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“We Do Not Have Borders”

Front cover of Keren Weitzberg’s We Do Not Have Borders: Greater Somalia and the Predicaments of Belonging in Kenya (2017). Photograph retrieved from the website of Ohio University Press.


Keren Weitzberg is the author of We Do Not Have Borders: Greater Somalia and the Predicaments of Belonging in Kenya (Ohio University Press, 2017). She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History and at the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) at University College London (UCL). She received her Ph.D. in History from Stanford University.


Celina de Sá is the Thurgood Marshall Fellow in the Program for African and African American Studies at Dartmouth College. She is also a Ph.D. candidate in Africana Studies and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in African Studies Review and The Black Scholar.


Celina de Sá: I loved your use of oral history and testimony and I was wondering why you chose to go that route and what sort of pitfalls one is likely to encounter with that method in African studies? I was at a conference at Northwestern University last year and someone asked me to consider the framework of mythology to talk about how West African capoeiristas are renarrativizing the slave trade and other relevant historical events for their contemporary context. I am often hesitant to use words like “mythology”—and, in your book, you also brought up “allegory” as a concept that you want to steer away from. So, I’m wondering whether those of us who study the continent can properly privilege non-written historical sources without falling into the trap of presenting them as interesting fables, rather than “objective” or productive forms of knowledge production.

Keren Weitzberg: I think there is a tendency (even amongst scholars who privilege oral testimony) to treat these sources if not as mythology, then as constructed forms of memory. Oral history isn’t always viewed as a repository of information about the past or as information that one should examine critically like one would any other source. There’s also a tendency to treat oral testimony as not really being on par with written sources, even if one claims to do otherwise.

It can also be challenging at times to read oral sources alongside the archival record. Firstly, because you’re often comparing something written several decades ago to something that, at least to a certain extent, was produced in the moment of the conversation. Secondly, oral and written records often rely on very different epistemologies. When the archival and oral records veer away from one another, how do you then weave them together into a linear narrative?

So, there are definitely challenges when it comes to using oral testimony. I would just say that it is really important that we take oral sources seriously and that we treat them as being on par with written sources. And that also means acknowledging that there is empirical information that one can glean from oral sources. Oral sources need to be read not as forms of evidence that only gives one insight into constructed memory, or just as a way of remedying a narrative that is fundamentally based on the archival record.

Celina: I’m working through understanding what kinds of empirical data can be gleaned from oral testimony and oral history. Oral testimony in general can be influenced by any number of colonial, state, or popular discourses. During my own fieldwork, I spoke to people who talked about the centuries-old slave trade. I’ll give you the example of Adama Badjie, the founder of the Capoeira Association of the Gambia. He spoke to me about Kunta Kinte as a historical figure and a skilled capoeirista who used the martial art form’s fluidity of motion. This interpretation was based on a historical conception of capoeira as rooted in a Diola secret ceremony. Contemporary popular books and media, like Alex Haley’s Roots, have had a major impact on the way people remember history. This is also propagated by the Gambian state. We see this in the narratives of tour guides on Kunta Kinte Island (formerly James Island until a black American sculptor and activist persuaded President Yahya Jammeh to rename it) and Roots Tours aimed at attracting Afro-descendants in the diaspora and fueling the tourism industry. So, in this case, when we encounter Gambian popular narrations of historical eras, they are often influenced by black American “fiction” and framed in a way that uses Afro-Brazilian cultural technologies of liberation (i.e., capoeira). This calls into question not only our ability to retrieve empirical data, but also the value of that pursuit in the first place.

Keren: It is one thing to say that we can treat oral testimony as a source of empirical information about that past. But that doesn’t mean that our sole goal should be to weed out the factual basis of oral sources. I don’t think there is one way to read an oral source, in much the same way as there is not a single method of reading a written source. So in your case, it might make sense to put the idea of facticity aside to some extent and instead examine the implications of this fascinating story. What does it mean that there are these new narratives being constructed that draw on African American cinema and Atlantic circuits of knowledge? I definitely think there are moments in which one can put the question of facticity aside and examine these narratives as ways that people make meaning in the world. So, it really depends and I would say there is not a single rubric for reading oral sources. I think it’s just about treating them critically as one would any other source.

Celina: I think it can also be difficult to put facticity aside. To see popular media changing the way that people understand and “remember” history raises the question: what do we categorize as oral history? There is this understanding of oral history as being this rich pot of knowledge, particularly in Africa. Once you go to the Gambia and hear people telling stories about Gambian history reminiscent of scenes from Roots, it becomes difficult to dispel the notion that people are just parroting somewhat superficial and foreign discourses about their own history.

