A modern-day Maasai mother dressed up in her finest. Notice the bare ground and sparse vegetation in the background.

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Note: From now until Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 13, Global Giving is encouraging donations in honor of your mother. If you go to the donation page, you will see where you can honor a person and include their email address for notification. You can do this for any of the three projects listed below. You could also honor my wife, Gladys Kamonya (kamonyagladys@gmail.comwhose birthday is today, May 4. While her children are adults, she is “grandmothering” five children of the “grand” generation. Of course you could just send her birthday greetings. (My birthday is Sunday, May 6 when I’ll be 75 years old; Gladys’ age is confidential.)

To make tax deductible (US) or gift aid eligible (UK) donations through Global Giving,

For Transforming Community for Social Change (TCSC) go to http://goto.gg/31755

For Healing Wounds of Deadly Conflict, Mt Elgon, Kenya, go to

http://goto.gg/32883

For the Friends Women’s Association go to http://goto.gg/31891

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A recent picture of the Mua Hills. Notice the trees, fields, and lush green vegetation.

In 1969 when I was living in the Mua Hills of Kenya, an area where the Kamba tribe predominant, as I was walking down the road one day, I noticed a group of Maasai, the Kenyan tribe beloved by tourists, at the home of one of the local villagers. While the Kamba tend small farms growing maize, beans, bananas, and other crops together with a few cows, goats, sheep, and chicken, the Maasai are a pastoral people who traditionally raised and lived off their cattle including drinking their blood. I was told that Maasai had a custom of coming to the Kamba to get wives. When the girl was 16 years old, give or take one or two years, her father gave her in marriage to a Maasai, probably as a second or third wife. He would have received a dowry of ten or more cows. The girl would have had no say in the matter. Her life would have been completely changed from a lush farmland to dry bush, a different diet and dress with lots of beads, and a completely different language since Kikamba is a Bantu language while Maa is a totally unrelated Nilotic language.

Even at that time, I wondered about her marriage to a Maasai, “Was she still a Kamba or was she now a Maasai?” Any tourist who was looking for a picture of a Maasai woman would have considered her a Maasai. The underlying question is, “Is ‘tribe’ biological as the conventional wisdom assumes or is it something that can be changed and therefore cultural only?”

When woman marry in eastern Africa, she moves to their husband’s family where she is firmly under the direction of her mother-in-law and all the other relatives who live nearby. She has no real choice but to adapt. Regardless of whatever tribe she was originally, all her children will be considered the tribe of the husband. It is this firm rule that a person’s tribe is that of his father that keeps the concept of tribe effective. No one can be mixed. If this woman’s children could be half Maasai and half Kamba then the whole system would quickly collapse since most people would be of mixed ancestry.

Marriage in the region is exogamous, meaning a person must marry an outsider. Moreover the concept of “incest” includes a much larger group of people than it does in western culture. One reason for this is that a person must marry someone outside his/her clan which he or she gets from his/her father. In some cases a person must also marry outside his or her mother’s clan which has to be different from that of the father. Since clans can be rather large, this means a person cannot marry people who are only mythically related to them.

Among the Luhya there 18 sub-tribes who all have slightly different languages and customs. It was only in 1940 that these sub-tribes came together as the Luhya tribe for political reasons so that they would be a united force in Kenyan politics. One of Gladys’ male cousins, a Luhya/Maragoli like Gladys, married a Kikuyu, the late Elizabeth Ambale. She learned Lugoli, taught in Luhya schools, and became the Chief Education Officer of Lugari District. As expected she assimilated to her husband’s tribe. Then the 2007/2008 post election violence occurred. Her home was next to the boundary between the Luhya and Nandi and for January and February 2008, the Nandi were attacking Kikuyu who they considered to be their enemy, but not the Luhya who were on the same side during that election. Although she had assimilated to being a Luhya, she feared that she would be considered a Kikuyu and be attacked by the Nandi. Consequently for safety considerations during those two months she did not leave her house. Therefore she herself still considered herself a Kikuyu or rather thought that others might still consider her a Kikuyu.

Gladys has other male relatives who are married to women of other tribes. She has another cousin married to a Nandi, a nephew married to a Nandi, and another nephew married to a Kikuyu. There well may be others I don’t know about.

At this time Gladys and I are taking care of a grandson, a grand niece, and three grand nephews. Following the rule of the father’s tribe, two are Luhya/Maragoli, one is Luhya/Tiriki, one is Luhya/Isukha, and one is Kisii, a completely different tribe. Our other two grandsons who used to live with us before they entered secondary school are Luhya/Bunyore. Technically they should all be speaking their mother tongue or rather their father’s tongue. In fact since Lugari sub-county is part of the settlement scheme after independence where people came from various communities, the common language for everyone here is Swahili and none of these children is fluent in their tribal tongue.

In 2008 after the post election violence, I gave a presentation at Washington University in St. Louis. After the talk, a young Kenyan freshman came up to speak to me. She had been raised in an affluent family in Nairobi. She said that before the post election violence, the fact that she was a Kikuyu was a non-issue. Then when the violence erupted, she was seen only as a Kikuyu. As Kenya becomes increasing urbanized more and more people will be using Swahili and even English as their primary language, the Kenya classification of 44 tribes (two were just added during the last presidential election) will become under increasing pressure. Every time the problem of tribalism comes up, there is a columnist or letter to the editor which will state that his/her tribe, “Kenyan”, is not one of the recognized tribes.

My conclusion is that “tribe”, like “race” in the United States, in not biological but rather a social/cultural construct. Unfortunately tribalism, again like racism in the US, can be used for discriminatory, destructive purposes with sometimes even deadly consequences.

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To be added to or removed from this listserve, please send your name and email address to davidzarembka@gmail.com.

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DONATE

To make tax deductible (US) or gift aid eligible (UK) donations through Global Giving,

For Transforming Community for Social Change (TCSC) go to http://goto.gg/31755

For Healing Wounds of Deadly Conflict, Mt Elgon, Kenya, go to

http://goto.gg/32883

For the Friends Women’s Association go to http://goto.gg/31891

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David Zarembka

Transforming Community for Social Change (TCSC)

Phone 254 (0)726 590 783
Reports from Kenya: www.davidzarembka.com/

Email: davidzarembka@gmail.com

Webpages: healingandrebuildingourcommunitiesinternational.wordpress.com/

transformingcommunityforsocialchange.wordpress.com/

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