From the end of the nineteenth century until the attainment of independence in the early 1960s, the countries of East Africa were under the colonial administration of European empires. After decades of foreign rule which saw unparalleled transformations within society, the post-colonial states that emerged have been blighted by ethnic conflict. It has been argued that the beliefs of British, Belgian and German administrators led them to completely reorganise the societies they governed based on a fictitious â€˜tribalâ€™ model, and in the process they invented ethnicity. There is a great deal of debate on this matter, though, and its continued relevance to contemporary politics only makes it more vigorous.
Before we go on to analyse to what extent it may have been invented under colonial rule, we need to first of all establish just what exactly is meant by the term â€˜ethnicityâ€™. It is a complicated as well as a contentious question, interpreted in a variety of different ways that can depend on political beliefs, social status, place of birth and personal history. Clearly, if we are to talk about â€˜ethnicityâ€™ without descending into an exhausting debate on linguistics and semantics, it is necessary to take for granted a certain degree of generalisation. We can say that all human beings, broadly, do belong objectively to some form of â€˜ethnicityâ€™; that is, a social group whose members they are linked with through a shared culture, religion, territory, language, or genealogy. What varies greatly is the awareness of this connection, and the importance an individual places upon it.
The term â€˜tribeâ€™ would further complicate the debate, and serve no other purpose than to draw discussion away from the process of invention; the main focus of...
...nd every aspect of life from marriage to choice of profession was influenced by the ethnic group you belonged to. Transience, multiplicity, and change were the key words, though. One can say that what the colonial governments actually invented, and what has often left such a painfully devastating legacy, was not ethnicity itself, but the codification of ethnic groups in national laws, the exclusivity of groupings, and the bringing to the fore of a personâ€™s â€˜tribeâ€™ at the expense of all other means of identification. You no longer merely took comfort from being part of a Tutsi community, you were a Tutsi from the day you were born until the day you died, and the course of your life would be decided for you based on this label. Rather than inventing it, colonialism destroyed ethnicityâ€™s one defining characteristic in the East African context: its ability to transform.
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