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Manufacturing descent: genealogy and race in the political making of Eastern Africa, 1800-2000

Cedric Barnes and James R Brennan, School of Oriental and African Studies,

Panel abstract

This workshop will investigate how the historical manipulation of genealogy and race form a definable regional matrix of political legitimacy for the region of Eastern Africa that includes modern-day Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, & Tanzania. Papers will address the broad contours of this regional political tradition from a historical and ethnographical perspective.

Panel summary

Papers will investigate three aspects of this topic. First, papers will broadly address how genealogical reckoning serves as a critical legitimating device for political authority, and how this feature persevered long before, during, and after the bureaucratic moment of colonial rule. The overlapping building blocks of these reckonings – e.g., descent from the prophet Muhammad and other Islamic lineages, the ‘zionist’ Solomonic myth in Ethiopia, and more locality-specific lineages of prestige – constitute a hegemonic political vocabulary as well as a shifting arena of political debate. Second, papers will examine how traditional and Western notions of race have often (but not always) flattened specific genealogical reckonings and endangered the prestige and utility of local lineages, yet have also strengthened the broad principle of shared descent as the linchpin of regional political legitimacy. Indeed throughout much of this region, it was claims to political legitimacy through racial descent that enabled nationalist movements to take control of colonial bureaucracies in the 1950s. Finally, papers will address how globalisation has reconfigured relationships between locality and genealogy, as well as continent and race, and as a result poses a new set of challenges to the region's tradition of political authority. How resilient has genealogical and racial thought been towards the reconstitution of post-colonial political legitimacy, given the region’s disappointments with bureaucratic authority and history of severe conflict? One tentative answer is that lineage reckoning has been most critical in those areas that have suffered a complete collapse of bureaucratic authority such as Somalia, while more stable countries such as Tanzania have managed to maintain political legitimacy through alternately manipulating bureaucratic and racial claims to power.

Session 1: Genealogy, Race, & National Identities in East Africa

The light and shadow of descent:  genealogical and racial thought among Tanganyika’s African intelligentsia, 1920-1975

James R Brennan, School of Oriental and African Studies

The language of political legitimacy in 19th-century Tanzania was largely one of lineal descent. This language structured debates about political offices and medicine-making while also adapting to the period’s rapid economic changes. German and particularly British colonial rule worked to redefine legitimacy in Tanzania by bifurcating political authority into manageable ‘tribal’ units grounded on (frequently ersatz) genealogies on the one hand, and a parallel bureaucratic structure grounded on educational achievement on the other. From the 1920s to the 1940s, African intellectuals instructed in Western education worked to create a new political language of race that enabled them to claim both bureaucratic and genealogical authority while also making sense of local colonial inequalities and global political geographies. Yet racial thought massively expanded the ‘lineage’ and effectively flattened genealogical depth, and therefore strained to compete with local chiefly lineages for popular support during the nationalist period of the 1950s. The most ambitious and successful nationalist intellectuals attempted to solve this problem by creating a new racial genealogy based on a semi-mythic set of religious and military figures from the past, while balancing this with the unconditional nationalist embrace of a genealogically indifferent bureaucratic modernity.

'Invaders who have stolen the country': the Hamitic hypothesis, race and the Rwandan genocide

Nigel Eltringham, University of Sussex

From 1895 onwards, German, followed by Belgian, colonial authorities cast ‘the Tutsi’ in Rwanda as ‘Hamitic’, as martial pastoralists who had subjugated ‘the Bantu Hutu’ and whose physiognomy ‘implied’ a North East African provenance. In the process, colonial discourse (and practice) not only strengthened the authority of the Tutsi élite and monarchy, but effaced differential power and wealth among those who held ‘Tutsi’ status (conferred according to a variety of logics) under ‘race’. The census of 1933 (in which ethno-racial identity was conferred by diverse means, but glossed as biologically determined) crystallised identities in the form of ID cards and reified the discourse of ‘Bantu’ and ‘Hamite’ which was, in turn, absorbed into an emerging élite Tutsi historiography. With moves towards independence, ‘race as superiority’ was co-opted and transformed into ‘race as foreign interloper’ by a newly emergent class of educated Hutu who took power in 1959. With the invasion of the Rwandan Patriotic Front in October 1990 (composed mainly of the descendents of Tutsi who had fled Rwanda in the 1950s and 1960s), the representation of ‘the Tutsi’ as ‘foreign Hamites’ was reactivated discursively in genocidal propaganda and performatively in massacres that culminated in the 1994 genocide. While the ‘Hamitic myth’ has now been erased from official discourse in Rwanda, resonances remain. Unable to get the Tutsi to fulfil a flawed definition of ‘ethnic group’, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda introduced ‘race’. Rather than emphasise its ideational nature as perpetrator construct, the Tribunal defined race as ‘hereditary physical traits often identified with a geographical region’. Scholars have also noted that comparison between the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust may introduce notions of ‘Semitic victimhood’. Finally, as elsewhere in Africa, DNA technologies have been hailed as a means of providing ‘evidence’ of a North East African provenance, thereby providing a post facto basis for colonial imaginings and dehistoricising the instrumental use of the discourse.

