Kenya has more than 42 tribes, so why is this still the magic number?
What you need to know:
- While the 1999 National Census opted not to publish ethnic data, the 2009 count provided codes for no less than 111 ethnic groups.
- The Nubians, for example, argued that, while their forefathers had come to Kenya from Sudan as soldiers during the early colonial period, they now know of no other home and are as indigenous to Kenya as the country’s other ethnic groups, who nearly all have histories of migration into the state’s current territory.
- The negotiability of ethnic identities complicates analysis and policy-making, since it is impossible to agree on exactly how many ethnic groups exist.
It is often said that Kenya has 42 tribes or ethnic groups. At the same time, it is common for marginal communities to claim that they are Kenya’s 43rd ethnic group — think, for example, of the Ogiek, Nubians, Endorois, or Yatta.
Indeed, instead of being a hard fact, the number 42 stems from a particular moment in time and significantly underestimates the complexity of the country’s ethnic makeup.
This reality is reflected in the fact that when efforts are made to establish a list of the country’s ethnic communities, the number quickly increases. For example, in 2003, when delegates at the National Constitutional Conference were asked to compile a list of Kenya’s ethnic communities (with a view to including the list as an appendix to the new constitution) additions resulted in the number of “indigenous African” communities increasing to 94 within a couple of weeks.
Given this rapid proliferation, organisers scrapped the idea of a list for fear that it would not be conclusive and would cause grave offence to any missing community.
In turn, while the 1999 National Census opted not to publish ethnic data, the 2009 count provided codes for no less than 111 ethnic groups.
So where does the number 42 come from? As Samantha Balaton-Chrimes notes in her forthcoming book on Kenya’s Nubians, it comes from the number of options available to people when answering the tribe question in the 1969 National Census.
However, this number has been far from stable over time. For example, the 1962 census coded 40 groups, while the 1979 census recognised 38 ethnic groups.
This lower number under President Moi resulted from the addition of several groups and simultaneous collapsing of the Kalenjin sub-groups (for example, Nandi, Kipsigis, and so on) under a single code.
In contrast, the most recent census provided codes for a number of previously unrecognised groups and for sub-groups of some of the country’s larger ethnic groups.
STRUGGLE FOR STATE RECOGNITION
In some instances, the addition of a census code comes after a long struggle with the state for recognition.
The Nubians, for example, argued that, while their forefathers had come to Kenya from Sudan as soldiers during the early colonial period, they now know of no other home and are as indigenous to Kenya as the country’s other ethnic groups, who nearly all have histories of migration into the state’s current territory.
However, this proliferation of ethnic groups is also due to assertions of difference by communities commonly perceived to be sub-groups of larger ethnic groups, which partly counters the trend towards ethnic amalgamation witnessed during the colonial period.
The capacity to negotiate ethnic identities in this way is possible due to the complexity and confusion that surrounds ethnic pasts and identities. For example, individual ethnic groups usually consist of clans and sub-groups, but also form part of larger linguistic or regional blocs, nations, or ethnic ‘families’ (such as Cushitic, Bantu, and Nilotic).
As a result, ethnic identities can, as Ronald Cohen argued back in the 1970s, “expand and contract in inverse relation to the scale of inclusion and exclusion of the membership”.
For example, an assertion of difference can occur when members of a sub-group draw upon small cultural or linguistic differences or contested histories of origin and migration to declare that they are actually distinct and separate from the larger ethnic group with which they are usually associated. In contrast, ethnic amalgamation occurs when people decide — on the basis of cultural, linguistic and/or socio-economic similarity, interpretations of ethnic pasts, and an assessment of current politics — that two or more groups, which are usually regarded as distinct, comprise part of a larger and more inclusive ethnic group.
The fact that recent history has been characterised by a tendency to assert difference, rather than amalgamation, is largely due to people’s experiences, perceptions, and fears of marginalisation as part of a larger ethnic grouping, but also to the opportunities and resources available to small and marginalised ethnic groups through, for example, the new global indigenous people’s movement.
The negotiability of ethnic identities complicates analysis and policy-making, since it is impossible to agree on exactly how many ethnic groups exist. However, it also heightens the concept’s utility.
In short, this dynamism allows ethnic narratives to adapt and respond, and thus helps them to remain relevant to ordinary people and useful to political elites in ever-changing local, national and international socio-economic and political contexts.
Prof Lynch teaches Comparative Politics at University of Warwick. ([email protected])