Making minorities and marginalised groups in Kenya

Thursday, 3 November, 2022 - 12:00

Presented by Samantha Balaton-Chrimes

Abstract:  In Kenya over recent years several small ethnic groups have sought classification as a ‘tribe of Kenya’ through the granting of a ‘code’. These groups aim not just for a stronger sense of belonging to the nation, but also to benefit from special constitutional provisions for ‘minorities and marginalised groups’ in the 2010 constitution, provisions that are in a (slow) process of implementation. In this seminar, I offer a genealogy of efforts to code for ethnic minority and/or marginalised status in Kenya. I explore the work of government, legal and civil society bodies to operationalise this code, and show how impossible it is to fix a consistent definition of the terms or list of people(s) to whom they can be applied. I analyse the content, form and logic of the coding efforts and demonstrate a strong consistency with colonial logics of ethnic classification. At the same time, however, as in other studies of the production of knowledge about populations and individuals in Africa, I explore how these efforts defy and in some ways depart from the desire behind that logic. That is, I show how legibility and governability are not necessarily the driving force behind classification work. Instead, I use (and modify) Veena Das’ concept of ‘magic’ to explore how a cultivated vagueness around these classifications can be put to various political uses, and not only anti-democratic ones.

This work is part of a larger book project that adopts a genealogical approach to understand how the Kenyan state classifies its citizens by ethnicity, and with what effects.