Keren: That is tricky, and there is a tendency to fetishize oral history and see Africa as a site of primal orality.

Celina: And we should take the lead of capoeiristas for whom proving historical “accuracy” is often less important than developing narratives that provide a liberatory framework and model.

Keren: I think your work has the potential to question the idea of an authentic, totally autochthonous African tradition because your “informants” are drawing on such diverse materials. And perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that Africans are drawing upon sources that include recent popular movies circulating across the Atlantic. In a way, this exchange of knowledge between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora is nothing new, even if it’s now being mediated through a tourist-oriented industry. How do we give credence to autochthonous African intellectual production while still acknowledging that the continent has long been connected to and influenced by global circuits of knowledge?

Our search for a “pure” African discourse is always going to be elusive. And I really see how your work can de-fetishize the idea of African authenticity. There is a scholarly tendency to think about Africa as either having these deeply rooted autochthonous traditions or as being radically transformed by imported alien traditions. The “hybridity” literature—which shows the entanglement between “African” and “colonial” knowledge—doesn’t totally resolve this dilemma and in its own way, only heightens the distinction between “autochthonous” and “alien” traditions. I would say that even I fall into this trap at times. I was quite influenced, for example, by Butch Ware’s book, The Walking Qur’an (2014). In the Introduction, he quotes Steven Feierman and talks about the need to look at African history over the longue durée and beyond tight geographic spaces. While I don’t necessarily approach African history over the longue durée, I do look at the importance of precolonial traditions. But there is always this danger of romanticizing the precolonial past and of treating more recent ideas of nationalism or Pan-Africanism as somehow less “authentic.”

Celina: I’m glad you brought up autochthony. I found it fascinating how the category of the “native” in your book changes over time. It acts as a disadvantage for Somalis living in Kenya in the colonial period, in the sense that many are trying to distance themselves from that autochthonous category by strategically lobbying to be recognized as “Asiatics” for economic and other reasons. Then, in the post-independence period, it becomes a disadvantage to be labeled “non-native” within the new project of Kenyan nationalism. I’m interested in how the categories of native and non-native, or today perhaps citizen/foreigner, are constantly shifting and how nativism and autochthonous discourses are often seen as endemic to African political systems, but how your work moves against that notion.

Keren: In my book, I engage with Mamdani’s very influential arguments about colonialism. Mamdani argues that the colonial state constructs a distinction between native and non-native, and that this distinction profoundly affects political discourse and has particularly negative consequences after independence. This is especially true for populations that don’t fit neatly into colonial or postcolonial ideas of indigeneity.

However, I also show the limits to this argument. Yes, the political space of Kenya is profoundly shaped by the discourse of autochthony, but that’s not the only political language that’s relevant. We can’t simply assume that the state imposed these categories from above and that African subjects readily internalized them. Much of the reason why, for nearly a century, Somalis have never neatly fit into the categories of colonial or postcolonial rule is that they have subscribed to other forms of social and political belonging that don’t always conform to the ethno-territorial, secular, or demographic logics of the state. Older forms of Islamic cosmopolitanism, kinship, and nomadic life continue to coexist with statist ideas of belonging. The tension between these different understandings of belonging leads to a constant debate over who Somalis are and where they belong—where they fit in.

Celina: Do you feel that the colonial or postcolonial state has had more or less success in exerting their political framework over these already existing regional and religious political logics at any given point historically?

Keren: That’s a good question. I think the state has had limited success in forcing Somalis into their political molds, which is why they have been such a troubling category for state officials. At the same time, Somali networks are not irreconcilable with the state. For example, in one chapter, I show that many proponents of Pan-Somali nationalism in northern Kenya sought to reconcile nomadic livestock herding and pastoralism with a “Greater Somali” territorial nation-state. Older ideas of mobility and belonging were never fully subsumed by this modernizing nationalist project.

Celina: I guess I’m wondering whether independence made it more difficult to push up against these new categorizations. Because it seems like there was relatively more success for different types of Somalis being able to play the system for their own political and economic needs, perhaps somewhat ironically, in the colonial era.

Keren: I do make that claim. Especially in the early colonial era, in part because of the translocal nature of imperial structures, there is more room for the transnational networks that Somalis are a part of to exist in tension with the colonial project. This becomes more difficult in the immediate postcolonial era, particularly during the height of postcolonial nationalism. But what I also suggest is that in the post-Cold War era and with the start of the Somali civil war, a new kind of global Somali diaspora emerges and you see the revival and reinvention of these networks.