Evolving nationalisms in Tanzania: secular and Islamist identities in conflict

John Campbell, SOAS

The paper explores the competing relations between ethnic, religious and racial identities in contemporary Tanzania. During the first four decades of one-party rule the state pursued policies aimed at constructing a secular national identity capable of uniting diverse social groups under the banner of African socialism. However, economic retrenchment in the 1980s followed by political liberalisation in the 1990s this contributed directly to a series of social conflicts leading many Tanzanians to redefine the structures of common difference and to a fracturing of national identity. This papers seeks to address the reasons for the upsurge in conflict and cultural fragmentation by looking in particular at the growing importance of Islamist thought and organisation.

Bacwezi and Kitara: Genealogy and political legitimacy in Uganda, from 1860 to the present day

Shane Doyle, University of Leeds

The founding myths of a number of Great Lakes kingdoms claim inheritance from an ancient empire of Kitara, ruled by a dynasty known as the Bacwezi. These claims are treated by historians today with a great deal of scepticism. Kitara, if it ever existed, seems unlikely to have been a centrally controlled, homogeneous empire. The Bacwezi were most probably a collection of local deities, redesignated as a dynasty by incoming monarchs, seeking to add to their legitimacy. But there can be no denying the power of images of Kitara and the Bacwezi in the politics of the region. This paper would examine two of the ways by which political leaders have appropriated the legacy of Uganda's ancient past. Most obviously, Uganda's kings from the late 19th century to the present day, have sought to claim the title of true heir of Kitara, in order to secure the favour of foreign power-brokers. More interestingly, the ideological legacy of the Kitara empire has in some cases limited the ethnic exclusiveness of 'traditional' kingship in the region. The kingdom of Bunyoro, in western Uganda, has encouraged immigration from other parts of East Africa for at least fifty years, on the grounds that Kitara had also been an expanding, multi-ethnic empire, and that the current Babito dynasty has bridged the divide between Bantu- and Luo-speakers in the region.

Discussant: Chege Githiora, SOAS

Session 2: Genealogy and authority in Somalia & Sudan

Genealogy as theory, genealogy as tool: descent in Somalia and elsewhere

Virginia Luling

Genealogy is both a tool for organising people on the day to day political level, and an intellectual scheme for understanding human history. In the Somali context what counts is not the genealogies of ruling families so much as those of groups, and the overarching genealogy which links the entire people. However in fact there are not one but two systems; the segmentary system of the pastoral clans, and the quite different one of the Benadiri coastal communities, while in some areas these overlap.. Both systems are in turn hooked onto Islamic genealogies and through them into a cosmic scheme. Both the intellectual aspect ( ideas about descent) and the political one have altered in the modern world. The vicissitudes of the Somali clan system in the 20th century have been much debated; I look briefly at this, and examine how at the present day outside agencies (Western military and political representatives, NGOs, immigration authorities) try to understand and deal with the the concept of ‘clans’ while Somalis in their turn adapt to and attempt to make use of these (mis)understandings.

Shaykh Abdullahi Qutbi and the D.I.Y. genealogy:  Genealogy, Rhetoric and the Acquisition of Discursive Authority (in Southern Somalia)

Scott Reese, University of Northern Arizona

In recent years there has been a great deal of research focused on the role of Muslim religious practitioners as what we could refer to as “brokers of social discourse” and the mediators of social crises. However, one question that is frequently ignored in the literature is exactly how does an individual, or group, lay claim to such authority? What are the tools typically used by religious practitioners (or their followers) to publicly assert their right to provide social guidance?

Scholars in late 19th and early 20th century East Africa often called on a variety of tools to substantiate their claims to religious authority. Some relied heavily on reputations for “learnedness” in the formal Islamic sciences; others looked to what might be termed “transcendence” (one’s ability to attain mystical union with God) as the bases for their authority. At the same time, however, descent almost always played a role in establishing one’s discursive credibility. Some were fortunate enough to hail from prominent lineages renowned for their scholarship, many however, could not. As a result, these “genealogically” challenged individuals frequently turned to what could describe as more ‘creative’ means to construct lines of descent in order to shore up their own discursive authority.

A case in point was Shaykh Abdullahi ibn Mu’allim Yusuf al-Qutbi. Belonging to what could be described as the “B-list” of the Qadiriyya leadership, al-Qutbi was best known as an anti-Salahiyya polemicist. A dearth of distinguished teachers in his intellectual genealogy and descent from a small rural lineage meant that--in the towns of the coast at least­his background carried little weight on its own. However, today he is among the most frequently cited Somali Sufi authors especially with regard to his anti-Salihiyya rhetoric. But how did an ‘alim of such limited prospects attain unassailable discursive authority? This paper will explore al-Qutbi’s use of local genealogical texts, didactic poetry as well as moral and legal reasoning to construct a personal genealogy that linked him not only to the local scholarly community but to the founders of the faith and by extension the far wider world of the umma. At the end of the day, as we shall see, al-Qutbi was able to construct a family tree that­at least in his mind-- provided him with the legitimacy needed to establish his own religious authority and a prominent place among the scholars of the Somali coast.

