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Reports from Kenya

Ancestral Home

April 21, 2009
Report #100


April 17 was my grandson's, Mathias Zarembka, second birthday. Little does he realize that this ancestral home is Golina, Poland, where in 1886 his great, great, great grandfather, also named Mathias Zarembka, lived. Mathias's other 15 great, great, great grandfathers and his 16 great, great, great grandmothers do not count in this determination, even if they came from Kenya, Japan, Argentina, the United States, Italy, Germany, and perhaps other countries. At any time on a moment's notice Mathias – even though he was born in the US, does not know Polish (well, at this point he doesn't know much English or Spanish either) and has never seen Poland – and his whole family can be forced to leave the US and return to Poland. He will be fortunate because, he has relatives in Golina, Poland, who will be required to put him up and to put up with him when he returns. He could be forced out for a number of reasons. The most common is that the current government has lost popularity and is in crisis and so as to deflect attention allows the "ancestral owners" to push out some group to their "ancestral home". Another frequent reason is that Mathias's neighbors see that his family has acquired a certain amount of wealth – house, land, animals, household goods – and if he is forced out, they will confiscate or buy all the material goods his family cannot carry in a suitcase or on their heads at an extremely low price –10% of the value would be high.

Does this sound preposterous? This is how things work in the Great Lakes region of Africa and, from what I can read in the papers and on the internet, in other parts of Africa as well.

It has happened elsewhere in the world also. You have probably studied how the boundaries of Europe were drastically changed after World War II. Poland's boundaries, for example, were pushed to the west, while the eastern part of the country was taken by others. There was massive displacement of people in Europe in 1945 – millions and millions as people were forced back to their "ancestral homes" even if they had lived away for generations, didn't know where they came from and didn't know the language. Europe was probably never as ethnically homogeneous as it was shortly after WWII.

The United States has done it too. During WWII the Japanese on the west coast were put in concentration camps (since they couldn't be sent back to their ancestral home in the middle of the war) so that their competitors in the truck gardening business could eliminate their competition and buy their farms and business for a small fraction of the value. In the 19th century the US did the same with the Five Civilized Tribes of Native Americans as the American settlers wanted their fertile lands in the Southwest. In this case the Native Americans were being ousted from their ancestral lands.

Why do I speak of 1886? Because that was the final year of the scramble for Africa.

Do you think that perhaps I am exaggerating?

Kenneth Kaunda was president of Zambia for 25 years before he was ousted in an election. He ran again five years later and he was disbarred from running because, although he was born in Zambia, his parents had been born in Malawi, and therefore he was not a Zambian. This was a little too much and it was overturned. Kaunda still lost the election.

Yoweni Museveni conquered Uganda in 1986 with the help of many soldiers of Rwandan Tutsi descent including Paul Kagame, the current president of Rwanda. But in 1990 Museveni turned against his Rwandan allies and declared that no Rwandans (including Hutu who had been there since the early 1900's to work on the local plantations) could become Ugandan citizens. This has greater implications than in the US because in Uganda if a person is not a citizen he/she cannot go to public school or hospitals, can't own land or a building, can't start a business, and frankly can't do much of anything. This is one reason why refugees in the region are in such dire straights. In 1990, when this happened, two thousand Rwandan soldiers who were in the Ugandan army picked up their weapons and invaded Rwanda. This was the beginning of the armed conflict in Rwanda.

The 1996 war in the Congo began when President Mobutu (of what was then Zaire) declared that the Bayamulenge were not citizens. The Bayamulenge were Rwandan Tutsi who had migrated to a section of South Kivu, they claim even before 1886. Now they were declared non-citizens and expected to return to Rwanda. They resisted and that was one of the issues that began the first Congolese war.

On a personal level, when I was attending a HROC (pronounce this he-rock) workshop in Byumba, Rwanda I was paired with a young woman named Chantel because she was the only one who knew Swahili. In the 1998 Congo War she (then a teenager) was flown from Kasai where the family had lived for generations to Goma and pushed back into Rwanda. Kasai is about 700 miles from Rwanda. Her mother had no idea where they came from in Rwanda and had no known relatives there. So they were put in a temporary repatriation village outside of Byumba which seems continually to receive new people expelled from other countries. What was most interesting is that she acted much more like a Congolese than a Rwandan – knowing Swahili was just one difference.

Tanzania is known for being more welcoming to refugees than other countries. Nonetheless, in 2006 and 2007, Rwandan refugees in the West Lake region of Tanzania bordering Rwanda, were pushed back into Rwanda. AGLI has been working with these returnees in their new settlement camps. Here is a description and a testimony from AGLI's report:

" The Tanzanians made no distinction between the refugees from 1959 and 1994, and suddenly turned on anyone who was, or ever had been, Rwandan. In 2006 the Rwandans were chased out of Tanzania, and those who did not flee fast enough were beaten or killed. Most were forced to leave behind all of their belongings and property, and some even had to leave children or family who were not at home in the moment of forced removal. The Tanzanians responsible for chasing out their neighbors took everything left behind as their own, indicating that perhaps land shortages and poverty also contributed to the suddenness and ferocity with which the removal was carried out. The majority of these refugees — some of whom identified as Rwandan, but many of whom identified as Tanzanian — fled to a camp in northeastern Rwanda called Kiyanzi."

" I was born in Tanzania, my parents went there in 1959. We came here recently, chased by Tanzanians who said we were not citizens. Before that, we had considered ourselves Tanzanians and we even had citizenship. Then they took our property, beat us, and chased us away. We came here without anything—we left everything behind." Nyiramwongi Jane

The same scenario is playing out in Kenya, but in this case the conflict is inside the country itself. There is a concept called "Majimbo" which means "regionalism" – that everyone should reside in their ancestral home. In Kenya usually a person's African name indicates what ethnic group he/she comes from and where he/she is supposed to reside. Groups want an area, supposedly historical, that is theirs alone and everyone else is unwelcome. The clashes in 1992, 1997, and 2007 in the Rift Valley were attempts by the Kalenjin groups to expel others who had moved into what they considered their territory.

Lugari District, where I now live, is settled mostly by Luhya people. But in 1992 the Nandi attacked the Luhya here, even in Lumakanda, because they claim that the District is really a Nandi area. But then some of the local geographical names are Masai names. Realistically before 1886 Kenya was not well populated and people moved wherever they wanted to go. The Luo on Lake Victoria are closely related to the Lango and Acholi of Northern Uganda and other groups in Southern Sudan. Clearly a group of them migrated south to Lake Victoria. Before the early 1900's various ethnic groups frequently lived intermixed. It was the British colonialists who began drawing boundaries and indicating that one side was for one group and the other side was for another group. Those boundaries still are in continual dispute because frequently the same land can be claimed by two, three, or even four groups.

While I doubt that Mathias is ever going to be repatriated to his ancestral home, this is an immense possibility for anyone here in this region who is not living in his or her ancestral home. This is a large percentage of the population and as time goes on this percentage will continue to increase. How many more wars and internal conflicts are going to start because of this mind set? This is so easily manipulated by chauvinistic demagogues.

When trying to understand this part of the world or when trying to negotiate the settlement of the various conflicts, everyone, in my opinion, should confront head on the absurdity of this mind set, rather than pander to it which is now so often the reaction.

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