The Mis-Education of the African: Our Cultures & Indigenous Stories
It was wet, cold and grim as we left Nanyuki situated on the slopes of Mount Kenya and the 19th highest town in Africa at 1,947meters. I huddled in the car rubbing my hands for heat for although the sun rose steadily in the east above the northern shoulder of the elevated mountain peaks, it did little to warm me.
Our destination was Isiolo Town, far below us in the lowlands at an elevation of barely 200 meters above ‘Sea Level’, and the reason for this early chilly take off was to meet and greet a person I had never ever previously heard about – the “Abba Gada” which is why as the car hurtled through the mountain slopes I in turn listened to my host, the great sociologist, historian and writer Dr Shongollo as he briefed me about the Abba Gadda, as well as surfing the internet to garner details about the history of the Borana people.
The Embarrassing Whitewashing of our History
I’m a Kenyan, born before independence and roundly well-educated – in Kenya. Or so I thought. For I knew nothing about the President of the Borana people, let alone that this title existed. But for the sake of overall clarity, before I go into the day’s celebrations, let me back track a little bit into a disturbing history and some facts that will bring understanding to all of us.
The ‘Scramble for Africa’ was the artificial drawing of African political boundaries among European powers at the end of the 19th century during the Berlin Conference. It led to the partitioning of thousands of ethnicities across newly created African states. After the Conference, this rush to scramble and claim lands in Africa sped up since even within areas designated as their sphere of influence, the European powers still had to take physical possession under the “Principle of Effectivity.” In Central and East Africa in particular, military expeditions from Europe were dispatched to coerce traditional rulers into signing treaties, often using force. Few treaties were signed willingly and many strong willed leaders were killed, as were ‘freedom’ fighters and those who led ‘rebellions’ against the white colonialist. Without these strong willed men and warrior women, many communities despaired, lost the will to fight and for many, even the desire to live.* (*In many accounts in both African and American histories, indigenous peoples in villages would stop “living” and die- leaving Europeans alone and unable to care for their fields or perform the manual labour required. In a rush to correct these “mass suicides” and ‘save the negros from his sin’ – King James in 1611 authorized and published a conservative Bible manuscript in English.)
These new administrators were quick to further divide and ‘profile’ ethnic groups into ‘tribes’ and hold them within ‘reservations’ in an effort to stop what they called ‘rebellions’ against their own rampant lootings on orders from the imperial government. Millions of people across East Africa were also re-settled far from their ancestral lands during this British Invasion that was as brutal as it was horrifying and inhuman. Thousands of men, women and children were killed, while more were placed in camps, died of exposure, their lands stolen, families torn apart and divided, homes looted, women whipped by the conquerors, thousands removed from their fertile forest homes.
The predominant explanation for the present-day African under-development usually focus on both (i) the negative influence of the Europeans during the colonial period, and on (ii) the Slave trade in the centuries before colonization when close to 20 million slaves were exported from Africa into Europe. New research of the “Scramble for Africa” has however revealed that the new borders – which were designed in European capitals at a time when Europeans had barely settled in Africa – have had more devastating effects on the socio-political climate within Africa than has been previously acknowledged. With no understanding and little regard for and of the African physical environment – neither the geography nor the ethnic composition of the areas whose borders they re-designed – the Europeans carelessly divided and looted, and thus halted the socio-economic growth of Africa – as well as, in many cases, reversed centuries of social patterns, economic trade routes, records, technology, unique human knowledge, histories of cultures and civilizations, some older than 4 million years (oldest human remains in the world are of a 4.4 million year old woman found in Ethiopia). Sadly, these new boundaries have endured after many countries gained independence and as a result, most African countries have a significant fraction of about 40-45% of the population belonging to groups that have been partitioned by a national border. While many case studies suggest that the main impact of Europeans’ influence in Africa was not colonisation per se, but the improper border design, there is little – if any – work that formally examines the impact of this ethnic partitioning.
Recent African history has proven that partitioned ethnic groups have suffered significantly longer than non-split groups, and have had more devastating civil wars. When not well managed there are substantial spillovers of these ethnic conflicts which spread from the historical homeland of partitioned groups to nearby areas where non-split ethnicities reside. In Kenya an example of this ‘spillover’ is the Al-Shabaab which has not been historically well managed by successive governments.
