Land and ethnic tension

I haven’t flown over the Ituri forest in Congo since I was a child over thirty years ago; Google Earth tells me that it is still there but shrinking.  In my recent travels to the US, I couldn’t help feeling like I was seeing far more trees and forests than I see in fertile Kenya (I have the same recollection of my time in more densly populated Europe—though Africa is supposed to surpass Europe in population density this year.). In my recent flight from Lilongwe and over Tanzania to Nairobi, I looked out over a vast patchwork of farms. Boundaries of a national forests and game parks were clearly demarcated;  they are practically the only uncultivated land anywhere.

In several conversations with my Kenyan friends about the ethnic violence they experience after the last election, I’ve taken out a napkin and sketched out a big square: “This was your grandfather’s plot of land. Let’s say he had eight sons. [“twelve,”—or more—I’m occasionally corrected. I divide the plot up into equal subplots]. Now lets say that each of your uncles had four sons. [I further sub-divide each subplot.] Given the serious Kenyan cultural value of owning your own plot of land (contrasted with West African communal ownership), how do you think you and your cousins are going to feel about each other—not to mention the people from a different ethnic group that arrived generations ago when there was plenty of land to go around?” The imagery is striking.  At independence, Kenya had approximately six million citizens; today (less than 50 years later) it’s pushing forty million! (We are still awaiting the results of last year’s census.)

The following article describes some of the complexities of land, population growth, and ethnicity throughout Africa.

Africa’s continental divide: land disputes

Christian Science Monitor, January 30, 2010

…Land, at the very heart of security and survival, looms behind most of the African conflicts we’ve all heard of and dozens of others we have not. The Rwandan genocide, some argue, was as much about the dwindling land availability in Africa’s most densely populated country as it was about enmity between ethnic groups. The wars recounted in the movie “Blood Diamond” in Sierra Leone and Liberia saw land grabs by warlords eager to exploit commodities like diamonds and timber. The violence following Kenya’s 2007 election reflected generations of dissatisfaction with land policy that favored different ethnic groups over time. Beneath the genocide in Darfur is a broken land tenure system, full of fights over soil that climate change is making increasingly unproductive. Somalia’s infamous pirates gain cover for plundering from political chaos in the country, whose warring clans fight not only for power but primacy on disputed lands, full of resources to fuel ongoing violence. And beneath last week’s Muslim-Christian riots, which killed at least 260 people in Jos, Nigeria, are decades-old grievances about political rights and the land they are tied to.

Africa’s most famous disasters, many argue, could have been prevented with changes in national land laws or better local conflict resolution but for one problem: Prevention doesn’t sell.

What does sell – what gets airtime, aid dollars, and military or other attention – is the violent chaos the world fails to prevent [this last phrase made me uncomfortable; local solutions would probably be better]. By the time land conflict gets an international audience, land is an afterthought; talk turns to tribe and ethnicity or local politics and corruption. News coverage and nonprofits focus on the worst symptoms – refugees, rapes, massacres. Distracted by suffering, they miss the structural problem that can, it turns out, be solved.

Fixing the land problem may lay the foundation for fixing so many others, from poverty to famine to ethnic conflict. If farmers feel their claims to plots are sound, if social groups feel land policies are impartial and just, and if women and men have equal rights to the soil, experts say Africa’s other ills will be easier to treat.

In communities across the continent, that hypothesis is bearing out…

The end of land conflict might just mark the ascent of Africa.

It’s too much to say that land is the cause of all of Africa’s wars. But…

…The stubborn fact, says Brady, is that something must give. Liberia, and the rest of Africa, can acknowledge the importance of custom, or admit that previous power structures have given some groups unfair economic privilege, or argue that everyone with a piece of paper has a right to his plot, even when the papers conflict. But none of that helps solve the problem.

“Some people must make sacrifices. …

Read more.

For Christian leaders, this might highlight how attention to these root (economic) causes (systemic justice) might be far more effective than focusing on individual attitudes about ethnicity—though these are important too.

Thanks for the heads-up: Texas in Africa. Her regular “this & that” posts are probably my best source of good articles on Africa.

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Our TCK president: Obama and his team of third culture kids

. . . According to a body of sociological literature devoted to children who spend a portion of their developmental years outside their “passport country,” the classic  profile of a “TCK” is someone with a global perspective who is socially adaptable and intellectually flexible. He or she is quick to think outside the box and can appreciate and reconcile different points of view.  Beyond whatever diversity in background or appearance a TCK may bring to the party, there is a diversity of thought as well.

“Third Culture Kids” share certain emotional and psychological traits that may exert great influence in the new administration.

