Disentangling Ethnicity in East Africa, ca.1-2010 CE: Past Communities in Present Practices

Ray, Daren, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Miller, Joseph, Department of History, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines how Bantu-speaking communities in eastern Kenya adapted their shared linguistic heritage over the past two millennia to create the Swahili and Mijikenda ethnic groups whose members claim ownership over the region’s coastal and inland landscapes, respectively. It documents the integrative connections across this geographical contrast by discerning the social strategies and practices that residents of the region compiled over several centuries and which they now embed in celebratory rituals to distinguish the ethnic identities they have created. Exploring rituals as compilations of symbols that refer to older social strategies disentangles the practices of the past from the modern ethnicities that they legitimate.
Residents of eastern Kenya began to regard the fluid and complementary categories of earlier strategies as elements of rigid ethnic identities and organize their communities as the constituents of ethnic groups only in the twentieth century CE. Rather than extending these colonial categories backwards in time by narrating the history of either the Swahili or Mijikenda ethnic group, the dissertation disentangles the social strategies that eastern Kenya’s residents adapted to collaborate as Swahili or Mijikenda from the original contexts in which the forebears of these ethnic groups innovated these strategies. Examining the shared linguistic heritage of Swahili and Mijikenda communities balances the recent emphasis of historians on the modern creation of ethnic groups with an appreciation for the historical depth of the ancestral practices that people draw upon to naturalize and imagine current ethnic identities. Documenting the genealogies of practices that index ethnicities as “things of the past” thus resolves the conundrum that historically constructed ethnicities appear to be primordial.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
ethnicity, Swahili, Mijikenda, Kenya, historical linguistics, ritual, East Africa
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