Recognition of Indigeneous Tribes
The Borana are part of a much larger unit of the Oromo culture group. They are the southern-most group of three closely related Oromo groups and are governed by the Abba Gada – The President – and his Council of 7. Kura Jarso was the first Abba Gada to come into Isiolo since Kenya’s independence from Britain in 1963. The Borana Oromo elected him as their 71st Abba Gadaa in an elaborate, week long ceremony attended by tens of thousands of people in Arda Jila Badhaasa – the Badhasa ceremonial grounds of southern Ethiopia, in May of 2017. This is the same place where the Borana Oromo leaders have exchanged power peacefully and in a democratic manner every eight years for more than 560 years. The Borana-Oromo live in both Ethiopia and Kenya, with a few in Somalia. In the 1998 census it was registered that 175,000 Borana lived in Kenya – in Marsabit, the Tana River area, Garissa and Moyale. The heaviest concentration of Borana live in the Sololo area of Marsabit, in Moyale, and in Isiolo around Merti and Garba Tula. According to tradition, Borana lands stretch south from the southern Ethiopian Highlands, through parts of Marsabit, Isiolo, past Mount Kenya on the Eastern side, until the northern shores of the Tana River as it stretches from the plains South East East of Mount Kenya. This settling was due to the mass migration in the 1500’s of Oromo peoples as they drifted out from the southern highlands of Ethiopia and slowly journeyed east wards. However, they were pushed back by the Somali which lead them to turn and instead wander southwards and into the Tana River/Garissa area.
The Borana story is similar to many of Kenya’s tribes who flowed symbiotically through East Africa in the 14th and 15th Centurys before they were ‘settled’ into their current territories by colonization. Sitting political ramifications of this land ‘ownership’, the Kenyan government has chosen to largely ignore the population for the past 55 years. However, in November 2016, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed the Borana Gadaa system on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Indigenous peoples who are also known as First Peoples in America, Aboriginal peoples in Australia or Native peoples in Africa, are ethnic groups who are the original settlers of a given region, in contrast to groups that have settled, occupied or colonized the area recently. Groups are usually described as indigenous when they maintain cultures and traditions or other aspects of a given region. Note that not all indigenous peoples share this characteristic, usually having adopted substantial elements of a colonising culture, such as dress, religion or language. Indigenous peoples may be sedentary or exhibit a nomadic lifestyle across a large territory.
Either way, they are historically associated with a specific territory on which they depend. (* those who adopt the elements of colonization often call themselves ‘civilized’ and brand ‘indigenous’ groups negatively – either as uncultured, uncivilized or such other derogatory terms).
Because indigenous peoples are often faced with threats to their sovereignty, to their economic well-being and their access to the natural resources on which their cultures rely on, political rights have been set forth in international law by international organizations such as the United Nations, the International Labour Organization and the World
Bank. The United Nations has issued a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) to guide member-state national policies to the collective rights of indigenous peoples, such as culture, identity, language and access to employment, health, education and – especially – their natural resources and fortunes.
The skies were blue, the grasses green, the air warm and soothing to my bones. A soft cool wind blew down from the slopes of Mount Kenya. I had been informed that 3 bulls had been slaughtered for the Abba Gadda for this
most important of occasions. The colourfully printed hijabs and dira’s of the elegant beautiful women and graceful girls fluttered in the wind, their laughs tinkling. Women sang, jumped and clapped to the beat of the drummer, a man who jumped and spun as he beat upon his drum. An ancient elegant woman twirled and danced in a corner – amusing the men and raising eyebrows– she was pulled into the group of women who sang in front of their President. Prayer time, and the Abba Gadda went into the mosque. As I watched the tall men with twisted beards and rasta coloured bands swagger past the dias, as I admired the girls, so graceful that they made gazelles look awkward, faces as angular and as stunning as any on a Cosmopolitan Magazine, as I inhaled the scents of the grasses and the lingering whiff of rain and wet earth, the oud and womens subtle perfume, as I looked at the young Abba Gadda – and witnessed the sincere pleasure he gave to his people, as I listened to his speech of peace, unity and prosperity, something inside of me broke.
While UNICEF has listed this culture as crucial, imperative and vital to our collective wellbeing as humans in this region, many of us Kenyans’ fall under the trap of slander, division and hatred. Maybe what we need to do is accept our mistakes and lay down any weapons which we have fashioned against each other. The Borana culture is over 560 years old – they could tell us a thing or two about ourselves and this land we call our home. They could tell us a thing or three about secrets of the oasis and wildlife, our trees, forests, rocks and minerals found within these spaces – and just maybe if we listened it would return to us the zest to live on our lands with growth – progression of peace, harmony, prosperity. We have come to rely on the west for answers to our under-development and lack of economic growth, forgetting that we have ancient African Solutions for African Problems that can be delivered by African peoples.
Najar is a social activist