Celina: I really liked how you framed the book in terms of possibilities or potentialities. I think a lot of times scholars want or expect to see particular things in the postcolonial era. It is so important to have historians looking at the different possibilities and potentialities circulating in the twentieth century. This disrupts the idea of a linear teleological narrative that ends in a unified nation-state which must then, through a liberal framework, work through its remaining “ethnic differences.” In your book, you are thinking about precolonial forms of cosmopolitanism and it was interesting to think about the Africanization movement in Kenya arising and positioning itself counter to Arab chauvinism and European universalism. It seems we can sometimes take certain categorizations for granted because they counter colonial state discourse. For example, there is Africanization, which is partly a response to the denigration of blackness, but you see groups that don’t fit neatly into that category.

Keren: Yes, Africanization isn’t just a response to the denigration of blackness by European colonialism. And it can be a troubling movement for certain categories of people. There are Somali political thinkers who embrace the idea of Africanness and see themselves as African, although they are not always recognized as such. But there are others who don’t, or who embrace the Pan-African movement to a much lesser degree. Still others have tried to reconcile Pan-African and Pan-Arab nationalism, and to varying degrees of success.

Celina: I am wondering if there are categories we take for granted as inherently unifying. For example, you talked about Somalis who adhere more to an identification tied to a larger Islamic community. Is that troubled in anyway in your work?

Keren: That’s a good question. We certainly want to be aware of the exclusions within even the most liberatory and universalizing of movements. But to return to your earlier point, part of my goal in the book is to upend teleologies. And I do this by examining the diverse political futures imagined by Somali and northern Kenyan political thinkers, which were not always sovereign, territorial, or secular in scope or predicated on ethnic homogeneity.

I am also trying to denaturalize the categories through which we so often look at the region today. So, for example, (and this is an argument that Jonathon Glassman makes) is the distinction between “African” and “Arab” really meaningful prior to the 19th century? Probably not. I think there’s also a bit of an obsession in African studies with ethnicity. So much of the scholarship on Kenya is centered around ethnic formation and ethnic tension. Is this really the primary rubric through which we should be looking at East African societies? I would not encourage a Ph.D. student—even though I did this myself—to study an ethnic group in Kenya. I think in West Africa, ethnicity isn’t as overriding a logic for scholars.

Celina: Can I ask why you think ethnicity seems to be more central in scholarship on East Africa than West Africa?

Keren: I think in the case of East Africa, ethnicity was so key to the governing logic of so many colonial regimes, particularly British systems of rule. If you read the Kenyan archives, you almost cannot escape dealing with questions of ethnicity, unless you’re quite creative in the way you approach the archives. Butch Ware says that the equivalent obsession in Senegal is the Sufi brotherhood. Both the obsession with Sufi brotherhoods and with ethnic groups, he argues, reflects a scholarly neglect of larger macro-histories that could tie the region or even the continent together, or tie parts of the continent to other parts of the world. And this tendency to see Africa through a parochial lens is an overriding problem.

Celina: I was also interested in your use of the term “chauvinism” in the book. In my work, I encounter various old and new attitudes of cultural chauvinism and how capoeira, as representative of a sought-after Afro-diasporic liberatory form, becomes the site of contestations over belonging. For instance, you have a Brazilian mestre (master), who in a somewhat ironic twist of events, disagrees with Ivoirians writing capoeira songs in Baoulé or Senegalese improvising songs in Wolof in order to protect the art form’s distinctly Afro-Brazilian traditions. Meanwhile, you have regional tensions being expressed around representation. West African students who migrated to Dakar for school seek solace in capoeira to escape social marginalization in a Wolof-dominated social sphere, and yet in turn create a French-speaking environment to which some Senegalese practitioners feel marginalized. The question of who “owns” this Afro-Brazilian tradition is tied to issues of language, nationality, and the grievances on both sides of a perceived foreign/local divide. Could you elaborate on your use of the term “chauvinism” to describe some instances of Somali attitudes about themselves in relation to others?

Keren: I use that word partly because I have some concerns with the way that scholars such as Bruce Hall, Chouki El Hamel, and Jonathon Glassman are using the word “race” to describe the precolonial era. I’m not entirely comfortable with the application of that term to the deeper past. While their work is excellent, I am a little surprised by the somewhat uncritical use of such terms.

