At the weekend we travelled to Tororo to pay our last respects to Martin Obbo, father to, among others, Charles Onyango-Obbo. COO, as many know, made his name sowing mischief as editor of this newspaper and continues to do so from his Nairobi ‘exile’.
We set off on our drive from Nairobi before dawn, climbing up and then down into the fertile Rift Valley, which was painted red by the bloodletting in the violence that followed the 2007 election.
My Kenyan colleagues offered a running commentary on the ethnic politics in which Kenya was thrown before Independence, and in which post-colonial elites have managed to keep it.
We drove through lands claimed by Masaai, occupied by Kikuyu, fought over by Kalenjin, and so on and so forth, the road signs announcing town names fading into a blur of tribal identity and a contested history of disenfranchisement and conquest.
At Malaba, the tribal narrative was interrupted by the border crossing and a reminder of our dual framework of identity, the Nation State. My Kenyan colleagues were told they did not need passports; their national IDs were sufficient.
Since our national IDs are not good for our election tallies and are long delayed, I presented my work ID and my Ugandan driving licence but the Kenyan immigration officer would not have any of it. Only voters’ cards and student IDs allowed, he said. I pointed out, unsuccessfully, the irony of refusing to accept a state-issued driving licence while accepting a student ID bought off the street.
On the Ugandan side we did what locals do and have done for thousands of years; we simply crossed the border without going through immigration! (Hopefully Gen Aronda Nyakairima will not have me jailed for this!) Why do passport holders have to go through immigration when locals simply cross the river? How much of our identity is defined by tribe and how much by what passport we carry?
The absurdity of it all hit me moments later. The funeral service was held in English, which I speak a little, and Jophadhola, which I don’t. My Luo colleague informed me that he understood enough of the language to make sense of proceedings.
Here we were in eastern Uganda listening to a language I did not understand, while my colleague – a Kenyan – did. Yet the notion of a Nation State meant that I belonged to this land while he, born hundreds of kilometres away, did not. I suspect there are dialects in Kenya I understand better than he does, by the way.
The Western education we received conditioned us to think of the call of the tribe as backward and retrogressive. It was baptised ‘tribalism’ and put away in the closet, alongside nepotism and other parochial tendencies.
Could our constant struggle to fit within the artificial container of the Nation State be explained, at least in part, by our unresolved issues of tribe, culture and other forms of identity?
Why is it that when the Scots, population 5.3 million clamour for independence from the English it is seen as a nationalist struggle yet when the Buganda, population 5.5 million, clamour for recognition or rights it is written off as sectarianism and spat out as a form of tribalism?
The arbitrary boundaries of Africa and the crafting of Western style Nation States were done at the convenience and in the interest of the colonial masters. They need not be redrawn necessarily but for us to fit, is it not time we had an honest discussion on the nations – not tribes -- that we hope to make up those states?
Answers on a post-card – hopefully in a language I can read.