Narrative as a process of re-negotiating ethnic identities among Abanyole of Western Kenya

Kweya, Dishon, G
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Whereas there is an accumulation of a large body of research in oral literature, it is mostly confined to what is considered as the “fabula” and “folk wisdom” (tsingano) genres. Such understanding of genre eschews oral history because it is designated as a “factual” genre and ceded to historians. Using material collected ethnographically among the Abanyole of Western Kenya, this study combines historical and literary methods to investigate the Nyole expression of ethnic identity through the oral historical narrative. The study shifts attention from the perceived mutual exclusiveness of factual and fictional genres by focusing on the processes of the constitution and narration, and the purpose of narration of akakhale (the past) by the Nyole to cast light on the methods of fashioning the Nyole historical and social imagination. Thus, the study suggests alternative methods of reading the oral historical narrative by highlighting the discursive processes and the predominance of language use in the production the texts of the Nyole past. Taking the notion of the past as the storehouse of a people’s idea of origin and ethnic identity as the point of departure, the study investigates how Abanyole talk about their ethnic identity. In the process the study shifts attention from the external dimensions, which have predominated discourses on ethnicity, to the internal processes or the intra-community dimensions of ethnicity. The thesis demonstrates that narration of the Nyole past is not meant to reproduce kernels of truth-as-it-was; the purpose which the narration process is deployed to serve, and the meaning of the narrative is unveiled by interrogating the Nyole social and historical contexts, and the dynamics of the immediate context of narration which include the narrator’s conscious selection in the process of integration of what should constitute the ideal community history. Hence, the thesis underscores the implications of the exclusive Nyole social structure, the uncertainty produced by population explosion and scarcity of land, the interpretation of the objective of ethnographer, the need to represent the past in an acceptable and non-threatening manner; and oral history as narrative to highlight how textuality and performativity are deployed to deal with issues of legitimacy and the desire to have a more inclusive definition of being Nyole. The thesis appropriates narrative as a socially symbolic act as a model to explicate the multiplicity and contradiction in the Nyole narrative of origin, and the uncertainty in the conception of belonging to the Nyole sub-group of the Luhya ethnic nation.
PhD, School of Literature and Language Studies, Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, 2011
Abanyole, Kenya, ethnic identity, narrative process