The Colonial State and Ethnicity in Africa

Excerpt from UNHDR 2004 Background Paper for Africa: "...The colonial state and the defining borders, which have been largely inherited in the post-
colonial arrangement defied the age-long identities, which ordered the lives of Africans.Colonial power imprinted new identities and labels. Little attention was paid to the implications of colonial borders for Africans. They negated the realities of African identities and autonomous African perceptions of the world. Asiwaju has made useful anecdotal references, which illustrate the confusions regarding such primordial references of identity among Africans arising out of the colonial border-demarcation activity at the junction of the 19th and 20th
centuries...During the course of the colonial period colonial administrators and missionaries, sometimes through considerations of administrative expediency and conveniency, at other times through evangelical work, and biblical translations in particular, elevated small dialects and narrow local groups to the status of ‘tribes’ or ethnicities. Some ethnologists have also been inordinately keen ‘to discover’ their own tribes, and in this drive ‘tribes’ have been ‘discovered’ which are more appropriately subunits of much larger groups and extended cultures. Thus, the Bari-speaking peoples, i.e. the Mondari,
Fajelu, Kakwa, Bari, Nyangbara of the Southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda have been identified as separate groups when in fact they represent sub-sets of one ethno-linguistic and cultural formation. During the Banda era in Malawi, the Nyanja variety spoken in Malawi was, in order to stress ostensible cultural and state autonomy or separateness, insistently labeled as ciCerwa with an orthography distinct from the Zambian variety. The Gbe-speaking peoples of West Africa, starting from the Aja in Badagry/Nigeria, the Aja in Benin, the Fon in Benin, the Gun in Benin,
the Mina in Benin, the Mina in Togo, the Ewe in Togo and the Ewe in Ghana have
broadly mutually intelligible speech form, and enjoy very proximate cultural patterns and customary usages. In the literature, they are treated as totally different ethnic groups....The same can be said for the groups the German adventurer Schweinfurth gave the name “Pygmies” in 1873. The generic term for this ethno-cultural group is the Baka. In the North of the Gabon they are called the Baka people. In the East they are called the Bakoya people. In the region of Lastoursville, they are called the Bakuyi people. In the hills of Chaillu, they are called the Babongo people. Near Moabi, they are the Barimba people. While they come under these various names they are ethno-culturally essentially the same people...By the third decade of the 20th century, Catholic and Protestant missionaries had orthographically created three distinct written forms as separate languages out of this reality, to demarcate spiritual boundaries and catchment areas. Remarkably, although Trappist Marianhill missionaries
and Jesuits were denominationally both Catholic they constructed ciManyika and Zezuru, both mutually Shona varieties as separate and distinct written languages. It is for these reasons that some have argued that ethnicity is a colonial invention...This latter argument, however, throws the baby out with the dirty bathwater. While colonialism conveniently created ethnic labels for groups which were neither sufficiently distinct from their neighbours nor were regarded as separate or distinct from others by the people themselves, from precolonial times to the present, cultural features like kinship systems, belief systems and religious practices, mythology, languages, cultural value systems and other customary usages have been real. They are the sub-units of culture around which socialization occurs. As historical and societal categories they are hardly
fictitious. Indeed, they characterize the lives and behaviour of most Africans..."

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