Is everything we know about us a socio-political construct?

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BY Arkan Udin

Who am I? Catholic? Christian? Kikuyu? Kenyan? Am I all of them at once? Or is it the other way around –Africa then Bantu and so on? Or does it depend on time of day? Place? Or on who is asking?

What is an African?

Who are you? Somali? Kenyan-Somali? Somalian-Somali? Apologies, Somaliland-Somali? Cushite? Who decides?

Who are we? Blacks? Africans? Kenyans? Somalis? Arabs? African Arabs? Who decides?

Who are they? British? Foreigners? Kenyan-British? Immigrants? French? Italian? Ndorobo? Europeans? Whites? Who decides?

What should we be? Can we decide? Does it matter? What makes us connect? What connects us?

Why does perception of beauty and evolution of friendship transcend all anthropomorphic limits and socio-culturally or socio-politically defined groupings? That is, any attempt to widen the circle of friendship to your family, clan, tribe or nation falls apart; any attempt to anchor beauty in any social group just like intelligence is quickly disproved by the reality.

When Nelson Mandela, after a 27-year prison stint for his political beliefs under a racist apartheid Afrikaans regime, said that an Afrikaans, a man from the tribe that was for a long time the existential enemy of his own, is, at a personal level, the best friend one can have – referring to his behind-bars friendship to Christo Brand – what did he mean? Could an Afrikaans really ever truly be a friend to a native? Can an imperialist and native really be friends? In what context? Who decides?

Geography doesn’t seem to mean anything relative to who we are or how we express ourselves or relate. I was once watching Discovery Channel and was surprised to see a charcoal dark girl from a nomadic tribe of Southern Sudan smile and blush, just like any of the urban girls I knew. Why did I expect her to be different? What had created such distance? Does the difference in what makes us laugh make us different? Wasn’t she from a different socio-cultural environment, a different geography, a distant place? If she was a girl like any other, did that mean all women were exactly the same?

If this be the case, aren’t we more than just the same species? Might we all be one family? Might the story of creation be true? If true, why did it not seem to affect its purveyors? Being Catholic does not allow one to either own property or live in the Vatican City, while it allows the Catholic church to own vast real estate in all its strongest adherents’ homelands – in Africa and South America? When I stepped back, it seemed to me that violence, expropriation and colonialism of people’s lands from Palestine, Eastward and Southward was “legitimate” and tolerable, while violence against the “others” was completely “immoral”, even when it was just to protect life and honour, let alone property. For centuries of expropriation, slavery and genocide from Latin America through Africa to Asia, “forgive and forget” even as it continues; for pogroms and concentration camps elsewhere, reparations and “never forget” are never enough, even as the victims of pogrom now become the leading expropriators and genocidaires. Are we one family or not?

JaLuo encounters Italian, or NOT!

A long time ago, straight out of High School and into the world, amongst my friends was a French agronomist. He was referred to as John because few either could pronounce Jean or cared to make the effort to. One day in a quick passing conversation with an acquaintance, in John’s presence, my acquaintance asked if my friend John was Italian. Given the rush we were in, I answered yes to end the conversation thinking it of little consequence.

Faux pas! Bouleversant!

Till that point I had assumed all that mattered was whether you were “Black” or “White”, especially to White people. Not that I was wrong, for Malcolm X had stumbled upon this simple truth on February 15, 1965 when he was barred from entering France for his activities in America, explaining:

“There’s a worldwide revolution going on, and it’s in two phases. Number one, what is it revolting against? The power structure. The American power structure? No. The French power structure? No. The English power structure? No. Then what power structure? An international Western power structure – consisting of American interests, French interests, English interests, Belgian interests… European interests. These countries that formerly colonised the dark man formed into a giant international combine. A structure, a house that has ruled the world up until now. And in recent times there has been a revolution taking place in Asia and in Africa, whacking away at the strength or at the foundation of the power structure.”

Well, now I learnt, apparently not. Here and now I was about to learn White people were only united in the rape, pillage and plunder of peoples, lands and resources that weren’t their own. So much so that even the presumably non-negotiable phenotype characteristic requirement of skin pigmentation can be conveniently suspended by the elites amongst their taxon, when they want to scale up their wars against the weaker peoples of the world.

As we saw with US President Barack Hussein Obama this century and his predecessor, Rome’s first Black Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus in the dusk of the 2nd Century and dawn of the 3rd Century, outside of their imperialist agenda, Whites have tribes! These tribes squabbled in “World War” (“World” as they consider themselves the “World”) scale and strangely got terribly upset if you got their tribes wrong. In retaliation, (they are petty too) he (John) called me “you Jaluo” and stomped off in a huff.

Having worked in the Central Highlands, the Kikuyu tribe’s ancestral homeland, he had come to learn of the tribes’ fierce post-colonial political rivalry with the JoLuo, and all the contempt and bile that accompanies such relationships. Knowing I was of Kikuyu ethnic heritage he naturally assumed this would offend me. And being an Agronomist he would be forgiven.

As an Engineer he would not understand the urban-rural socio-dynamics – simply put, the corrosive nature of cities and urban upbringing on cultural identity in the 3rd world.

The city in Africa isn’t emergent, it is a foreign body imposed upon the land, and for this reason it remains a sort of “No tribe’s land” in the “No man’s land” sense. You therefore acquire friends from everywhere, you live anywhere and interact with everyone as you have neither tribe, nor geography, nor class to limit you. So the tribal diatribe turned out to be a dud when I responded with a befuddled, “OK”. But what was wrong with him being “Italian”? What was wrong with me being “JaLuo”? Who decides?