Celina: I find the term useful because we often get so caught up in the categorical binary opposition between the West and Africa. This dichotomy is still pervasive in anthropological and historical scholarship, in part due to the legacy of postcolonial studies. These categories are now being destabilized, but they still seem to operate in a way that speaks perhaps to a fear of opening up the conversation to other kinds of exclusionary logics—logics that may have resulted from Western imperialism, but may have also existed over a much longer durée.

Keren: It sounds like you’re examining forms of exclusion that exist even in quite cosmopolitan spaces. You mention divides that fracture around the distinction between foreigner and native, around language, around class, and around gender. It is hard as an outsider to speak about internal tensions and internal forms of exclusion without a) reinforcing stereotypes; and b) feeling like you’re airing other people’s dirty laundry. I’ve definitely struggled with this myself. I don’t know if I was always successful in the way I tackled such issues. It is really tricky. All I would say is that in order to understand the rich texture of African communities, one has to acknowledge that they are rife with tensions like any other society. But, of course, actually analyzing these internal divides can be fraught politically. I do give people like Hall and El Hamel huge amounts of credit for tackling what I think are very challenging and sensitive topics. I just think we have to go about it a lot more carefully. We need to constantly remind the reader that internal hierarchies are not inherent to Africa and exist in even the most seemingly homogenous of societies. And we want to avoid creating false moral equivalences between, for example, precolonial forms of chauvinism and modern forms of racism.

Celina: You mentioned the Westgate attack in your last chapter and I’m wondering if we can talk a little about terrorism on the continent today. When I was doing fieldwork in Dakar, people feared the city would become the next target as attacks were flaring up in the region, specifically in Bamako, Ouagadougou, and Grand-Bassam. This fear became visible with the presence of national soldiers/militarized police (gendarmerie) on major street corners, which is abnormal for Dakar. Similarly, there was a coup in Burkina Faso around the same time, a bombing in Abuja, Nigeria, and a crisis that broke out in the Central African Republic. All these instances of political violence were things that West African capoeiristas and their families were dealing with. And I started to hear them framing these issues in terms of their art form, joking about how the soldiers who were antagonizing Burkinabé protesters deserved a martelo (or hammer kick). Meanwhile, you have a capoeirista who was trapped at home while visiting his family in the Central African Republic after an outbreak of violence. When he finally returned to Dakar, he said he felt more motivated to train capoeira in the hopes that he might be able to defend his family if ever they were threatened in that kind of situation. It’s not commonly used as an actual form of self-defense.

How does “terrorism” and political violence relate to your work?

Keren: Because Somalis in Kenya are often associated with terrorism, I felt the need to address this topic. But I also didn’t want to make it the central focus of the book. So, I tried to tackle terrorism without giving it undue attention.

Mainly I try to address the most obvious misconceptions about recent political violence in the region. As Talal Asad and Mahmood Mamdani have already argued, there’s a tendency to focus on the violence of non-state actors and non-secular entities and meanwhile to minimize and normalize the violence of the state and international bodies. Yes, Al Shabaab has committed terrible and egregious acts, but it is one of many actors in a very complex war that has seen violence on many sides.

The mainstream media has helped to dehistoricize and decontextualize Al Shabaab. There’s also a way that ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al Shabaab all get lumped together and treated as a singular phenomenon. Granted, they borrow from one another and are influenced by similar global trends, but they’re also profoundly different movements. There is enormous fear of these global Islamic networks and yet relative silence about other global networks, including transnational US military forces, that help to create or at least are deeply entangled in “terrorist” violence. You can’t really understand the rise of Al Shabaab, for example, without understanding the fall of the Islamic Courts Union, which is the result of an Ethiopian invasion supported by the US. In the book, I try to highlight these double standards and the ways in which we treat certain kinds of violence as pathological, while ignoring or normalizing others. But it’s also tricky because it’s not as though I want to sound like an apologist for groups like Al Shabaab.

Celina: What are you working on next?

Keren: I have a few projects in mind, but I’m particularly interested in expanding upon the study of migration and border-crossing in East Africa. I’ve currently begun work on a project on the history of the passport, ID card, and biometric registration in Kenya. Kenya was an important hub within the development of identification technologies. Fingerprinting was largely a colonial invention, which evolved in India and South Africa and was later applied to criminal populations in Europe. More recently, countries like Kenya have become laboratories for cutting-edge forms of biometric technology. So I’m really interested in exploring the cross-fertilization between Kenya and the wider Anglo-imperial world, and the spread and development of these technologies.


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