The folly of tribal and ethnic identities

So – we continue to forge ahead together, a nation composed of supposed patriots in matters of minority interest; a nation made up of vociferous hostilities of a fragmented nature against common problems viewed often from sectarian perspectives; and finally, a nation of a potentially powerful political base from which a vast majority of our human-made challenges could be confronted and changed.

I saw in a certain book by a liberation theologian a small segment which read – and I paraphrase – that

those who are oppressed, marginalized, subjugated and treated unfairly must strive to acquire an attitude that enables them to think more deeply and thoroughly than those who oppress them… they must understand their common plight and shake off their vile appetites and defeat their greed…failing which, they will always be at the mercy of their oppressors; they will always be divided by their greed for the possessions of their oppressors; they victimize each other and ultimately, they will never be free.

This extract simply pushes the simple idea that even though suffering might seem isolated and fragmented from individual, ethnic or regional standpoints – its mechanisms and content are fundamentally the same. The complexity is that, those who suffer see fellow sufferers as the problem, and completely overlook the ominous elephant in the room which is the oppressor.

In the worst case, some feel closer to the oppressor because they are allowed to lick the wine, to pick the crumbs of bread and to chew on the pieces of bone off the floor underneath the oppressors table. They thus wage war against others as they seek to protect the floors from which the spilt win and fallen crumbs are licked and picked.

Ultimately, ethnic and regional hostilities serve the powerful no matter which way we look at them. On the one hand, they make those we feel strong affiliations for these arbitrary constructs of identity falsely view themselves as a collective of beneficiaries of a regime when they, for example, see members of their tribe, ethnicity or region appointed into positions of influence.

Mulhakowa Alomwe  cultural dance

Mulhakowa Alomwe cultural dance

The fact however is this – the millions of members of the broader tribe will never all be accorded positions, contracts and government tenders; this is thus a grand illusion of a false immaterial status. The few who find themselves in lucrative positions are the frontbenchers of the incumbent and are the illusion that is sold to the ethnic group to make them feel like they are included – even though they, together with the vast majority – continue to languish in common, indiscriminate poverty.

On the other hand we have the other tribes who feel deeply begrudged by the few nepotistic appointments and yet will not band together with other tribes who are equally excluded. This is because they too hope for one of their own to go into government. In the long run, large sections of the population remain suffering while the presidency rotates amongst different “tribal representatives” who over time crystallize into a political class, distinct and separate in wealth, power and privilege from the vast majority. This is why, for me, ethnicity and tribe is of no content – and I have openly told my elders that I am from Zomba because I grew up there, and this too was due to the vicissitudes arising from two accidents of firstly having my parents employers based in Zomba, and secondly, of having my parents in the professions in which they ended up being in. So I could have been anywhere else – and would have equally felt the false burden of somehow having my roots embedded deep in that other place.

And so quite frankly, I am neither a Tumbuka nor Ngoni because these identities are of no use to me even though they might have been important to my parents. Rather, I am simply a Malawian who wants my government (or State) to treat me strictly on that basis alone: that is on the basis of my citizenship along with all its attendant responsibilities and rights – nothing else. And this is where our collective victory as a non-political class resides.

I will close my few thoughts with a similar theme I opened with above. Getting over the circumstances in which we find ourselves will require intentional introspection. I must concede that this in itself is extremely complicated especially because

a)      Our first executive after independence did not facilitate the creation of a popular inclusive narrative around which we could concoct a national ideology – rather, they preferred to create a personality cult in which Kamuzu was the alpha and omega of Malawi and all that was in it (Zonse zimene za Kamuzu Banda). And

b)      We have presently – unwittingly – constructed a society in which judgments about our country’s performance are predicated upon direct and indirect experiences rather than on some kind of guiding normative. This is why some tribes celebrate Kamuzu, others celebrate Muluzi, others Bingu, others Joyce Banda and now Peter; all from tribally-tainted lenses.

And those that hate these presidents hate them not from a collective standpoint but rather from subjective judgments of how ONLY their tribe faired badly during their tenures. A country guided merely by the vigours fed and deprived appetites steadily carts itself to its demise.

Nonetheless, the journey begins – in my opinion – with civil society. Let them rid themselves of the tertiary issues and bring rights back to fundamental things like shelter, education, food, clothing and basic accountability. Tertiary level rights require strong fundamental or basic rights within a context of strong institutions. If we begin there, we will find popular support for the doctrine of rights which will form the basis for institutional reform and maturity; and subsequently, we can move on upwards towards the more controversial rights that we are all too familiar with having learned crucial national lessons from our earlier battles.

So for now we need more avenues of convergence rather than divergence, avenues of unity rather than disunity, and common fronts for resistance over the illusions of inclusion obtained from thin and unsustainable patronage. Its either that or we will continue to despair in unending subjugation regardless of which tribe’s president is in power.

And lastly, we have this to our advantage: politicians would rather devolve or lose some powers than to be pushed out of power. There is nothing fundamental in tribal or ethnic identities. They are socio-historically and politically constructed which means they are arbitrary, and thus they have no powers to keep us latched onto and beholden to them. When we are a country as plagued by problems as Malawi is, ethnic and tribal hostilities are nothing more than an extra chain of bondage keeping us and so many others like ourselves from addressing your common human-made misfortunes.

Let’s throw off these chains today and focus our energies on the elephant in the room – the oppressor; the elite political class! There are millions of us and only a few hundred of them. Reform is possible.

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