Where’s the border?

One weekend, without anything better to do, John and I decided to drive south from Nairobi. It is a beautiful country. We had a four wheel drive and it had to earn its keep. We followed the compass as the crow flies, rolling over the Salt Lake Magadi, and cutting over flat arid lands through Shompole to “the border”.

The border? I looked at the map and compass, the coordinates indicated we were right on “the border”, but when I looked up from the map there was nothing but semi-arid terrain. Not a man-made object or human being as far as the eye could see, except the Toyota we came in.

I was nineteen, untraveled and unexposed. I asked John, “Where’s the border?” He looked at me, puzzled, and responded, “We are standing on it”.

“But there’s nothing here,” I persisted.

“What were you expecting?” he asked.

“Well…some kind of fence or something…where this bold line on the map runs.” He laughed, and I understood.

“Does that mean this border exists only in my mind? I thought…”

I suddenly remembered a book – “Building Nation-States” – I had stumbled upon when I was sixteen that had created a question in my mind.

“Nation-States are built!?”

I didn’t know what to think, the ramifications were more than my mind could process. Making no sense of what was written within, I closed it and to my great chagrin would never find it again, however hard I looked. But from then on the question was emblazoned across my mind like a billboard. The question followed me everywhere I went from then on, “Nation-States are built?” Was my entire identity artificial? Who was I? Who decides?

So what am I?

Kenyan? Well, definitely not! If by legal definition “Kenya” is a property…

The Kenya Gazette Supplement No. 93 of 7th December 1960 states the term “Kenya” means, the colony and Protectorate of Kenya Crown Land.

Being Kenyan would make me chattel, property of the “Crown”. No, not Kenyan.

African? I can’t be African because it is the name of a rock connected to another. I mean, if asteroid 3200 Phaethon hit the earth causing the continent to submerge under a tsunami but I made it to the Ark, would it submerge with my identity? I think not. Or in that case I am Gondwanaland-ian. Or who would I be, given the anchor of my identity no longer existed?

I can’t be “Black” because I am neither “Medium-height” not “Knock-kneed”. If my anthropomorphic features define my identity then any feature is as valid as the other. I am 82 Kilogrammes. If any member of any group where adult men are on average less than 150 cm (4 feet 11 inches) tall is referred to as “pygmy” irrespective of continental  domicile, colour, culture, then let anthropologists conjure a tribal name for men of 82 Kg and ascribe me to that tribe. For all I care I was from the Middleweight tribe when I was a bachelor, lost my membership and slid into the Cruiserweight tribe after I married. Strangely, Danny Davito standing at 4 foot 10 inches is never referred to as a pygmy?

It seems if one is “White” they are exempted from inclusion in any and all social groups that fall at the bottom of the imperialist social structure, for which skin colour is primary criterion. Who decides?

I am most definitely not Kikuyu. Being Kikuyu would make me not JaLuo, not Somali, not French, not Irish, not Palestinian, all of a sudden all the rest of humanity would become “those” or “others”, not “we” and I cannot bear such a crevice. It would suddenly be legitimate for their children to be less important than mine, their existence inconsequential to me, it would be unbearable.

For then it would be fine for me to allow my son to be sent to kill their sons. Then, the rape of Samburu girls by British soldiers, Somali girls by AMISOM soldiers, Iraqi girls by American soldiers, Palestinian boys by Zionist soldiers on and on, would all not be my concern, ever, until it happens to Kikuyu girls.

I cannot be of any nation whose bond is based on a material characteristic, be it genetic, geographic or any such combination because, as Daniel Berrigan famously wrote “Every Nation-State tends towards the imperial – that is the point”, and that cannot ever be my point. So, what can I be? What should I be? Who decides?

Yet, for the “I” there must be a “you”; for the “we” there must be a “them”. How are they related? For the proton there is an electron. And there are laws governing the highly precise relationship between the proton and the electron entities. And there is a law governing the relationship between the nucleus and the electrons. The order is perfect. But where is the law to govern the “I” and “you”, the “we” and “them”. What are the definitions? What law should govern how the two entities relate? Who decides?

In this quest I happened upon the idea of the “Universal man”? Was he the Holy Grail? Was the Universal man the penultimate measure? Was there a tribe of Renaissance men? Was science the code? Were Da Vinci, Aljazari, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Ibn Sina, and the Alghazali brothers? These men defied all these limits. They were as much scientists as they were artists.

It couldn’t be. It was too limited. Why was science separate of art? Why was everything segmented, fragmented in to all these discrete hard blocks, and yet while different, the same – like looking at the different planes of a single crystal and presuming they were discrete objects? Like the spectrum of colours refracted from a single ray of light. Yes, this was what it was. I sensed intuitively looking at the tribes and nations of the world I was looking at the dispersed spectrum end of the human ray of light; all of Humanity was actually Desmond Tutu’s “Rainbow Nation”. (

But where was the refracting prism, the dispersing drop of rain? It had to be the same prism that was dispersing thoughts, ideas and knowledge into a multiplicity of highly fragmented disjointed subjects. If so where was it? For it was surely the medium by which we would unify knowledge in to one and following the ray of white light, man would find enlightenment. (

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