But TCKs can also feel rootless and detached. The great challenge for maturing Third Culture Kids is to forge a sense of personal and cultural identity from the various environments to which they been exposed. Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams of My Father, could serve as a textbook in the TCK syllabus, a classic search for self-definition, described in living color. Obama’s colleagues on the Harvard Law Review were among the first to note both his exceptional skill at mediating among competing arguments and the aloofness that made his own views hard to discern. That cool manner of seeming “above it all” is also a classic feature of the Third Culture Kid.

The TCKs’ identity struggles can be painful and difficult. The literature documents addictive behaviors, troubled marriages and fitful careers. But meeting this challenge can become a TCK’s greatest strength. Learning to take the positive pieces from a variety of experiences and create a strong sense of “This is who I am, no matter where I am” gives a steadiness when the world around is in flux or chaos”—which helps explain “no-drama Obama.”

Among those of us who study Third Culture Kids (almost always because we are TCKs), it has been both gratifying and frustrating to watch “one of us” run for the White House. We began obsessively pointing out to each other the telltale signifiers of the TCK that so often went unremarked in the mainstream press. . .

– Ruth E. Van Reken – Obama’s ‘Third Culture’ Team

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Band-Aids, doll babies, and racial shades of beauty

Since almost all my daughters’ friends are various shades of brown and black, I’m frequently struck by the prominent shades of Band-Aids (or plasters as they are called here) and dolls. I remember walking into a drug store in N.E. Washington, DC and being unable to find a dark shade of Band-Aid for the kids I was working with. I thought about it for a minute and realized that, in this predominantly African-American part of the city, I was probably the only white guy who was going to be in that drugstore that day. Still, all the Band-Aids blended much better with my pink skin than they did with just about every other customer. Since then, I have seen some darker shades, and clear ones help, but check out the Band-Aid selection next time you are in a store. All the Band-Aids for kids in our house are now flashy kid colors – blue, yellow, red, green, purple, etc.

Finding multiple shades of dolls is another problem. Sadly, even when Christi does find black dolls for all the girls to play with, Kiara and Leila’s African friends (from all over the continent) still prefer the white-looking  dolls; white dolls are “more beautiful” they argue (even when they are identical except for color). Do we need any more evidence of the powerful impact of popular imagery (TV)? Christi’s had to do a lot of work building the self image of these young girls as black, brown, and beautiful.

Reconciliation blog brings attention to the culture clash over dolls and quotes a comment under a post by  Noble Mother that talks about her conflicted feelings over Bratz dolls – they like the color, but does not like the materialistic diva image.

Until the Bratz dolls came on the market, my daughter [black dad; white mom] just wasn’t really interested in dolls of any kind. She and I have lots of conversations about ‘what she is’…and she’s decided she’s not white, she’s not black, she’s brown. She’s often asked why there are never any brown babies in the stores? There are white and there are black, but not brown. And I’m sure she’s not been the only little girl asking this question.

The Bratz dolls, while I have major issues with many other factors about them, have given my daughter a sense of validation of her color. Now, there are dolls on the store shelves that look just like her. She no longer has to decide whether she wants a white doll or a black doll…she can get one that looks just like her.

Gilbreath asks:

Does Barbie represent an increasingly outdated notion of what “normal” mainstream culture looks like, while the Bratz signify a more multiethnic (or urban) aesthetic that is underrepresented among children’s dolls today? Even millionaire celeb Angelina Jolie, who adopted an African daughter, spoke up on this recently saying,

“and I look for a Barbie that’s African, and the African Barbie has straight hair! And you know, why has Disney never made a film with an African-American princess?”

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The importance of positive images (race & society)

Images in popular culture are powerful. When Christi and I first saw David Palmer on 24, long before Obama ever burst onto the scene, I remember saying to her, “This is great for America! It will help get a lot of people more comfortable with images of a very good president who is also very black.”   Earlier this week, Edward Gilbreath, pointed out a short article on about the “Huxtable Effect.” “This is the notion that the middle-class African American family portrayed in Bill Cosby’s famous ’80s sitcom, The Cosby Show, had an impact on the way Americans voted in last month’s presidential election.”

I don’t want to take anything away from Obama’s brilliant campaign, but I suspect these positive images did help him pick up a few votes – especially from some of those who might otherwise harbor fearful emotions of one kind or another (and I certainly heard plenty of those).

Regarding the Huxtable effect, UrbanFaith article adds a qualification that makes an important point.

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, the columnist who coined the term “Huxtable Effect,” has since claimed the media misinterpreted what she was saying. “What I actually posited was much more complex than that,” she clarified. “I said that the social norms of a population are generally formed through its popular culture.” [emphasis mine]. In other words, our entertainment actually sets the standard for the public perception of what is socially and politically acceptable over time.

