Americans are sharply divided about the self-defence-based acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, the young man who shot three men, killing two, during one of the many riots that rocked their country last summer.
Thanks to modern technology, I followed the whole trial and emerged bristling with of opinions. However, my main takeaway was a question: what does the principle at the root of the case, the right to bear lethal arms and use them in self-defence, mean here in Africa?
Now, I’m no lawyer, and Africa is not America. Though the independence of that great country inspired the independence struggles of many African countries, there are some striking differences.
Regarding the nature of our political systems, the chief difference that in America, it was the colonists who won independence, while in Africa, it was the indigenous people. This has significant downstream effects on our attitudes towards many things – including the idea that individuals can possess lethal weapons.
Two factors play into this.
First, with a few exceptions, most communities in Sub-Saharan Africa hadn’t adopted firearms by the time European colonisers arrived with their guns. Denying colonised natives access to guns was therefore much easier; unlike the Americans, Africans never had them in the first place.
On the other hand, what Africans had chiefly needed lethal weapons for before, raiding fellow Africans for loot, cattle and revenge, became crimes proscribed by the new colonial governments. Thus thrust into modernity, most Africans gave up their old weapons, and got none of the new ones.
So, along with many cultural norms, the tradition of bearing arms for one’s own protection and the protection of one’s community was swiftly lost. By the time African countries were gaining independence in the mid to late 20th Century, the right to bear arms was generally presumed to belong almost exclusively to the state.
Granted, many African countries now have regimes for licensing firearms inherited from colonial governments’ regulation of settlers’ access to the weapons. However, Africans still generally associate firearms with the state, not with a natural right. Ergo, the weapon of choice in the Rwandan genocide (and Kenya’s own 2007/08 post-election violence) was the machete.
Of course, there are many exceptions to this narrative. And, paradoxically, the exceptions tell the story better. For brevity’s sake, I’ll focus on one.
The Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania need no introduction to most readers. Decked out in their resplendent red shukas and floating in the air during one of their graceful jumping dances, they adorn the pages of many tourist brochures and are synonymous with the continent for many foreigners.
The main reason they stand out may be that, unlike most African communities, they have taken a measured approach towards modernity. Though they use smartphones and take their children to school like everyone else, they retain many of their age-old cultural practices, from attire and cuisine to rites of passage and etiquette.
What the rest of the world doesn’t know as well about them is that we, the people who share territory with them, consider security guards drawn from the community to be the best of the lot. No frills, loyal to a fault, and competent in combat, the Maasai are to us what the Swiss are to the Pope.
No doubt some might give this story a different twist. The posh post-modernist will say that, because they don’t have access to the amenities of modern life, the Maasai have been reduced to the labour no one else will do. A more enthusiastic one might even brand me an ethno-chauvinist for noting this.
But it’s true. The Maasai play in the big leagues in security provision out here because, unlike most of the rest of Kenyans, they retained the art of fighting and bearing weapons, and that’s a skill that comes in handy in the security business.
Traditionally, as part of their rites of passage, Maasai men have to become proficient in the use of weapons. Until recently, to join the moran warrior class, they used to have to hunt down and kill a lion, with spears and swords and bows and arrows; the king of the jungle was only saved from the Maasai’s courage by conservationist laws.
To this day, many Maasai men in Kenya walk around with a dagger, sheathed in a leather scabbard on their belts. Approach any traditionally-attired Maasai man on the street, and you’re sure to spot the weapon, sometimes on full display, other times concealed under the folds of his clothing. Attack him, and he might use it on you. So think twice before you pick a fight with him.
I am not familiar with the legal provisions that buttress this Maasai practice of openly carrying a lethal weapon in polite society. If I, khaki-clad and bespectacled urbanite that I am, were to go about with a knife dangling from my belt, the police would yank me off the street, confiscate the knife, and extort a generous bribe.
Yet the Maasai carry their knives everywhere. It’s not controversial. Just as it wasn’t in the not-too-distant past, when, to survive tribal life, most Africans, especially young men, had to be proficient wielders of deadly weapons.
Colonialism stole this part of our identity. We lost the old weapons, got none of the new, and entered modern history unarmed. Unlike our ancestors, or the Maasai today, we have to ask the state for permission to bear the modern equivalent of daggers and spears and bows and arrows.
Was this a fair trade? Some will say it was. After all, the average Kenyan is much safer from gun violence than his American counterpart. Besides, though I equate them, guns are much deadlier than bows and arrows, and should be handled with much more care.
But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, the average Kenyan is safer from gun violence than the American, but he is just as likely to die at the hand of his fellow man as the American. The absence of guns from the society just means he’ll be killed using other implements, like kitchen knives or blunt force.
The question returns. Would it make sense for Africans to reclaim the right to bear arms, lost by our ancestors, and to translate that to modern firearms? Can we countenance our young people, barely out of high school, going out into the night armed with guns to protect property from rioters?
Perhaps this is an unfruitful question for an African to ask. Like many other American things, the right to bear arms is a non-issue to us. We lost the conceptual framework for it to colonialism. In the meantime, long may the Maasai carry their daggers. For if they drop them, they won’t find the other kind of weapon as easy to obtain.
For the rest of us, guns remain on the other side of a government license. For now. And maybe that’s for the best. For now.