Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Identity: Report from Kenya, by David Zarembka

It seems that humans, in order to deal with the mass of humanity they encounter, need to organize the masses by reverting to labeling people through identity. I don't know if this is genetic or a learned behavior (clearly the details are very much learned), but it is the root of much of the problems here in East and Central Africa and perhaps many other parts of the world.

Most people, African as well as Americans and Europeans (to use some identity labels), assume that "Zarembka" is an African name. This has led to a number of humorous incidents. For example, when I was being picked up at Nairobi airport in 1999 by a Kenyan Quaker, he held a sign saying, "David Zarembka." I went up to him and said, "Hello, I'm Dave Zarembka." He took one look at me and said, "No you're not!" I was somewhat taken aback and the Kenyan quickly realized his mistake.

Another time when I was giving a workshop at a peace conference at George Fox University, I stood up to summarize my workshop on the African Great Lakes. A person I later met in Bujumbura told me that she was so disappointed that I was not an African that she did not attend my workshop. For those who are not "in the know", "Zarembka" is a Polish name. (Oh,oh, maybe I am losing those who had labeled me as an African!!!)

Yet, ironically enough, since my children, Joy and Tommy, have a Kenyan mother, they are half African together with that African-sounding Polish name. But in fact "Zarembka" has now become an African name. It is the custom here in Kenya for people to name their children their African name after their grandparents.

Gladys has a daughter, Beverly, and when she gave birth to a son, they gave him the Christian name of "Danson" and an African name of "Zarembka". If he would happen to have many children and then male grandchildren ("Zarembka" has now become a male name), in fifty or so years there could be a number of Zarembkas here in Kenya!

So this labeling can have a strange history.

Once when my daughter, Joy, was attending Haverford College, I went to visit her. I found her watching a co-ed rugby game. She pointed out one player to me and asked me, "Is that player a male or a female?" It was very difficult to tell, deciding one way and then the other way. Joy's comment was, "It doesn't make any difference which gender you think that the player is, but you are uncomfortable until you make the decision one way or the other". She then commented that [in America] after determination of gender the next crucial determination is race.

In her book, Pigment of Your Imagination: Mixed Race in a Global Society (, Joy discusses the differences in the mixed white/black couples and their children in England, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Jamaica. In the latest national election, Barack Obama is seen in the United States as "black" and much has been made of the fact that he is the first African-American US president. His racial "identity" has little to do with his upbringing because he was brought up completely by the "white" side of his family. Yet, if he had grown up in Kenya, as Joy found out, he would have been considered "white".

But in Kenya race is not the determining factor it is in the United States. It is one's ethnicity (tribe) that counts the most. From people's African names, one can usually tell the ethnic group of the person. This ethnicity is passed through the fathers side only, so there cannot be "mixed" people even though a large number of people are actually "mixed". In Kenya, Obama is seen as a Luo regardless of the fact that he barely knew his father and has visited Kenya a total of only a few weeks. The Thursday after the US election, Kenyans got a holiday to celebrate the success of one of their own. Of course Nigerians and Ugandans got two days off because of the success of this African.

So the labeling of identity has little relationship to reality, but is putting the masses of people in the world into narrow boxes.

I have mentioned many times that most of the Quakers in Kenya live in Western Province and are a group called the Luhya. Actually this is a simplification. There are actually fourteen sub-groups among the Luhya. They were not even considered a group of their own until 1940 when they organized together to increase their political clout, beginning by giving themselves the name Luhya. But among the Luhya, people immediately determine which subgroup other people come from. As we drive around the countryside I ask Gladys where the boundaries are between the different groups and it is usually a road or a stream. I wonder how people who are, say on opposite sides of a stream, can be all that different from each other. Lugari District, where I come from, is not the home area of any one of these groups so that people from the various groups have come to live here together. Still, everyone identifies him/herself from the area he/she came from. There is a tremendous amount of inter-marriage but children follow the designation of their father. As can be expected these sub-groups all have their stereotypes.

