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 the country last summer.

Thanks to modern technology, I followed the whole trial, and got the impression that America’s mainstream media were unfair to the boy. However, my chief takeaway was a question: what does the legal 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 not a lawyer and Africa is not America. While the independence of that great country was an inspiration to the independence movements of many African countries, there are some striking differences.

As I see it, as regards the nature of our political systems, the chief difference is this: in America, it was the colonists who won their independence; 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 the 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 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 taken to belong almost exclusively to the state.

Granted, many African countries now have regimes for licensing people to own 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, perhaps floating in the air during one of their graceful jumping dances, they adorn the pages of many tourist manuals and synonymise the continent in many foreign minds.

Arguably, the main reason they stand out is that, unlike most African communities, they have taken a more measured approach towards modernity. Though they use phones and go to school like everyone else, they visibly retain many of their age-old cultural practices, from attire and cuisine to rites of passage and etiquette.

What many in the rest of the world don’t know as well about them is that we, the people who share a country with them, also consider security guards drawn from among the Maasai to be the best of the lot. No frills, loyal to a fault, and reputed for competence in combat, the Maasai are to us what the Swiss are to the Pope.

No doubt some might interpret this story as derogatory and slanderous. The 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.

Well, the post-modernist is insufferable, and so we’ll ignore him for now.

It’s pretty simple. 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 goes pretty well with keeping facilities and homes safe at night.

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, bows and arrows; the king of the jungle was only saved from the Maasai’s courage by modern laws.

To this day, many Maasai men walk around with a dagger, sheathed in a leather scabbard secured to 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, but the fact is that they do carry them, and we consider it normal. Yet 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.

In any case, as I’ve watched Americans fight over how to interpret their constitutional right to bear arms, and whether it’s proper to save themselves from death using them, the Maasai are a reminder that in the not-too-distant past, we Africans were much more comfortable carrying around weapons.

A mere three generations ago my ancestors needed no one’s permission to carry around lethal weapons. The country was awash with Kyle Rittenhouses.

Thanks to colonialism, this is no longer part of our identity. For a few (I speak of myself), the old-style weapons are now rusty family heirlooms. We lost the old weapons, got none of the new, and so entered modern history unarmed.

But is our standard of living lower because we don’t walk around with loaded rifles today? I don’t think so. Are we safer? I don’t think so. The intentional homicide rate in Kenya is the same as the United States. Imagine what it would be if the government allowed people to carry guns.

There’s no Second Amendment in Kenya. And that’s a good thing.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.