap underscores the argument that identity markers can construct an identity, are fluid, not fixed, and can be contradictory.
One who doubts this should look at the strong evidence provided in political campaigns when T-shirts with party slogans construct such strong identities that one could get killed for wearing them in the “wrong” political zone.
The East African region has extraordinary ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity. We have identity markers that have endured such as the flag and patriotic songs.
Ethnicity was politicised by what Ugandan scholar Professor Mahmood Mamdani describes as the colonialists turning the ethnic group into a unit of local administration, which they termed indirect rule.
Mamdani says every bit of the colony was defined as an ethnic homeland in response to a perennial colonial problem, the need to draw attention away from the racial privilege accorded to whites that excluded the non-white majority making creation of ethnic enclaves necessary.
By creating an additional layer of ethnic privilege, indirect rule set ethnic majorities against ethnic minorities.
In countries where this system was maintained after Independence, ethnic belonging was prioritised over national citizenship.
What determines a person’s affiliation to a given group has a lot to do with the influence of who excludes or includes her/him.
Only when we undo the structural damage caused by indirect rule, can we walk up to complete strangers and enthusiastically shake their hands in genuine joy at the sight of an identity marker.
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail: [email protected]