Frankly I am irritated by these subdivisions, although by now I can frequently tell which sub-group a person is by their name or where they come from. It seems so trivial. That is, until one hears that the Maragoli (one of the largest and best educated of the Luyha groups, to which Gladys belongs) dominate the Quaker institutions at Kaimosi which is in the home area of the Tiriki. The kind of thing one hears is that the Tiriki don't like the Maragoli because they were the teachers of the Tiriki and beat the Tiriki students badly.

As much as I dislike this labeling of identity, to ignore it is impossible if one wants to understand what is going on. At one of my talks in England, the brother of a Kikuyu politician who was on the Orange Democratic Movement side (i.e., not supporting the Kikuyu Kibaki side and therefore opposing the "Kikuyu identity") noted to me that during the election campaign where he was helping out his brother, he was continually attacked as a "traitor" to the Kikuyu and, I think, felt physically in danger at times. Those who do not wish to conform to their supposed identity frequently have a tough time. Can you think up ten examples in the next few minutes?

In Rwanda and Burundi, since everyone speaks the same language, has the same culture, and lives intermingled, I am not sure that there is really any "ethnic difference", but labeling has made it so--deadly so. Again the system works only because there cannot be mixed people in the center who are not of any one side. In 1993 when Burundian Felicite Ntakaruka's sister, who was half Tutsi and half Hutu, was asked by the Tutsi military who had invaded her secondary school, to move to one side if she were a Tutsi and another side if she were a Hutu, she decided not to choose, but to stay in the middle. She was killed.

European race theory accounts for the differences in life chances between the Hutu and Tutsi. The early European "explorers" in the region decided that the cattle-keeping Tutsi came from Ethiopia while the Hutu were Bantu agriculturalists. Why was this important? Because the Ethiopians were considered the bottom rung of the white race. Consequently if the Tutsi came from Ethiopia, they were "white" and therefore should be the rulers. This is what the German, and particularly the Belgian colonialists, implemented. In Rwanda everyone had an identity card (note the use of the word "identity") on which the category "Hutu" or "Tutsi" was indicated. This had drastic consequences during the genocide as anyone with the label "Tutsi" on their identity card was killed. The hate radio station that promoted the genocide asked the Hutu to throw the Tutsi in the river so they could go back to Ethiopia. The idea is that the bodies would float down the rivers to Lake Victoria, down the White Nile, and then up the Blue Nile back to Ethiopia. The Tanzanians pulled 20,000 bodies out of the Kagera River where it empties into Lake Victoria because they were rightly afraid that the decomposing bodies would pollute the whole lake.

Recent DNA analysis has shown that all Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa (a small, discriminated against, third group in the region) are closely related genetically. Therefore the theory of the Tutsi origins in Ethiopia is total race mythology.

Recently the Rwandan Government has declared that everyone in Rwanda is a Rwandan and the categories of Hutu and Tutsi can no longer be used. Nonetheless everyone concludes very quickly who is a Tutsi and who is a Hutu. Even I can do this, although it probably takes me longer and I probably make more mistakes. (Everyone makes mistakes in this labeling of identity game.) To some this seems like progress, but then it is not so clear. In Burundi, during the Bugaza regime in the 1980's, the terms were abolished. Therefore no one was allowed to count how many Tutsi were in the government, in the army and police, students in the colleges, etc. In other words, the abolition of the terms became a method of continued domination by the Tutsi since everyone knew, yet it could not be officially known.

Like me with the many sub-groups among the Luhya, many foreigners in Rwanda and Burundi ignore or overlook these distinctions that are so important to the local people. One of the consequences of this, for example, is that all the non-governmental organizations in Bujumbura only hire Tutsi in their senior positions (some of the best paying jobs in Burundi). Since they always have had these positions and therefore are qualified and experienced, they can keep out any up-and-coming Hutu. This is not a passive game. I heard of a case when there was a senior opening in one non-governmental organization. One of the Tutsi members of that organization called up a Hutu, who could have been thinking of applying, and told him, "no Hutu should apply for the position." And, of course, if a Hutu had applied and received the position, he/she would have been sabotaged by the Tutsi so that their dominance could continue.

