- We Do Not Have Borders: Greater Somalia and the predicaments of belonging in Kenya by Keren Weitzberg
By Keren Weitzberg. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2017.
Kenyan Somalis’ citizenship and belonging has been a subject of intense contestation and negotiation for a long term. Their presence in Kenya has been, at best, characterized by a sense of precarity and marginality. From the onset, recognizing that “nationalist historians overlooked their [Kenyan Somali] experiences because they did not fit into conventional definitions of indigeneity and seemed to embody a tragic liminality” (37), Keren Weitzberg’s book, We Do Not Have Borders: Greater Somalia and the predicaments of belonging in Kenya seeks to highlight, complicate and historicize this liminality. As such, the book is predicated on the foundational question: “Why Somalis have come to hold such an enigmatic, liminal status within Kenya, where they are often regarded as both locals and foreigners, citizens and strangers” (18).
In the Introduction, Weitzberg lays an original and productive grounding to her work by approaching Somali “as a category and mode of thought” rather than “Somali as a people” (5). This essentially means analyzing how Somalis conceptualize, articulate and express their identity across time and space and their shifting relationship to the “nation-state” and its borders.
Spanning a period of about a century, this book is a product of extensive research involving periods of conducting interviews in Kenya and archival research in London, Nairobi and Stanford as well as occasional media analysis. While acknowledging that the nature and operation of British colonial authority and power and the related histories of local populations could be explored through colonial archives, Weitzberg is simultaneously cautious and critical of the archives as a source of this knowledge. For example, she demonstrates what she terms “the depoliticizing effects of the archives” (35) in regard to particular social and political events. Weitzberg challenges such depoliticization by considering alternative subjective, individual and communal memorialization, understanding and interpretation of such events. For example, taking the case of Kalaluud, which was hitherto recorded and interpreted in the archival records as a “tribal conflict” (35), and juxtaposing it against local oral history, Weitzberg reveals the complex dynamics of “local power struggles, and control over pastoral resources and trade routes” (35) that pitted different clans against each other rather than accepting a reductionist colonial portrayal of the conflict as merely tribal.
Generally, Weitzberg has some insightful methodological approaches and “reflections” sprinkled across the book including in the Preface and Acknowledgements (x). This is one of the greatest strengths of the book that could appeal to a wide range of social scientists.
We Do Not Have Borders is organized as follows: Chapter One sets the “precolonial” scene by charting the early presence, movement and trade by the Isaaq and Herti clans of the Somali within East Africa and further afield. It also delves into the attempts by this group to lobby for better status and rights within the racialized colonial structure: a push for “non-native” rather than “native” status by emphasizing an Asiatic origin. Chapters Two and Three continue this identification debate by introducing the concept of “imperial citizenship” (38). Although the Isaaq and Harti managed to attain many of the rights accorded to Asians in Kenya, the colonial officials deliberately dodged ascribing the label “Asian” to them. It was instead found convenient to loosely identify them as “Natives,” “Arabs” and “Asiatics” interchangeably (50). This, Weitzberg argues, was an attempt by the British colonial authority at avoiding setting any “legal precedents” that might have “empire-wide” ramifications for other groups agitating for such rights (50). Better rights and a perceived closeness to the British fomented some kind of “aspirational politics” (40) among the Somali as reflected in the “imperial debt and reciprocity” (70) argument justifying their demands for preferential treatment. Chapter Four is arguably the most interesting as it transcends elite political discourse by introducing a subaltern perspective or what “rank-and-file nomadic people” (16) made of Pan-Somali nationalism. By drawing on poems and songs of that era, especially those recited by women in the northern Kenya...