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Opinion - Vulnerabilities of contesting historical ethnic identities

2021-04-23  Staff Reporter

Opinion - Vulnerabilities of contesting historical ethnic identities
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Social conflict in Africa is often viewed as endless by the Western world forgetting that they are largely responsible for the havoc. The European powers in fact hatched the “divide and rule policy” during the colonial period and after many African countries have attained self-rule. Even now, the West has followed Africa with its neocolonialistic tendencies, and at the same time dividing the continent along political and economic lines.  The stereotype is of an Africa that has been home to interminable tribal contest and violence since ancient times. Indeed, most of these conflicts could not have been at all possible just one hundred years ago.  

The fact is that conflict especially inter-ethnic conflicts are very much a modern phenomenon based on the socio-economic and political events associated with colonialism and its aftermath after the Berlin Conference of 1885. Many scholars and politicians alike today believe that colonialism crafted a deliberate policy of obliterating the histories and identities of many indigenous people.  A case in point here are the Belgians in Rwanda and Burundi in which the colonisers changed the surnaming system where it almost became impossible to link and trace relatives with one another.

Surprisingly, despite the efforts of colonisers to erase the histories and identities of the local people, oral traditions of preserving information survived and stood the test of time. Though oral traditions have limitations, Alagoa (2005) maintains that it is a viable source and a history in its own right; and the custodians of the traditions are both informants and historians. Simpson (2004) maintains that stories, folklore, proverbs, songs, poetry, drama, wise sayings and praises form the pattern through which events and occurrences are preserved and passed on from one generation to the other. 

On the other hand, Lamb (1990) remarks that the history of Africa was passed from one generation to the other by the spoken not written word and consequently its civilizations remained shrouded in mystery. Hochschild (1999) also maintains that despite the beginnings of stories lying very far back in time, their reverberations may still be felt after a very long time, particularly if their lived experiences were bitter and painful. For example, issues of slave trade which took place between the 15th and 19th centuries are still expressed in fear, suppression and emotions stressing the misery that was brought to the people of Africa. However, the main shortcoming is that traditional educational thought has always been expressed orally and the spoken word is always difficult to capture and assess emphasizing that the spoken word becomes even more difficult if it was spoken in the distant past.  Because much of accounts of lived experience in Africa were not recorded way back in time, many researchers rely on oral tradition. 

However, Cooper (1996) and Solomon (1981) reject the idea of documentation as a condition for oral tradition to be recognized as such, because Socrates and Buddha did not document their philosophies yet they are regarded as ideal philosophers today. This cautions the researchers of ethnic groups to independently and objectively conduct their research. It is not easy to justify the findings that around 650 AD one ethnic group retained its name, migrated to all parts of Africa, yet left no paintings, markings and their language. 

Eurocentrism has been a factor in distorting the histories and identities of many indigenous people. The colonisers could not understand the customs of the local people, let alone appreciate them. Whatever information they were able to capture was done with London and other European capitals in mind. This arrogance even limited the understanding of the African education system and consequently imposed their own which was in many aspects irrelevant and distorted. Therefore, it is imperative that the African and Eurocentric perspectives should be triangulated and juxtaposed in order to come up with a better version of events which took place during the migration of Africans. 

The post-independent perspective of addressing the distorted histories and identities of local people should be enhanced, but it should be approached from academic and objective angles. There have been calls to rewrite the African history in order to redress the colonial distortions. Whereas this is a genuine clarion call, caution should be taken to discourage distortions, over-reaction, politization and radicalization of histories and identities at the expense of other groups. There are tendencies which have emerged for groups to claim more superiority than others in the same regions by falsely creating unfounded histories and identities which never existed. These new histories and identities are sometimes fuelled by politicians for cheap propaganda and more votes for them to stay in power for a long period of time.  

If African instability is anything to go by, Namibia should learn and avoid the unnecessary banging citizens’ heads for the political gains. We have seen serious atrocities and conflicts across the globe emanating from such insinuations and distortions. Though traditional leaders are accorded designations by their people for their respect and love, it is equally important to dissuade insinuating titles. Although Article 19 of the Namibian constitution allows citizens to practise their culture, it should be noted that the country is a republic founded on democracy and the rule of law. Hence redressing the distorted past histories and identities should be researched along academic and objective lines for the sake of integrity and validity; key elements always sought in any study.

2021-04-23  Staff Reporter

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