Gilbreath notes that Tiger Woods may have helped, and one of the comments on his Reconciliation blog post says: “I think Colin Powell and Condelezza Rice should be given some credit, too. We saw Bryant Gumbel on the morning news every day for several years. It all works together. Shirley Chisholm. Barbara Jordan. Andrew Young.”

Who would you add to this list? What popular images have shaped some of your perceptions? What does this about the importance images on TV, in popular fiction? What can we do about this?

Next: Who do I see when I hear “African-American” – the personal images.

Coming next week: Thinking about images of Africa: On one of my “most favoritest” blogs, What an African Woman Thinks, Rombo reflects on the implications of popular imagery for our dreams of Africa. (I have a few posts on that subject in the pipeline.)

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4 Responses to Culture Shock

[By a friend – see previous post]

Four kinds of responses that people tend to make when they are caught up in cross-cultural situations:

1 passing – the individual, particularly in contact situations in which the second culture has a higher status, may reject the (old) culture of origin and totally fall for the new culture.

2 chauvinist – the individual, after coming into contact with a second culture, rejects those influences as alien, and retreats back into their culture of origin and becomes a militant nationalist and chauvinist.”

3 marginal – the individual vacillates between the two cultures, feeling at home in neither, an effect that has been referred to as the ‘marginal syndrome’.

4 mediating – some people seem to be able to synthesize their various cultural identities, the equivalent of integration at the personal level, and acquire genuine bicultural or multicultural personalities. Such individuals are relatively rare, and Bochner has referred to them as ‘mediating persons’.

Bochner, Stephen and Adrian Furnham. Culture Shock: Psychological Reactions Unfamiliar Environments. London: Methuen Publishing, 1986.

Ultimately Furnham & Bochner suggest that one’s viewpoint must be different. The situation will not be different, but how we approach it will be. All new situations are traumatic, even in one’s own culture. But the hope is that in learning, not merely adjusting, we who are sojourning in another culture will learn to accommodate to the new situation, and recognize that we are in a growing period.

Kenyan commentary on Americans and race

I keep a running list of articles and posts I think are worth reading on the right – “Links of the Day.” (If you click on header, it takes you to a page with summaries – for longer articles – and an occasional note.) I’m not sure if anyone is actually looking at it, so I thought I’d pull this particular article for those of you like me, who like to keep an eye on race discussions around the world. Kenyan papers are as full of Obama.

Why Obama is black, not white (by Philip Ochieng) – The East African

WHY IS THE WHITE MEDIA SO preoccupied with Barack Obama’s race? Is it because the young Illinois senator could become the first black person to be elected president of a predominantly white country? If so, then it is a sad commentary on white psychology. . .

. . .Indeed, Richard Dawkins, the outspoken Oxford evolutionary biologist, is germane here because he shares something vital with Barack Obama Senior and myself: All three of us were born in Kenya many decades ago. . .

. . . Writes Dawkins: “People who are universally agreed by all Americans to be ‘black’ may draw less than one-eighth of their ancestry from Africa, and often have a light skin colour well within the normal range for people universally agreed to be ‘white’.”. . .

. . .But if Naisbitt is right to say that there is no such thing as a blend or a melting pot as far as the ethnic spirit goes, surely Allan Bloom, the respected Chicago educator, is also right. Fundamentally, all these European ethnic groups and other immigrants have, over a protracted period of time, become homogenised.

Yet this is correct only up to a point. Only in the liberal ideology of individualism — only in greed, in the go-getting spirit, only in the ferocity with which that quest is pursued — is it possible to become an American overnight — not in terms of essence, not in terms of ethnicity and race.

Bloom states that any immigrant can become an American the minute he or she lands on the Atlantic shores of that country. In other words, there is nothing easier than to become an American. But there is a racial element even in this. Bloom’s assertion is correct only to the extent that it refers to white individuals. . .

. . .No race, nation or tribe is ever tyrannical or chauvinistic “by inclination,” that is to say, genetically. The British Empire was tyrannical in whatever way you look at it. But “inclination” had nothing to do with it. It is not the British people who are to blame — although all classes of British society were seduced into racism by the propaganda of the upper classes.

It was the economic interests of these classes that come into play. Such interests are what propel all empire-builders. Tyranny and empire-building are attributes of civilisation, culture and opportunity.

Moreover, it is a class question: Lower-class members of the same race, nation or tribe will equally suffer from it under the illusion that they are actually beneficiaries — as Kenya’s own elite Gema grouping seduced the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru masses into believing that their interests are identical even as their Kamatusa counterparts were doing the same to the Kalenjin, Maasai and Turkana masses.

