Tuesday, 14 May 2013

What tribe are you from?

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Five  years ago there was a lot of violence in Kenya. More than 1000 people died. You might know this because it was on the news. I know this because I was living there.

The fighting started after an election. A disputed election. Where both sides thought they had won.

In Britain, people don’t tend to fight about election results. There are many reasons for this but one is the lack of tribal identity. In Kenya, most people feel they are part of a tribe: a Luo, a Kikuyu, a Kalijin. And when the election was won by some tribes and lost by others it was easy for some Kenyans to split into groups and fight rather than come together.

One conclusion to draw from this is that group identities like tribes are bad. They divide us. Why have a Luo tribe and Kalijin tribe – shouldn’t everyone be Kenyan? In fact, why have identities like Catholic and Protestant – just be Christian. Why be English or Scottish – just be British.

The problem with this is where do you stop? If all Kenyans think of themselves as only Kenyans, what stops them having a dispute with Ugandans? Must they all become East Africans? If Catholics and Protestants think of themselves as just Christians – how does this stop a sense of difference from those of no faith? Must we all become agnostics? Must Brits become Europeans to avoid difference from the French. The stopping point of this logic is that we all become ‘world citizens’. When someone asks ‘who are you?’ all you can say is ‘I am a person of the world, agnostic of faith, of no fixed country or group’.  We become people of no identity at all.

This is madness.

Let me propose an alternative. If we want to bring people together we need more group identities not less.

Take me as an example. I am an English man, and a christian, married to a Scottish woman, living in London, son of a working class man from Liverpool. Each part of my identity links me with a different group of people. Each allows me to see something of myself in someone else. The Sierra Leonian migrant in the east end is a Londoner like me. The well-educated Edinburgh barrister is Scottish like my children. The elderly church-goer and I are both Christians. The Liverpudlian youth worker’s father has the same background as mine. These group identities don’t just define us – they can bring us together.

So – who are you? What are your identities? And who do you share them with?

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