This has become a long essay. But the result is clear. We live in a murky world of make-believe identities which are important only because they have such negative, even deadly, effects on people's lives.

Is Barack Obama an African-American or an American? Is he "black" in the US and "white" in Kenya? Is he a Luo? Is he an African?

Kenyans expect a million Americans want to come to Obama's father's home in Siaya District and they are developing a new tourist circuit to accommodate this. What a disconnect. Yet a million Africans may want to visit his ancestral home!

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3 Responses »

  1. What a moving and fascinating essay. Like you, I was struck by the emphasis on Obama's "blackness" during the campaign. You make powerful points. I suspect some of this is hard-wired into our brains, involved in the way we process information, but we can begin to move beyond it. Peace!

  2. As a psychologist with special training in neuropsychology, I have been interested in the ways that people process and store information for many years. Honestly, this interest started when I was a very young girl, raised in an Orthodox Jewish home. The categories that were struck quickly were "Jew" and "non-Jew". Further distinctions were made in those two categories...Jews were wither "Litvaks" or Glitzianas" indicating where in Europe they came from, (Eastern or Western Europe) and family stories helped me to understand why my mother's family (Litvaks) would scorn my father's family (Glitzianas) and vice versa. In my mind, silly distinctions, but in my parents' families, reason to create discord and humiliation. Among the category of non-Jews, when at home or in my Jewish neighborhood, there was tolerance and a kind of indifference to the ways that Christians lived their lives. There was also a level of scorn about the foods that Christians ate, since eating pork and shellfish, banned in a kosher home, was a mark of ignorance and carelessness about health that was attributed to Christians. Outside the safety of home and neighborhood, there was an acute understanding that we were a small minority swimming in a sea of Christianity and it would frighten me at times to think that I might be the only Jew in a crowd. The Holocaust was a constant reminder of how far Christians might go to rid themselves of Jews. It was a wound that I don't think will heal for many generations. It took many years for me to find books about Christians who protected Jews during the slaughter in Europe and it gave me access to a new set of ideas that integrated Christians and Jews into a new category, called "people."

    I have been a practicing Buddhist for decades, leaving behind the day to day consciousness of Jew or Christian. However, I remember a day at the University of Colorado library, when a man who appeared to be from the Middle East approached me, a smirk on his face. He stated, "you are a Jew from Russian background, right?" I was stunned and afraid. In the middle of my community, my University, I felt like I had a bulls-eye painted on my chest. Standing up straight, quaking inside, I replied, "Yes." I felt brave, and somehow humiliated. The man laughed and walked over to his Arab looking friend, where they exchanged money, and I heard one say to the other, "I told you so!". I was the bet. The incident stayed with me, reminding me of something that my Grandfather once told me. He said, you can say you're not a Jew, but to the world, you are always a Jew." David. Zarembka's article about Africa, Africans, Barack Obama and the seeds of the Rwandan Holocaust brought all of this to mind today. My secret hope has for many years been that we would all intermarry so that there wouldn't be racial or religious distinctions left to provoke violence and genocide. I know that Dr. Seuss wrote a book about ingroups and outgroups for children. I hope that one day that book will be something of an artifact of a time in the distant past when people didn't know that we are all the same, wishing to love and be loved.

  3. Thank you, Susan and Sharon, for your comments which elaborate on this important theme. Dave Zarembka's essay is an excerpt from his regular AGLI (African Great Lakes Initiative) newsletter.

    Dave Zarembka's reports are now available on the AGLI web site, You may also receive them hot off the press via email by subscribing to the distribution list; contact Dawn Rubbert, for details.


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