Tyranny over other nations can assume national proportions only to the extent that the ruling class of one race can turn a whole nation of a different race into a class targeted for exploitation. Racism becomes a national thought-habit only to the extent that the lower classes are deeply swayed by the prejudices, trappings, ideas and practices of the ruling classes within the same nation and race. . .

To those who are familiar with America’s racial history, none of this will be new. It’s a long article with plenty to mull over and likely a few things to disagree with. Click here for the whole article.

African Americans can teach the global church about reconciliation

Christianity Today has a post on Rick Warren’s PEACE Plan, “a global strategy to fight poverty, disease, and corruption” and his addition of “reconciliation” to the plan – Rebooting PEACE. Regardless of what you think of Rick Warren’s Africa mission, Bryan Crute, senior pastor of Destiny Metro Worship Church, a black megachurch in Atlanta makes an important suggestion.

Crute told Christianity Today that African Americans have much to teach the global church about reconciliation. “When you look at the potential for African Americans to redemptively use their history to promote the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is an opportunity that is largely ignored and overlooked. When will we use our history of slavery to export the gospel? I have forgiven whites for how they have treated my ancestors.”

Crute said church leaders should view racism as just one aspect of reconciliation. He said reconciliation is about bridging the gap between God and man, resolving economic injustice and poverty, and healing broken families. . .

Read the whole CT post here.

Almost all of whatever helpful insights I’ve been able to pass on to my Kenyan friends comes directly from my African American mentors. Many of the things my Kenyan friends are teaching me about reconciliation jive with what those mentors had been trying to teach me before.

Not so different; Kenya and the US

In a post today, Tribalism is Not the Issue, Pastor M from Nairobi makes a point I have made several times to my Kenyan and American friends:

In the US for a couple of weeks… very interesting to hear the campaign rhetoric here and compare it with our own from a few months ago. And am struck by an amazing fact… Americans are just as tribalistic as we are! . . . sounds so familiar! I was struck by how much alike we all are … day-to-day decent, ordinary people, yet deep down driven by suspicion & ethnocentricity to self-protective stereotyping; ‘us verses them’.

. . . Enron and Arthur Andersen as well as Watergate and Irangate before that helped me understand that American’s are not closer to the God-side of the corruption scale than us; with our Goldenburg, Anglo Leasing and Francis Thuo (stock brokerage firm that recently went under after underhand dealings with investor funds).

If Americans are just as tribalistic, dirty and corrupt as we are, then why aren’t they grabbing ‘machetes’ and killing their neighbors, drowning in dirt and being labeled as corrupt? I think the answer is simple. The law here works.

Pastor M then offers a few solutions for Kenya. Read the whole brief post – Tribalism is Not the Issue

On further review, Pastor M might discover that the law in the US works better for some than others (e.g. DWB – Driving While Black to name just one). America’s brief history has it’s fair share of “wild west” living, sickening oppression of people (slavery and Native Americans), and a civil war too.

Addressing Ethnocentrism 2: Questions to ask yourself and your organization?

In a post last week, I highlighted some practical ways to begin addressing ethnocentrism that we have worked on together here. Here are some personal and organizational questions to help us get started. (I/we)

[Maybe some of these work for denominational and theological fights too.]


  • Am I being honest about how I feel and my own biases? Have I admitted and confessed them?
  • Am I willing to truly repent and make concrete changes in behavior and thinking?
  • Am I pretending to be neutral or that I don’t have any problems? (We all have them)
  • What are my own prejudices?
  • Who are my friends? Who do I usually talk to?
  • How do I talk about other groups?
  • Do I use stereotypes or code words?
  • How do I respond when my friends talk about other groups?
  • What do my children learn from me?
  • Does my lifestyle promote justice?
  • Am I proactively breaking down barriers?

Organizational Analysis

  • Is there diversity in leadership? In hiring?
  • Do our structures encourage diversity?
  • Are other ethnic identities encouraged and affirmed?
  • How are funds and resources distributed?
  • Is ethnic and economic justice taught?
  • Are we modeling the family of God?

In relationship to churches, Mark DeYmaz gives Seven Core Commitments of a Multi-ethnic Church: (Mosaix Global Network)

  1. Embrace dependence: determine to trust God to provide financially and spiritually.
  2. Take intentional steps: make changes to attract people outside the majority demographic.
  3. Empower diverse leadership: multi-ethnic churches require multi-ethnic staff.
  4. Develop cross-cultural relationships: work through awkwardness to develop true friendships.
  5. Pursue cross-cultural competence: learn to be sensitive to cultural differences.
  6. Promote a spirit of inclusion: commit to being comfortable being uncomfortable.
  7. Mobilize for impact: take steps to minister to the greater community and make disciples.

