by Mark Nicholson
July and August have been great months for sport: athletics, golf, soccer and tennis especially. In one of his Letters from America for BBC Radio, Alistair Cooke said that the British were not interested in tennis, but they were passionate about Wimbledon. So this time of year, I subscribe to the full DSTV (our South African satellite television provider) package and remain glued to the box for a few weeks.
However, I do not see the need to show the nationality of the tennis players. After all, many switch their allegiance to wealthy countries for obvious reasons*. I would far prefer players be judged on their own merit. Anyway, I hope the The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club saw the irony of their banning Russians (and Belarussians) but having a Russian woman win. Elena Rybakina is a Moscow-born resident of Moscow who has become a Kazakh only because Kazakhstan promised her a sponsorship deal that was considerably more generous than the Russians offered. “Je n'ai pas choisi où je suis née”, she commented sensibly at Roland-Garros. She was asked at Wimbledon whether she felt Russian or Kazakh. She replied “That is a tough question”. She could have just said “both” and left it that.
Last year, when Emma Raducanu won at Flushing Meadow, there was huge excitement among Britons saying that it was about time Britain had a top woman player. This year, when she was beaten in the second round, a neighbour in Kenya commented “Well, she’s not really British at all, is she, being a Canadian-born half Chinese-half Romanian?”. Sometimes, silence is golden.
It’s the same with athletics. Norah Cheruto won the 3000m steeplechase at the World Championships in Oregon in mid-July. Another Gold for Kenya! Er, not quite actually. First gold for Kazakhstan, Alhamdulillah. When asked about her nationality, it just brought on tears.
I listened to another paradox last week on the BBC World Service faith program, Heart and Soul. An elderly Greek woman from Mariupol was discussing her background. She explained she was one of the 22,000 strong Greek community who had always lived in
that wretched city. She had been born in the Soviet Union, raised as a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, always spoke Greek at home but Russian outside, and had “become a Ukrainian”. Politics, not choice, had given her a new passport. So what did she consider herself ethnically? A Greek, of course.
It is no less absurd in Africa. When I worked in Ethiopia, Eritrea was part of Ethiopia. When the country received its independence from Ethiopia (a gift from a new Ethiopian Prime Minister to his cousin), Eritreans presumably had to become ‘patriotic’ to their new country whether they liked to or not. This normally meant forced conscription into the military for fifteen years.
Over one hundred years ago in the rest of Africa, the new colonial masters replaced the people’s own rulers and drew international borders, slicing Africa up into European spheres of influence. No thought was given to traditional ethnic areas. Maasailand was divided between British East Africa (now Kenya) and German East Africa (now Tanzania). One of my Maasai workers was born in a Kenyan mission hospital after his mother walked 500 metres across the border from her village in Tanzania to where she returned the next day. Is he Tanzanian or Kenyan?
The whole of south-western Ethiopia and most of north-eastern Kenya is inhabited mainly by Somalis and all that land should have been part of Greater Somalia. Today, even what was left of Somalia has been divided into three parts: Puntland and Somaliland are considerably more worthy of nationhood than Somalia. Yet neither state is recognized by the ‘international community’. Meanwhile, when South Sudan was hived off Sudan, the international community hailed the newly independent state. Since independence in 2011, at least 400,000 people have been slaughtered there in ethnic violence.
I am utterly contemptuous of shows of patriotic pride for their new country unless the person has undergone considerable effort and expense to change their nationality. Mo Farrah, officially Mohamed Muktar Jama Farah, was born Hussein Abdi Kahin and, at the age of nine, was trafficked illegally from Somaliland. He can be proud of being British because the U.K. gave him a home.
Yet to be proud of one’s nationality just by accident of birth seems ludicrous. Yes, one should be grateful if one is a citizen of a wealthy or democratic country when one sees the struggles so many face in less fortunate countries.
I suspect, despise and fear intense nationalism, which is always stirred up by politicians to control the masses. President Xi of China is using such jingoism now in his attempt to gain control over democratic Taiwan.
My father undoubtedly influenced my views on nationalism from childhood. He subscribed firmly to lexicographer Samuel Johnson’s assertion that “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. In 1938, on leaving Cambridge University, my father joined the army immediately; he saw war coming. He refused to admit he was going to fight for his country, only that he had to fight to rid the world of Hitler and National Socialism.
Both my grandfathers served in the First World War in the trenches and saw thousands of their comrades massacred. So, it was hardly surprising that they scoffed at Horace’s Ode (III.2.13) and, as witnesses of the poison gas attacks, welcomed Wilfred Owen’s description of Horace’s dictum “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” as ‘the old Lie’.**
Many Kenyans have asked me to explain the United Kingdom. Is England a part of the UK or a country? Here is one definition I found online: “England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are the four constituent countries (nations) of the country (state) known as the United Kingdom’. Er….is that clear? If you asked most inhabitants of the UK to state their nationality, only around 20% would say ‘I am British’.*** They would be more likely to say they were English/ Scots/ Welsh/Northern Irish/Irish, unless they belonged to the 15% who are not ancestrally and ethnically British, in which case they will probably say they are British. Does that mean that many would be claim to be patriotic just to one country in their country? Am I surprised at the confusion so many non-Britons express when I try and explain? Maybe it will be easier in a decade or two when the Kingdom is no longer united.
I am happy to live in a multi-cultural country near an astoundingly multi-national city (Nairobi). I live on a hill where nine local languages are spoken; seven houses contain people of eight nationalities speaking a total of six international languages. At the last count, I work or socialize with 47 different nationalities (including at least 18 nationalities in the US Embassy where I am currently working). Two weeks ago I played a two-table bridge game with my host, a Greek, plus two Indians, a Peruvian, a Finn, a Norwegian, and an East African ‘Asian’ (who told me that despite being a Gujerati, he is not recognized as an Indian by Indians). Inevitably, the lingua franca at our card game was English but no one gives a second thought about nationality. My two youngest children have two passports from countries they have never lived in and are resident of two other countries. To whom should they be patriotic? Well, I cannot answer that question but I encourage them to be internationalists.
I firmly hope that the days of atavistic tribalism will rapidly come to an end when we realize that there are far greater threats to the planet than ethnic rivalries. Sadly, my low opinion of humanity means that my hope may not be realized in my lifetime. Cicero, who predated Horace by fifty or so years, was a much wiser and more pragmatic fellow than Horace when he said ‘My country is wherever I am well off’.
*But I was delighted that the girls doubles was won by Angella Okutoyi, a Kenyan playing with a Dutch girl (I use that word advisedly but officially: Wimbledon girls are between 14 and 18, even if they look much older).
** Final stanza of Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori by Wilfred Owen
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori = Sweet and beautiful it is to die for the fatherland.
*** (Editor’s note) In the 2011 UK Population Census, only 13% of those aged over 75 living in England and Wales ticked the box ‘British’, whilst over 20% of those younger than 60 did so. 14% of whites described themselves as ‘British’ compared to about 50% of non-whites.