Historicizing the construction of ethnic groups has been one of African historiography’s signature strengths. The field’s consensus on ethnogenesis—that the “form” of “tribe” was a product of colonial-era policies and incentives, though the “content” often drew on precolonial roots—has emerged through decades of research that sought to explain how and why “tribes” became central units of political activity during the twentieth century, while simultaneously debunking ideas of timeless African “tribalism.” Among the richest sites for this endeavor has been Kenya, where ethnicity has long played an outsized role in national politics, but also has been appreciated—most influentially in the work of John Lonsdale—as not simply a stumbling block to national unity but a political resource for moral debate and accountability. Yet if there is a modularity to “tribe” as a tool of colonial administration and postcolonial mobilization, there is also a striking unevenness to both its form and content when specific groups are examined up close. Julie MacArthur demonstrates this in her fine and authoritative study of the ethnogenesis of the Luyia people, Cartography and the Political Imagination: Mapping Community in Colonial Kenya. Today Kenya’s second-largest ethnic group, Luyia defy a number of “tribal” expectations, refusing to vote as a single ethnic bloc and lacking a common language, mythical ancestor, and set of cultural practices. Just how, then, did such an unlikely ethnicity come into being? MacArthur offers a persuasive and innovative explanation centered on a local aphorism, “where land divided, territory united” (31). The builders of Luyia identity—overwhelmingly young and educated men of the 1930s and 1940s responding to, among other things, colonial land and boundary inquiries—first had to navigate the plurality and dissent that typified the peoples of what was then North Kavirondo in colonial Kenya. Unable to impose a cultural agenda that might unify this region, these “ethnic entrepreneurs” instead elaborated territorial visions of community based upon shared indigenous spatial practices and appropriations of colonial cartography (chap. 3). In several languages of the region, the term oluhia referred to a “fire-place on a meadow” where clan heads would meet, initiation rituals would be held, and elders would be buried, invoking the symbolic value of a precolonial locus of power and public communion (97). Formally introduced in 1935 by the ethnic entrepreneurs of the North Kavirondo Central Association, the ethnonym Abaluyia finally gained formal recognition by the colonial Kenyan government in 1950—besting not only the insulting legacy term “Bantu Kavirondo” but also other competitors (Abakwe, “people of the east”; Abalimi, “peasant”) for its ability to avoid divisive topics such as normative livelihoods, land ownership, and preferred clans. MacArthur’s story of Luyia ethnogenesis traverses a wide and satisfying range of topics central to colonial Africa’s historiography—collaborative rule, missionary “partition,” land surveying, growth of commercial agriculture and mining, widening political horizons with urban migration, female circumcision anxieties, and so forth—as well as Kenya-specific perennials, such as British loyalism during the 1950s Mau Mau movement and postcolonial majimboism (regional devolution of power). Her examination of the failure to form a single Luyia language is one of the book’s most illuminating accounts. Making wonderful use of the Luyia Language Committee records, MacArthur tours the impossibly fractious rivalries among the area’s four principal missions—Quakers, Anglicans, Catholics, and the Protestant Church of God—each of which asserted their respective region’s language as the basis for a standardized Luyia. The author also shows how various Luyia themselves similarly lobbied for their region’s language selection to form the basis for Luyia radio broadcasts and other public media. The disappointing result of these complex political struggles included a little-referenced bible translation from the victorious language (Luhanga), and the paradoxical print success of English- and Swahili-language materials that comprise the contents of the regional Luyia newspaper, while Luyia oral culture remained as vibrantly pluralist as ever. The basis for this and other chapters includes a series of oral interviews, carefully examined print publications from the area, and some considerable archival research across three continents (Africa, Europe, and North America). In particular, the author’s thorough and impressive archival research, showing us once more the singular wealth of the Kenya National Archives, provides this monograph with a definitive quality that will ensure it a long shelf life. Yet the nature of the book’s core sources—district reports, petitions, roughly drawn maps, commission inquiries—also lends an excessively formal, deliberative, and constructivist view to how Luyia identity developed. The reader gains at best a partial sense of how Luyia ethnicity is lived at the ground level, in the realms of regional stereotypes, joking relationships, and other quotidian practices. There is rather little here that seems visceral to Luyia identity, but perhaps this is just another virtuous contrast to how other Kenyan ethnic identities are conventionally viewed and represented. More problematic is the author’s cumulative deployment of an unquestioned analytical vocabulary. While “tribe” and “ethnicity” are dutifully examined at the outset within their historiographical contexts, more recent and fashionable terms—in particular, “patriotism” and “patriot”—are treated as self-evident categories. Popularized by John Lonsdale and Derek R. Peterson (Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival: A History of Dissent, c.1935–1972 ) as an alternative and historically specific framing to tribe or its euphemistic synonym ethnicity, “patriotism” refers to a large package of claims and ambitions that emerged across East Africa in the 1930s, in which “activists,” “political entrepreneurs,” or “patriots” codified laws, standardized language, researched history, and imposed discipline (particularly on women), all for the ends of securing civic virtue and due recognition of a rooted homeland. This has been an influential intervention, not only by substituting a dismal term with one that invokes something more positive and universal, but also by imposing a regional schema upon a host of developments that were loosely categorized by historical actors themselves as “tribal improvement.” Yet the chief virtue of MacArthur’s book is to show how the case of the Luyia so forcefully bucked key elements of this set of claims and ambitions, most notably by skipping entirely the foundation of shared ancestors that lies at the “patriotism” concept’s etymological core (patria). Thus the fascinating specifics of MacArthur’s case work at cross-purposes with the book’s larger unexamined analytical vocabulary. As a framework for African historical analysis, “patriotism” looks likely to endure, but its key claims are better tested than repeated. Even so, MacArthur has produced an important and deeply researched work that will be necessary reading for those who seek a full understanding of colonial Kenya’s history, as well as a challenge to historians to consider more systematically how spatial imagination fuels processes of community formation. The book is also handsomely produced, with (naturally enough) a wide range of maps, and also a rich, full, and instructive reference apparatus. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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