The Roots of Identity

The Roots of Identity

\The arrival of us whites in Uganda, with our guns, our bibles, and soon enough our treaties, flags, courts of law and boundaries, suspended what had been a pervasive and invasive demographic change that had been under way in this part of Africa for centuries. It suspended it for as long as colonial power was in place, and not much longer. For it has today resumed. I speak here of the prevailing of the authority of certain groups of Nilotic or Hamitic gene and culture upon those of Bantu gene and culture.

The anthropologist of today’s academia will furrow the brow over the terms ‘Nilotic’ and ‘Hamitic’. He or she will insist that they correspond to no dependable linguisitic, physiognomic, social, cultural, or territorial category. He/she is correct. Yet it is a faddish sort of correctness, suggestive of those who have come so to scrutinise the brush strokes as no longer to see a picture. In our island two thousand years ago, what, please, infallibly distinguished Pict from Celt? Were they not both woaded, both subservient to the heavenly bodies through the divination of their stone circles? A newly colonizing Roman might sometimes be hard put to say in the presence of a Pictish-looking fellow speaking Celt, or a bevy of what seemed to be Celts engaged in sacrificial ritual at a winter solstice, which was which. But the Picts and Celts would have no problem. A Celt is one who in the presence of a Pict knew himself to be a Celt, and a Pict is one who in the presence of a Celt knew himself to be a Pict even if he did not talk about it. As we know, the Celts prevailed, and not in the first place by conquest.

At much the same time as the spread of the Celts was spelling the apparent disappearance of the Picts in the British isles, so also in the fertile land between and around the vast lakes of east-central Africa the agriculturalist Bantu migrating from western Africa’s Atlantic littoral was spelling the disappearance of the hunting and gathering aborigines. Like the Picts, these aborigines were not wiped out in battle; but the will to hold to their old identity seeped away. In fragments of territory – usually forested and difficult – there were those who have to this day clung to the pristine identity, and as best they can to pristine ways: the Wandorobo of Kenya and Tanzania, the tragic Ik in the Uganda-Sudan borderland hills, and the Bambuva and Bambuti pygmies of the Congo’s eastern jungle, right up to the perimeter of Ruwenzori. Where a people loses the will to be itself, it will not survive as a people. Some may disperse and then be lost by degrees in a new identity, others will stay and by degrees adapt to the ways and mores of the dominant culture, often persisting as a subservient caste within that new society and culture and gradually accepting assimilation into the superior caste as and when it may be made available to them through intermarriage or grants of status.

Thus it next was, during these more recent several centuries, that a people of a different kind, driving long-horned cattle, began to penetrate the settled, agricultural, Bantu communities of the Africa of the Great Lakes. These newcomers were Hamitic herdsmen – tall (as are all cattle folk) and paler than the host community; Noah’s descendants, through his son Ham and Ham’s son Cush, according to mythologies of the Semites (who were themselves progeny of Ham’s brother Shem). Their beasts were of Asian provenance. They were a long-faced folk, fabricants of iron, wearers of cloth, ritualisers of meat and milk, indicative of Ethiopia’s Oromo (or Galla) people of today and linkable by evidence of craft and symbol to the ancient civilisation of Egypt; complex in organisation, yet nomadic. They came, seemingly, as grazers rather than conquerors; but their lofty confidence and a sweep of skills won them an undeniable awe and honour; and wherever in highland equatoria the tsetse spared their herds and they were minded to stay, the Bantu cultivators adhered to them, bringing their produce, tributes, sometimes persuading them into their own tribal communities as a caste of aristocrats. They are here today asHima, carrying in their name the Semitic consonantal hint – the Hay/Ha and the Mem/Mim of Hebraic and Arabic alphabet; and persisting in caste or social strain and sometimes as ethnic units in that broad swathe of upland Africa amid the lakes.

These people are always associated with the ownership and herding of cattle. There is evidence of the Nilotics, in their various tribes, learning their cattle skills and dietary practices of milk and blood from the Hima. It is reasonable for us to assume that these same sons of Ham brought the trick of iron to our part of Africa , by the Nile route, overlaying a stone culture with a few key tools wrought in complex furnaces built in regions where ferrous ore and enough trees for charcoal were jointly available. Such a region was the Rift which carried the equatorial Nile and its Semliki tributary juxtaposed with Ruwenzori. Yet in recent centuries the more pervasive ascendancy from the north among the agricultural Bantu fell not to the Hamites but to the Nilotes.
[…] Upon this progressive assertion of instinctive Nilotic (and precursive Hamitic) dominance, the arrival of the Europeans at the end of the 19th century imposed a suspension. We British and the Germans (replaced soon enough – in 1919 – by us in Tanganyika, and by the Belgians in Rwanda and Burundi) built a dam in history and delayed the stream, more or less for the span of my maternal grandfather’s adult life. The Masai caught the plague, were displaced from their grazing, and watched in sullen isolation the advancement of the Kikuyu and the Kamba under the white man’s aegis. The Banyoro’s Nilotic leadership was at length beaten in the field, thanks in no small degree to that single Maxim gun, oiled anew and sputtering efficient death, that H M Stanley had humped all the way across Africa from one ocean to the other. The Germans conceded the reality of Tutsi social and economic authority over their Hutu, while bludgeoning the entire native community into obedience. Half a century later, in 1961, the Germans’ Belgian successors launched Ruanda-Urundi into independence, without the least preparation, on the basis of one-person-one-vote democracy. This reversed the instinctive social order at a stroke. The consequence has been serial massacre, by one group or the other of one group or the other, ever since. This sustaining tragedy will touch our story.
[…] Those who would follow my tale deserve to be aware of these soft, significant but inexact distinctions: which are the Celts and which the Picts. For the Africans on African soil know. They know, and have known immemorially.


IP and © 2003 Tom Stacey