Thanks: Brandon O’Brien Leadership Off the Agenda – [Accessed 22 April 2008]

Addressing ethnocentricity; practical steps

This is part of a presentation we did as a PhD cohort here:

Two key questions.

  1. What practical changes can we make in our churches and organizations?
  2. What practical changes can we make personally or as families?

Three Steps: Awareness, Action (personal and organizational), and Accountability (Assessment)

Awareness [Education]:

  • Watch for ethnic injustice everywhere and educate yourself about it.
  • Assume that you are part of the problem
  • Learn everything you can about history and culture from a perspective other than your own.
  • Learn the dynamics of social identity
  • How systems preserve power and privilege
  • How systems exclude or marginalize others
  • Beware of “us-them” thinking and speech
  • Put yourselves in the position of the other group
  • Churches should teach about ethnicity and justice

Action (personal)

  • Make ethnic peace, justice and reconciliation a priority
  • Be intentional and proactive (reach out)
  • Actively give up comfort, power & privilege
  • Be incarnational/relational
  • Seek out people from other groups and develop deep relationships with them
  • Speak out on their behalf among your own
  • LOVE

Action (organizational)

  • Team up with others
  • Focus on systems (Good individuals will fail in bad systems)
  • Strategically organize
  • Study and analyze institutions
  • Make short range, mid-range & long-range goals
  • Work towards making systems more equitable
  • Celebrate and encourage diversity

Assessment & Accountability

  • Be intentional about forming relationships with those who are not like you
    • Keeps us honest & helps us avoid blind-spots
    • Helps us effect real change rather than things that simply make us feel better about ourselves
  • Focus first on listening and learning
  • Requires self-sacrifice, humility, flexibility and sustained effort
  • Create a safe environment where criticism and suggestions are warmly welcomed and appreciated
  • Make your goals for change measurable and verifiable.

Misconceptions about Africa; Audacity, Ethnicity, Resurrection, etc (Links and Quotes)

Africa: How Wild? There are lots of misconceptions about life in Africa. What are these misconceptions? How did they come about? (A discussion).

Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright’s 1990 Sermon – Audacity to Hope (full text) is reposted by Preaching Today.

Reconciliation blog links to Our Jeremiah Why Obama’s Pastor matters.

I understand why the Obama campaign felt they had to distance themselves from Wright’s post 9-11 comments. But I am worried that Obama has missed a chance to talk about the rich and complex tapestry of black religious life
. . . Prophetic Christianity allowed African Americans to retain a sense of humanity in the face of our country’s racism.

Last night, Christi said, “Win or lose, Obama’s candidacy is going to confront a lot of America with its racism and racist roots. There’s a lot of ‘educating’ that is going to have to happen.”

The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism – Jerry Muller Foreign Affairs. A Kenyan comments on it here.

European stability during the Cold War era was in fact due partly to the widespread fulfilment of the ethno-nationalist project. And since the end of the Cold War, ethno-nationalism has continued to reshape European borders.

. . . It is wishful thinking to suppose that (colonial) boundaries will be permanent. As societies in the former colonial world modernise, becoming more urban, literate, and politically mobilised, the forces that gave rise to ethno-nationalism and ethnic disaggregation in Europe are apt to drive events there, too.”He continues: “The fact that in Europe ethnic and state boundaries now largely coincide has meant that there are fewer disputes in Europe.

A Witness to Death (Dr. Jennifer Myhre, Uganda):

When someone dies, the onlookers shake their heads and say “it is God’s will”. But it isn’t, not really. God let his own son die because the death of 7 year old Ugandan children is NOT OK. It is not the way the world is supposed to be. And changing this world requires suffering and sacrifice, the ultimate suffering and sacrifice paid by God Himself. It is a mysterious truth that His people continue to pay.

Pastor M debriefs the conclusion of Msfara – the Tour of Hope (March 17 – several posts).
The continuation of Pastor Ken’s Story. Part one was here – (2nd paragraph.)

‘Counseling 101 never prepared me for this!’ As the rest prayed though, Pst. Kuchio engaged the man in serious conversation about how God not only forgives us but He enables us to forgive others. Then, an amazing thing happened; not only did the man agree to dismantle his revenge mission, but he also decided to turn his life over to Christ.

Michael Kruse is doing a very in-depth review of McLaren’s – Everything Must Change.

Resurrection in the New York Times:

As Christians in most of the world approach the celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection, it is startling to find three distinguished scholars, all known for scrupulous attention to theological tradition and biblical sources, agreeing that the very idea of resurrection is widely and badly misunderstood. [Madigen, Levenson & Wright.]

