Native Kenyans? The Politics of Nativity
If you have a keen eye, the phrase “native Kenyan” might strike you as redundant. All Kenyans are natives if we are to follow the Merriam Webster definition declaring natives as “born in a particular place or country,” or the concept of nativism, which indicates a person’s place of birth. Nothing would change if we dropped the word native from the phrase since the word Kenyan also means a person born in Kenya and is almost similar to nationality.
Native Kenyan, regardless of how precise its users think it is, also refers to white people and Indians born in Kenya. That is if we take the literal meaning offered by Merriam Webster. But I believe that’s not what the users of the phrase “native Kenyan” mean. Most often, the users of the word attempt to exclude whites, Indians, and immigrants who are not indigenous to Kenya. Since I am writing about the politics of nativity, this is the first problem that will recur throughout this article. The fact that most people who use the word native, either do not know what it means or do not know under what contexts it should be used.
Native vs Indigenous
I’ve glossed over the word indigenous which I believe the users of the word native would rather use even though it is also problematic. Indigenous means “produced, growing, or living naturally in a particular region.” If something isn’t natural to an ecosystem then it is not indigenous. Examples includes plants such as water hyacinth native to South America and cattle such as Friesian from North Holland, and Guernsey from Channel Islands; all which are found in Kenya but are not indigenous. The word indigenous has more weight than native since it easily excludes whites, Indians, and other ethnicities that do not trace their origins in Kenya.
But the word indigenous is also problematic considering its origins and the great variation of definitions across the world. Stone Age Herbalist traces the origin of the word from its use in biological texts up to its political connotations in his essay “The original and the conquered: The invention of indigenous politics.” He writes:
…the need for the word (indigenous) arose as Europeans began to encounter New World peoples who didn’t previously belong to the purview of Christendom, the Islamic world, or related civilizations known to the ancients. Tribes such as the Wampanoag and the Nauset were entirely novel to their early colonists — they belonged to a history and way of life which seemed separate from even the most archaic Biblical descriptions. Thus “indigenous” seemed to capture the spirit of these tribes who belonged more to the earth, rooted in place, than the wandering restless Europeans.
Legally, this term has led to all manner of thorny and difficult problems. Many nation states have their own definitions of the term. The United Nations, World Bank, and the International Labor Organization have their own understanding of indigenous. These aren’t merely academic exercise, but reflect a wielding power with effects on millions of people.
How a country defines ‘indigenous’ is important and as he argues, has the capacity to affect millions of people. If Kenya decides to label the Maasai as indigenous to certain lands in Kenya, then it becomes almost impossible for the government to wield control over these lands. Does the government of Tanzania consider their Maa indigenous? Does it have any rights to remove them? I do not know. That depends with their indigenous status and whether the government accords them any rights. However, commonalities found in most definitions of indigenous argue that an indigenous person or community should meet some of these parameters:
- A group of people who lived in a territory before the occupation of a colonial power.
- Their separation from the main bulk of the population culturally and politically.
- People who have an ethnic and territorial distinction from the dominant social power and a lack of political power at the state level.
Are Kenyans Indigenous
I’ve already dropped the word native in favor of indigenous. An indigenous Kenyan needs to have lived in Kenya before the occupation of Kenya by the British in 1920, which is when Kenya became a British colony. The date can be pushed back before the arrival of Europeans in the East Africa Protectorate which if adhered to closely dissolves Kenya as a country and the concept of nativity gets swallowed with it. It can also be pushed further beck before the arrival of European missionaries in the early 19th century. Essentially, what this does is it excludes Europeans and their ancestors from claiming any indigeneity to Kenya.
But is indigenous only defined in light of European presence? What if another alien force occupies a region and dominates existing populations. A good example is the Bantu who trace their origins in North Cameroon. Are they indigenous to East and South Africa? Another example is the Northern Frontier District (N.F.D) which Somalia claims. Politics of indigeneity take us through uncharted territory. Previous conquests in the world tells us its difficult to establish who were the original inhabitants of these lands. Therefore, if you are going to claim indigenous status for yourself, its worth knowing that somebody else could still usurp that position by claiming themselves indigenous and that your ancestors only dispossessed them of their lands. The same is true of all indigenous populations in the world. Be warned.
