The Historical Geography of Kenyan Identity Formation

One of my projects analyzes the influence of imperial rule on the formation of ethnicity and identity.  Beginning with an examination of how the imperial regime used ethnicity in administration, education, labor, and land tenure, this research uncovers the range of African reactions to the Kenyan colonial government's efforts to codify and exploit local "tribal" identities.  To date, I have published a pair of articles that show the complexity of identity formation during the imperial era by telling the stories of migrants who settled illegally in "foreign" native reserves.  Some were willing to be "adopted" into their host tribes, while others defiantly rejected assimilation.  My research shows that ordinary people had a range of options in deciding how to identify themselves and could assume different political and social roles by invoking one or more of them at a time and in specific circumstances.  I am currently working on a companion piece to these essays that seeks to better understand the consequences of the Kenyan government's "detribalized native" policies.

My long term goal for this research is to produce a historical geography of Kenyan identity formation in the imperial and early national periods by paying close attention to the interplay between physical space, territory, mobility, and ethnicity.  The basic parameters of Kenya’s native reserves and the policies that governed them are well known.  However, the actual boundaries of the reserves and urban spaces were fuzzy and relatively fluid even though official government documents and specific laws aimed to mark them out precisely.  This creates an opportunity to use Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to chart these coordinates on temporally layered maps with an eye to documenting how the boundaries of the reserves and urban African "locations" shifted over time.  This clearer picture of precisely where the colonial state believed that Africans could and could not exist will show when, why, and how subject people engaged in ethnic trespassing and adapted or reimagined their identities to exploit the ethnic and geographic ignorance of the colonial state.  Adding on later temporal layers from the early post-independence era marking out new provincial boundaries and parliamentary districts (both of which were ethnically grounded) and charting government-sponsored schemes to divide up and resettle the former white highlands will show how land and space influenced individuals to rework tribal identities after independence.  Taken as a whole, these later temporal layers can show continuities and divergences in the ethnic geography of Kenya's imperial and early nationalist eras.

Timothy H. Parsons - Professor of African History - Washington University in St. Louis