Misunderstood not just by those whose contemporary sensibilities restrain them from saying much more about resurrection than that it symbolizes some vague (and probably temporary) victory of life over death. But also misunderstood by many devout believers who consider themselves thoroughly faithful to traditional religious teachings.

. . . Resurrection is not a belief that divides an other-worldly Christianity from a this-worldly Judaism. Nor is resurrection something that refers only — or even primarily — to the individual’s survival after death. Instead, both books emphasize that in classic Jewish and Christian teachings, resurrection refers to a collective resurrection of people and renewal of all creation at the end of time.

Resurrection was linked to the expectation of judgment and a final triumph of justice. This was the idea of resurrection that had evolved as Jews returned from exile and struggled under foreign domination in the period before Jesus. It was this idea of resurrection that Christians had in mind when they declared that what occurred on Easter was the “first fruits” of what was to come.

Read the rest of the article here.

Black Africans saved Judah?

John Hobbins, Ancient Hebrew Poetry writes a fascinating post: Did a black Pharaoh wage war against Sennacherib and drive him away from Jerusalem? (9 March 2007). This post is a great starting point for anyone wishing to explore this issue further and includes a nice bibliography at the end.

Hobbins begins:

aubin-rescue-of-jerusalem-2008.jpgAccording to Henry T. Aubin, a black Pharaoh named Taharqa came to the aid of king Hezekiah of Judah, waged war against Sennacherib king of Assyria, and forced him away from Jerusalem. The title and subtitles of Aubin’s book are certainly impressive: The Rescue of Jerusalem: The Alliance between Hebrews and Africans in 701 BC. An online summary of Aubin’s book is available here. Aubin’s captivating theory is highlighted in an article by Robert Draper entitled “Black Pharaohs: Conquerors of Ancient Egypt,” in the February 2008 issue of National Geographic.

[Draper’s National Geographic article Black Pharaohs is here – full text, including pictures.] Draper writes.

Until recently, theirs was a chapter of history that largely went untold. Only in the past four decades have archaeologists resurrected their story—and come to recognize that the black pharaohs didn’t appear out of nowhere. They sprang from a robust African civilization that had flourished on the southern banks of the Nile for 2,500 years, going back at least as far as the first Egyptian dynasty.

. . . The ancient world was devoid of racism. At the time of Piye’s historic conquest, the fact that his skin was dark was irrelevant. Artwork from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome shows a clear awareness of racial features and skin tone, but there is little evidence that darker skin was seen as a sign of inferiority. Only after the European powers colonized Africa in the 19th century did Western scholars pay attention to the color of the Nubians’ skin, to uncharitable effect.

. . . In any event, when the Assyrians left town and massed against the gates of Jerusalem, that city’s embattled leader, Hezekiah, Continue reading

Hope gets harder as the tour moves west

Today Pastor M on the Msfara tour of hope writes:

Nakuru was quite something. Initially the pastor’s fellowship didn’t want Msafara in their town because the church was so divided ethnically and politically. They didn’t think it would be possible to meet together. It was only by God’s grace that they finally agreed to host us. . .The pastor’s meeting was intense. Against all expectations, a large group of local pastors attended, many of whom I came to learn hadn’t spoken to each other for a long time.

. . . I keep reminding myself we’re not here to ‘fix’ these towns, only to hold out hope. If the church can work together, to care for the hurting and to build and maintain peace, then nothing will be impossible. We’re only a catalyst. The true test of Msafara will be what happens in these places after Msafara is gone. But this is where faith comes in. I have faith that God is using our small contribution as a seed, one that He will water after we’re gone; one that will grow into a beautiful tree that will hold our nation together in peace and justice…

. . . Pastor Ken told me of a young man he met at one of the camps we visited in Nakuru. His wife had been killed by militia the night before (contrary to popular belief, the Anan accord hasn’t ended the tension and killing in all parts of the country). The young man was gathering 100 of his friends from the camp to go on a revenge mission. Ken asked what he thought would happen next. Of course they would also come back and revenge, and the vicious cycle would continue. Someone had to break the cycle of violence. Young man promised to think about it.

[Next Day on the way to Eldoret]

Passing through Eldama Ravine, Timboroa, Burnt Forest… many of these places had IDP camps. People living in tents not far from where they once owned homes and property… We saw many homesteads that had been razed to the ground. You could still see the smoke curling lazily out of some of the ruins. A poignant moment was when one of the pastors sitting near me pointed out the home where her family had lived a little while back, just after we passed the camp where many of her family members, including her sisters, still reside. . .

Pictures are here.

