P135 – Struggles for Cultural Rights in East Africa, Amidst Constitutional Change and the Reassertion of Traditional Authority
8 July, 17:30 – 19:00

Hughes Lotte / The Open University


East Africans are increasingly exercising their rights to culture, in Kenya’s case because the new constitution enshrines such rights. These include, for example, rights to ‘ancestral’ land, sacred sites, indigenous knowledge, protection for endangered languages and minorities, and the right to ‘enjoy’ one’s culture. While positive in some respects, since culture can be a tool for development and peace building, rights claims and mobilisation around them by different lobby groups can have far-reaching implications for social cohesion and unification. Furthermore, there is a danger of universalised human rights clashing with particularised (often ethnicised) cultural rights in multicultural societies in Africa, where traditional male authority is making a comeback, aided by activism around ‘cultural tradition’. International NGOs and forums play a key role in the articulation of certain indigenous rights, globalizing local concerns and bringing them, for example, before World Bank inspection panels. This panel will draw on new research evidence from Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to present papers that explore the mobilisations, contestations and discourses that surround the exercise of cultural rights, in the context of constitutional change and the reification of traditional polities. We will discuss the implications for social cohesion and peace at a crucial time for Kenya in particular, as constitutional change transforms the country.

Luttes pour les droits culturels en Afrique de l’Est, entre changements constitutionnels et réaffirmation de l’autorité traditionnelle
Les Africains de l’Est exercent de plus en plus leurs droits culturels, et dans le cas du Kenya parce que ces droits sont inscrits dans la nouvelle constitution. Parmi ceux-ci, on compte les droits aux terres ‘ancestrales’, aux connaissances indigènes, la protection des langues, et le droit de jouir de sa culture. Positifs sous certains aspects, la culture pouvant être un instrument de développement et de paix, ces droits revendiqués et mobilisateurs peuvent aussi avoir des graves conséquences sur la cohésion sociale quand ils sont utilisés par des groupes de pression opposés. De plus, il y a un grand danger à ce que les droits humains universels se voient opposés les droits culturels particuliers (et souvent ethnicisés) dans des sociétés africaines multiethniques, où l’autorité masculine est en train d’être revalorisée au nom d’un activisme pour les « traditions culturelles ». Des ONG internationales jouent un rôle privilégié dans l’articulation de certains de ces droits indigènes, en interprétant des enjeux locaux en termes mondiaux et en les portant par exemple au-devant des missions d’inspection de la Banque mondiale. Cette séance sera basée sur des nouvelles recherches faites au Kenya, en Tanzanie et en Ouganda. Les communications exploreront les mobilisations, les contestations et les discours qui entourent l’exercice des droits culturels dans le cadre du changement constitutionnel, et la réification des structures traditionnelles. Elles discuteront leurs conséquences pour la cohésion sociale et la paix en temps de révision constitutionnelle et de transformation, pour le Kenya en particulier.

Paper 1

Deacon Harriet / The Open University

A comparative review of cultural rights provisions in the Kenyan constitution

Kenya’s new Constitution was adopted in 2010, one of a large number of African constitutions revised since the 1990s. After a discussion of global trends in constitutional provisions for cultural and minority rights since the 1940s, the paper will offer a brief history of constitution making in Kenya since 1963 and set out the main provisions of the Kenyan Constitution of 2010. It will then compare and contrast cultural rights provisions in Kenya’s 2010 Constitution with those in other countries and in relation to international human rights instruments. The paper is part of a broader research project exploring the impact of cultural rights provisions, including rights for minorities and non-discrimination provisions, in Kenya’s new constitution on Kenyan society and its heritage sector

Paper 2

Lynch Gabrielle / University of Warwick (UK)

What’s in a name? The politics of naming ethnic groups in Kenya’s Cherangany Hills

In January 2013, representatives of the Sengwer community from Kenya’s Cherangany Hills submitted a request for inspection to the World Bank Inspection Panel on the basis that they had suffered harms as a result of a World Bank project in their area. One allegation was that the Bank had violated its own policies by replacing the term ‘indigenous peoples’ with ‘vulnerable and marginalised groups’ half way through the project without carrying out free, prior informed consultations. This paper analyses this politics of names and naming in the context of Kenya’s new constitution. The paper analyses the strategies involved in becoming indigenous as a means to bolster claims and assert rights over a cultural, socio-economic and newly devolved political space through an insistence upon a particular ethnic label and brand. The paper reminds us of the constructed and negotiated nature of ethnic identities, and highlights the extent to which names are imbued with cultural and legal meaning that can help legitimise certain engagements and interventions and delegitimise others.

Paper 3

Kern Florian / University of Konstanz

Holzinger Katharina / University of Konstanz

The Variance of Persistence: Six trajectories of institutional change in East Africa’s contemporary traditional polities

Recently, the study of traditional political institutions and authority in sub-Saharan Africa has seen a renaissance in the social sciences. A veritable wave of studies investigates the relationship between the pre-colonial social organization of ethnic groups and contemporary policy outcomes. However, traditional polities show remarkable variance in the changes they have undergone since independence, and in the way they organize today. In this paper, we present evidence from fieldwork in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania showing the diversity of contemporary organization of Africa’s traditional polities. Focusing on six different ethnic groups, we demonstrate how strategies of re-organization relate to the local contexts of cultural rights and recognition. While some traditional polities virtually ceased to exist, others have maintained and modernized their organization and political influence. Others again have recently overhauled their group’s principles of organization, or organize in clubs or cultural associations. Our findings suggest that the commonly used scale of ‘hierarchical’ (centralized) vs. ‘non-hierarchical’ (decentralized) social organization poorly captures the modern complexities of organization in traditional polities.

Paper 4

Ouma Akoth Steve / The Open University (UK)

Because of Culture: Homeland and human rights communities in contemporary Kenya

The Constitution of Kenya promulgated in August 2010 envisages a state that promotes culture and the Bill of Human Rights concurrently. This constitutional framework that entangles culture and human rights unfolds in a much longer practice of ethnicizing politics in Kenya. Yet, we have remarkably little empirical evidence of the impact that the promotion of culture has on human rights practices in Kenya. This paper examines a hypothesis of one aspect of cultural practices in claim-making using the new constitution, By examining the unfolding of the notion and practices of community in claims for human rights among communities at Yala Swamp, Siaya County, I will demonstrate how claims of homeland and cultural communities are outlined in the constitution, and the role of cultural communities in envisioning future human rights practices in Kenya.

Paper 5

Hughes Lotte / The Open University (UK)

FGM: The ‘female circumcision’ crisis revisited

The so-called ‘female circumcision’ crisis of 1928-31 in colonial Kenya centred in part on colonial control of female bodies and a drive to end certain cultural practices. It caused a major rift between African Christians and European mission churches, as well as internecine conflict within the Gikuyu community, and sparked widespread resistance. Africans saw the attempt to stop what is now called FGM (though some scholars and campaigners prefer other terminology) as an attack on their culture. Today, despite being outlawed, FGM is still practised in several communities, and is even resurgent in some. Its proponents, who include women, again see the attempt to eradicate it as an attack on their ‘culture’, especially when that culture is perceived to be endangered. The issue is again dividing Christians, as well as pitting Christians against followers of ‘traditional’ faiths, This paper will draw on new fieldwork material to explore some of the continuities between this earlier crisis, and the moral panic which surrounded it, and the contemporary contestation and moral panic around FGM, in the context of constitutional change, human rights activism and international donor activity.

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