The second requirement narrows down the definition of indigenous to only include a people who are separated politically and culturally from the main bulk of the population. In Kenya, the bulk of the population comprise people from the ethno-linguist group Bantu, which accounts for 70% of the population with Kikuyus, Luhyas, and Kambas numbering in the millions. The remaining 30% of the population is comprised of Nilotes and Cushitic groups. Nilotic ethnicities such as Luo and Kalenjin also number in the millions. From an ethno-linguist perspective, there is no group or tribe that is culturally and politically separated from the bulk of Kenya’s population. Even Indians who are now officially recognized as Kenyans enjoy some form of political and economic integration into Kenya’s society.
The third requirement is about political representation. The indigenes of America such as Navajo, Hopi, Tlingit, and the Torres Islanders of Australia have some marginal representation politically and are also ethno-culturally removed from the bulk of the population. In Kenya, that’s not the case since most ethno-linguist groups enjoy some form of political representation starting with Members of County Assemblies, Member of Parliament, governors, senators, and women representatives most of whose jurisdiction corresponds to some form of territorial and ethnic boundaries, further cemented by a communal land tenure system, allowing us to argue that there is no dominant social power outside these ethno-groups other than the one exercised by ethnic leaders from the same groups. In short, Kenya is run and ruled by Kenyans of all ethnicities leaving no room for a minority status or political exclusion to either of these groups. Devolution took leadership to the county level and no one can claim a lack of political representation. The idea of a Kenyan native or a Kenyan indigene fails the last two tests. It also fails the first test if we consider most Kenyans are Bantus who trace their origins outside East Africa, further complicating the issues of “who is indigenous to Kenya.”
The concept of dominance both culturally and politically evokes a sense of power as held by a majority. In the United States, white people comprise 67% (250+million) of the population while Native Americans are a around 4 million people as of 2020. In Australia, aboriginals comprise 3.3% (847,190) of the population as of 2016. Therefore, before one burdens himself with a ‘native’ or indigenous tag, he should look at the numbers. The word native or indigenous denotes a minority status within a population which is why the definition of these words include an element of political or cultural exclusion. It’s almost impossible for a majority group to be held hostage by a minority group.
The use of the phrase ‘native Kenyan’ faces the same problem. It implies immigrants are holding a majority status in Kenya and that black Kenyans are a minority group. Even in South Africa or Namibia where whites appear to constitute a significant part of the population, Blacks still outnumber them and the political systems rest on black people. It is insane to talk of native Kenyans when referring to a majority group. Black Kenyans constitute 99% of the population and the use of the phrase ‘native Kenyan’ is just as redundant as ‘black Kenyan.’ After all, aren’t all Kenyan’s black with only a slight minority coming from other racial groups?
Othering is a leftist vocabulary. You’ll mostly find it in research papers dwelling on the oppression and exclusion of certain groups. If you ask a person what is their gender and offer two options, male and female, with a third one, other; you will probably be accused of othering trans individuals. Honesty, I hate this word but I will use it to facilitate what I am trying to communicate in this section.
The word othering is mostly used when a dominant group tries to exclude another. In this case, I use it to mean a dominant group excluding itself to appease a minority group. When Kenyans use the phrase ‘native Kenyan’ often in the presence of a minority group of whites or Indians, what is happening is that a majority group (Kenyans) is othering itself in the presence of a minority group (white/Indian) probably because of some sort of inferiority complex. There is no Kenyan census that asks us whether we are white or black before it asks us whether we are Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya etc. In Kenya’s population census, whites fit the classification “others.” The continued use of the word native not only over-legitimizes European presence in the country, but also diminishes us, ‘others’ us, and makes us victims and prisoners in our own country.