Tribalism (Kenya & America)

Tribalism in America & Kenya. (Cohen, NYTimes) I don’t need to post what he has to say about Kenya for the moment, but here is what he says about America. . .

. . . America’s peaceful tribes are also out in force. As Obama and Hillary Clinton engage in the long war for the Democratic nomination, we have the black vote, and the Latino vote, and the women-over-50 vote, and the Volvo-driving liberal-intellectual vote, and the white blue-collar vote, and the urban vote, and the rural vote, and the under-30s vote — sub-groups with shared social, cultural, linguistic or other traits and interests.

That’s democracy at work. Sure. But the United States is divided, within itself and from the world, in growing ways.

It is divided by war, by income chasms, by foreclosures, by political polarization and by culture wars. Increasingly it is looked upon from outside with dismay or alarm. Healing, within and without, will be a central task of the next president.

. . . If I was to sum up this presidential race, I’d say: “It’s the generations, stupid.”

An American generation under 45 has glimpsed an interconnected world beyond race and tribe. They know its attainment will be elusive but, after a bleak season, they feel summoned by what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

Looking out from Kenya, where he mediated an end to the tribal violence, Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, told me: “I think an Obama presidency would be inspirational, an incredible development in the world.”

[Read the full op-ed here]

Evangelical = “the white guy that doesn’t get it.”

In the Orlando Sentinal, David C. Steinmetz, a professor of the History of Christianity at Duke, offers a critique of the recently released Pew study – “Impressive data, but flawed conclusions.

I think he makes a very good point.

Pew divided American Protestants into three groups: Mainline (the older Protestant denominations like Methodist and Presbyterian); Evangelical (the more recent Protestant groups like the Assemblies of God and the Nazarenes); and the Historically Black denominations (like the National and Missionary Baptist churches). Unfortunately, these categories, while intellectually defensible, are not sufficiently nuanced to fit the reality they describe.

For example, African-American Protestants are overwhelmingly evangelical in their religious faith and practice, but rarely classify themselves as “Evangelicals.” “Evangelical” often means to African Americans “a white guy who doesn’t get it.”

Furthermore, the boundary between Evangelical and Mainline Protestants is frequently blurred. A substantial number of lay and clergy in mainline churches (including some members of the leadership) are in fact evangelical. “Evangelical” is therefore not a synonym for “a member in good standing of a traditionally evangelical denomination,” and never has been. Rather, evangelicals are the spiritual heirs of a traditional Protestant Christianity influenced by Puritanism and the American Revivalist tradition.

Denominational labels decline daily in importance as they have become increasingly Continue reading

Children and innocence (Kenya & ethnicity)

[This short story was posted on the Msfara blog]

All Wairimu remembers about fleeing her home is being woken up in the middle of the night as he father screamed “They are coming to kill us. She has no idea who they were or why they were coming to kill them but she still ran as fast as her legs could carry her.

When Wairimu’s family fled the violence that ravaged their village, the eight-year-old lost her home, her precious plastic necklace, her school uniform and her classroom. “We don’t have much,” she said, “but we always had our school.”

The violence that swept through Kenya after December’s disputed presidential election started as children like Wairimu sought to start a new school year.

Two weeks ago, Wairimu was finally back in school though in a temporary tent set up in one of the camps in the conflict-torn Rift Valley. She was elated. “I have two dresses that my mother saved from our burning house,” she said. “This one is my favourite. It’s my Sunday church dress, but going back to school was special so my mother allowed me to wear it.”

Wairimu enjoys being in class and is quick to point out her 3 best friends – Chebet, Achieng and Mueni [Note: these are names from four different “opposed” ethnic groups.] These four are oblivious to the conflict that has divided the country along tribal lines. The girls swing hand-in-hand, singing as they walk to their new homes in the IDP camp. Once at the camp the four best friends part ways. Each one heads towards the corners of the camp where the majority of the people are from the same tribes as them.

“I can not wait to see my friends tomorrow.” Wairimu says in an excited tone. “My parents said I shouldn’t play with people from the other side of the camp because they are not nice people. But I don’t believe them because they are my best friends.” she adds positively.

By Julie Mwabe

Bizarre (and more sobering) headlines (Kenya)

After tie vote, Nairobi mayor to be determined by lot – rolling the dice, drawing straws, flipping a coin – actually drawing a “Yes” or “No” vote. (For full details – Daily Nation story.

In Nairobi, the 86 city councilors select a mayor from among themselves. The previous Nairobi mayoral election ended in a fully televised brawl, with chairs flying across the room. This time Nairobi was a microcosm of the national situation – split down the middle 50-50. Even power sharing was proposed. (Actually ODM should have the votes, but it appears some councilors may have been bribed.)