U dhashay and Ku dhashay – genealogical and territorial discourse in Somali history, 1920 – 1950

Cedric Barnes, School of Oriental and African Studies

For a decade now - following the collapse of the unified state of Somalia - authors have been re-examining the component parts of the Somali nation. A younger generation of scholars has taken issue with their elders and the widely held view that the Somali nation, despite other short-comings, was one of the less complicated African national identities. The youthful revisionists have uncovered the ethnic and even ‘racial’ complexity of the Somali state, and questioned the dominant discourses, many of which were the result of the dynamism of Somali nationalism. Recent additions to the ‘deconstructionist’ literature have dichotomised representations of Somalis and Somalia into two paradigms, ‘lineage narratives’ or u dhashay and ‘territorial narratives’ or ku dhashay. The sociological usefulness of these paradigms notwithstanding, they do at least underline the approaches to Somali studies, dominated by one discourse that privileges the pastoral lineage of the Somali nation, and those who increasingly see the Somali world bounded by territorial narratives. The lineage narrative is conventionally seen as older and the territorial narrative as a new departure and most evident in the aftermath of the civil war. The reality is, of course, that multiple narratives and paradigms always contributed to the Somali national narrative, and this is demonstrable at the birth of Somali nationalism and no doubt, much earlier. This paper will take the example of the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, and demonstrate how lineage and territorial narratives have history that is much deeper than the contemporary crisis of the Somali state.

Shaping a national identity, disempowering the authority of genealogy: processes of social changes and the rise of nationalism in the Sudan

Elena Vezzadini, Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, University of Bergen

After the establishment of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, deep social changes affected the Sudan, and created a situation of ‘social instability.’ On the one hand, people with little or no tribal affiliation could accumulate wealth and fill positions in the lower and middle ranks of administration. On the other hand, in the urban centres, economic changes accelerated the process of ‘de-tribalization’ of a part of society.

This ‘de-nationalized’ class was the first to propose the idea of a nation socially, geographically and tribally united, and was the protagonist of the 1924 revolution. In the nationalist ideology, this class found a common vocabulary to fight not only against colonial oppression, but also against the social hierarchies crystallized by colonial political choices. Nationalism represented therefore an attempt to impose a new set of values, like patriotism and education, rather than descent and genealogy, as the criteria of social standing.

Discussant: Roland Marchal, CERA – Paris

Session 3: Discourses of descent in Ethiopia

'Our ancestors the Gauls': the projection of the French national myth onto the Oromo of Ethiopia

Eloi Ficquet, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Martial de Salviac, a Capuchin missionary in Harar, asserted in 1900 the 'Gallic' (Celtic) origins of the 'Galla' (Oromo). Even founded on wrong premises, this hypothesis was conceived in a context of debates on national origins, which were generated by European nationalisms and were projected onto peoples targeted by colonialist/missionary civilizing projects. In the French case, the national mythology was based on a 'war of the races' scheme setting Gallic natives against Frank or Roman conquerors. The 'Gallic hypothesis' have been taken up, seriously or ironically, by European and Ethiopian (Oromo and non-Oromo) scholars who have discussed the issue of Galla/Oromo origins. Its lasting reveals that the debates on racial descent of the Oromo have been structured by competing views on integration of this people in the Ethiopian nation building process. The case of the Kabyle of Algeria will provide a point of comparison, since they were subject of the same type of assumptions in the missionary and colonial works.

Re-imagining Empire: Genealogy and the Monarch of Yohannes IV, 1870-89

Isabella Orlowska, SOAS

Since thirteenth century Ethiopian state drew upon indigenous ideology that legitimises the rule of the line of kings ostensibly descendent from Solomon and Sheba. Understood in the broader context than simply dynastic legitimacy, but ultimately based on genealogy, the Solomonic ideology plaid a role of a national and political charter filled with cultural significance for the monarchy and its people. Textual analysis of imperial ceremonies with their performative aspect will be used here to provide insights into the importance of the Neo-Solomonic ideology for the project of revival of the Ethiopian monarchy in the nineteenth century. The paper will point out to conscious attempts to manipulate the body of symbols that constituted the ideology of the Solomonic state in order to justify a new interpretation of the imperial legitimacy based on genealogy.

Genealogies and gene-ideologies: the legitimacy of the Beta Israel (Falasha)

Steve Kaplan, Hebrew University

This paper exams the shifting discourses regarding the 'Jewishness' and 'Ethiopianess' of the Beta Israel (Falasha). It considers the changes which have taken place from traditions of Solomonic descent to those of Danite descent and from lineage-based to genetics-based arguments. It relates these changes to the migration of the Beta Israel from Ethiopia to Israel and to changing concepts of what represents “proof” of identity. It concludes with reflections regarding the relationship between constructionist approaches to genealogy and the Beta Israel’s ongoing evolution as a people and struggle for recognition in their new surroundings.

Discussant: Alessandro Triulzi, University of Naples