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Our flawed sense of identity caused this crisis

I listened to Amartya Sen lecturing many years ago, and knew I was in the presence of great wisdom. A decade later, he won the Nobel Prize for Economics. This Indian-born professor has also been the first non-white Master of Trinity College, Cambridge – a position that is regarded as the apogee of British academia. I have referred to the good professor many times over the years in this column, and no doubt will many times hence.

Amartya Sen appears to have turned his attention to the wider problems of society in recent years. His recent book, ‘Identity and Violence’, has much to teach us here in Kenya.

The professor’s basic point is this: what makes any of us think we have a SINGLE identity? Surely we all know that we carry multiple identities inside us? Sen points out that the very same person can be, without any contradiction whatsoever, “an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a long-distance runner, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist,” in addition to many other identities.

In other words, we belong to many, many ‘groups’ in our lives, of which our religion or our ethnicity is only one. Why then do we allow what the professor calls the ‘miniaturisation’ of our lives: the reduction to just one identity? This failure to recognise multiple identities is causing much mayhem in the world. Singularity breeds ignorant ideas about tribal and racial supremacy. There are many different facets to being human: we should embrace them all. Failing to recognise our plural identities causes us to become small, mean-minded and intolerant.

I began to think about my own identities. I am a Sikh by birth, but I have always had enormous curiosity about the leanings of others, and take delight in the wisdom I find in other faiths and teachings. I remain a Sikh, but that is not my only identity. I don’t even know that many ‘kalasingas…’

I am a Kenyan by birth, as is my father, but we have a whole line of ancestors from the Indian sub-continent stretching out behind us. And I have spent a good deal of time in Britain, so there is undoubtedly something of the Brit in me. So I have multiple national identities.

I am a management consultant by profession, but take most pleasure from writing and teaching. So I have many occupations and livelihoods. If I am to be classified by how I spend my time, I would be a reader of pretty much everything, a lover of classical music, and an appreciator of fine cinema and fine cuisine. From everywhere.

And of course I have some primary identities at the heart of all that: my roles as a son, a husband, a father and a friend.

Try writing your key identities down. You will find yourself saying, like Walt Whitman: “I am vast, I contain multitudes.” Being vast is the natural state of the human, so why should we make ourselves tiny?

When you define yourself only by your religion or your tribe, what have you done? Picked the identities you had no choice in – those that were accidents of birth. That is what we have been doing here in Kenya for all these years. We are now paying the price for that smallness.

If you define yourself solely by the fact that you are a Kikuyu, you are committing an act of imbecility. This mental apartheid may cause you to become an irrational supremacist. If you think you begin and end in your ‘Luo-ness’, then you will be prone to crazed intolerance and resentment. If your ‘Muhindi-ness’ is what delineates your life and chooses your friends and associates for you, then you will be small of heart and slight of mind.

We are all busy stunting ourselves in this country. Being small is not the way to be prosperous. No Kikuyu can can make money by interacting with Kikuyus alone; The Rift Valley will become a dead zone if it is inhabited by Kalenjins alone. Wealth comes from embracing our common identities, not from making some of them grotesquely important.

If we thought in terms of multitudes, we would know that Kikuyus en masse are not responsible for the result of the recent election and that Luos in general are not stone-throwing hooligans. Bad things are always done by a few bad people. Unfortunately, there are many thousands behind them, misguided about the nature of their identities, who are all too eager to engage in stupidity.

Let us look around us and start seeing fathers and daughters, sisters and friends, teachers and farmers, drivers and managers. Those are the identities of everyday life, and those are the ones we are forgetting when we demand to know names and examine identity cards.

This country is vast, and its people need to be as well. This country is famed for its diversity, and its people must recapture that fame as well. This country contains multitudes, and needs to keep growing in all directions.

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