Kenyan Vice President suggests criminalizing ethnicity.

I’m sure in reality he was probably talking about criminalizing activities leading to ethnic violence, but this is what the Rwandan paper wrote after his visit.

Kenya vice president Kalonzo Musyoka contemplated criminalising ethnicity as a solution to the crisis in his country.

After meeting with President Paul Kagame on Friday, Musyoka said: “Wherever symptoms of ethnic differences arise, there requires a quick reaction to suppress them.” The post election violence in Kenya that has led to the deaths of as many as 1,000 people, is widely believed to be the result of the ethnic and political differences in the country.

Musyoka said that his country’s planned a constitutional review will look into these differences. His contemplation comes in the wake of mediation efforts by former UN boss, Kofi Anan to end Kenya’s political standoff.

Musyoka is optimistic that the two sides will come to an agreement soon.

“I want to confirm to the world that Kenyans have decided to bring their grievances to levelled grounds,” he said at a press conference at Kigali’s Serena Hotel.

“We are not out of the woods, but instead we are almost there. This is not time to demean Kenyans but only to rally behind them in solving their problems.”

Witchcraft against Thieves:

Fear of witchcraft pervades an Embu village where at least seven people have committed suicide in the last one month under circumstances associated with sorcery. Thieves have started returning stolen goods to their rightful owners as the police record zero cases of theft in the area for the last few weeks.

A more sobering headline Kenya’s gangs are arming:
Summary descriptions of Mungiki, Kalinjin warriors, Taliban, Bagdad boys, Kosovo, etc. 205 youths arrested while training.

Lessons from Cote D’Ivoire:

that these politicians could only muster the courage to reach out to one another after their country had nearly been destroyed by war. They could have spared their country a lot of pain.

. . .

So how did Cote d’Ivoire pull its chestnuts out of the fire, and what lessons can Kenya learn from this process? It was a long and slow one in which even a small step towards national reconciliation and healing helped.

. . .

Events in Cote d’Ivoire show that political crises in Africa can be managed, particularly if they are not left to fester for too long, and that a Somalia-like situation and the full-scale wars that Mozambique and Angola went through can be avoided.

However, hostility to international involvement in the crisis, the arrogance of power and unyielding positions could well plunge Kenya into a hell from which it might never recover.

But positively: Obama’s Kenyan Roots (NYTimes)

A barefoot old woman in a ripped dress is sitting on a log in front of her tin-roof bungalow in this remote village in western Kenya, jovially greeting visitors.

Mama Sarah, as she is known around here, lives without electricity or running water. She is illiterate and doesn’t know when she was born. Yet she may have a seat of honor at the next presidential inauguration in Washington — depending on what happens to her stepgrandson, Barack Obama.

Mama Sarah cannot communicate with Mr. Obama, who calls her his grandmother, because she speaks only her Luo tribal language and a little Swahili. Senator Obama’s Luo is pretty much limited to “musawa,” meaning “how are you?”

. . .

If we call ourselves a land of opportunity, then Mr. Obama’s heritage doesn’t threaten American values but showcases them. The stepgrandson of an illiterate, barefoot woman in this village of mud huts in Africa may be the next president of the United States. Such mobility — powered by education, immigration and hard work — is cause not for disparagement but for celebration.

What is ethnicity?

Tomorrow, I’m presenting the topic of ethnicity at a church with a few colleagues of mine.

Perhaps the most clear and useful definition I’ve found has been by John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith. They define ethnicity as a type of human community that shares most of the following characteristics:

  1. hutchinson-smith-ethnicity.jpga common or collective proper name,
  2. a myth of common ancestry or descent,
  3. memories of a common past or a shared history,
  4. elements of a common culture, which normally includes religion, custom or language i.e. a distinctive shared culture,
  5. a link with a specific homeland, and
  6. a sense of solidarity.

John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith, Ethnicity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 6-7. In his book The Ethnic Origins of the Nations (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986) Smith calls these the foundations of ethnic community.

Another good definition.

“Ethnicity is an aspect of social relationship between agents who consider themselves as culturally distinctive from members of other groups with whom they have a minimum of regular interaction. It can thus also be defined as a social identity (based on a contrast vis-a-vis others) characterised by metaphoric or fictive kinship.”

Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives, (London: Pluto Press, 1993 (second, expanded edition 2002), page 12. Chapter 1 is available on-line at

See also Eriksen – “The epistemological status of the concept of ethnicity”

Conference paper, Amsterdam (“The Anthropology of Ethnicity”), December 1993. Published in Anthropological Notebooks (Ljubljana, Slovenia) in 1996.