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Monday, April 1, 2013

number four (K2) and tribalism

I wrote this some time back but because of recent events I decided not to post it till right now. Until we were sure and until this damn IEBC ink got washed off my nail, whichever came first.

I’m not sure what year it was probably 2007. I had gone to one of the national stadiums where I and my countrymen had gathered to watch a spectacle. To see what would turn out to be the death of something whose name had been inextricably linked with that of our country since its inception.

As soon as I got off the matatu my stomach began rumbling. I could hear the sound in my throat the way you sometimes do and as I did and  it exploded outwards. It went down to my asshole and I needed to shit. It wasn’t one of those ones that you can kill with a well-placed fart. This one felt wet. I knew that if I did fart it would slide out of me slimy, stinky and wet so I clamped shut like a boy trying to avoid seeing an accident. As soon as I was shown where my delegation was sitting I looked for the toilet. At those early hours of the morning it was already unusable. There seemed to be shit and pee everywhere. There was no proper place to squat and I still had some of the modesty that I have lost in the intervening years. The loss of that modesty means today I would have looked for some likely bushes. It also means that I can use this episode as an introduction to what could be a semi-serious blog post.

What was happening was a KANU national delegate’s conference. What would turn out to be the last KANU delegate’s conference. People had flocked in from across the country because it was time to decide the fate of this party. It was facing an existential crisis that came in the form of alliances and coalitions and which had its beginnings in the multi-party system of government that was introduced in the country back in 1992. A crisis that ran through President Moi’s backstabbing of all his loyal and not-so-loyal stalwarts and choosing of a man to run for president that most of us had never heard of. A man who just five years earlier couldn’t win a seat of parliarment in his home town, a man who has shown what it means to learn, change and grow more than anyone I can think of except Daenerys from Game of Thrones. The last time that multipartyism threatened KANU was in 1967 when another Odinga decided that the rule of another Kenyatta was not the best thing for the country. The time before that was when KADU was formed because most of Kenya’s smaller tribes were scared of the political domination of the Kikuyu and the Luo who were the main of KANU.

At the end of the day (I don’t know how I got so far with my ruminary issues) Mr Uhuru Kenyatta got up to speak. And he gave a speech. It was long, it was sweeping in narrative, it was filled with details and given in the same eloquence anyone who has ever heard him speak is aware of. He convinced me of two things that day, that KANU should not be disbanded and that he would be president of this country one day.

Last year I was thinking about what Kibaki meant to me as apresident and what his legacy meant to Kenya as a country. In my mind it will never be thika road. What I remember from him is the dark days of 2008 when after he stole an election Kenya nearly burned to the ground. I laid the blame for this squarely on his feet. You see there has never been a question in my mind about whether or not he rigged that election. I always believed he did and could never understand that there were people who didn’t just see it. I didn’t even blame him for rigging because that’s how African politics goes but I did blame him for the bumbling ineffectual way in which he did it. I also blamed him for the tribalism that I found in myself, the assumption that I made that all kikuyus believed that it wasn’t rigged and my subsequent silence on the issue when discussing it with them.

I think now that I blamed him far too much. Before the election I was taking to my cousin, 7 years old. She was asked
“Who do you want to win?”
“Because I’m Luo” with the most duh!!!! Shrug of her shoulders I had ever seen.

Her parents had never told her this but somehow she picked it up. At family gatherings people spoke about politics the person they supported was never far from this talk. However a lot of this talk was done in Luo and she doesn’t really understand it. But still it soaked through. Seven short years and she had come to understand that fact of Kenyan political life that’s as indelible as IEBC ink. It’s all tribal. People blame tribalism on a lot of things, they blame institutions, they say they get disillusioned about the world, they state their experience with members of the other tribe and use it as evidence and proof that they aren’t tribal just logical. She’s 7 and never had any of those experiences, she has no idea what cynicism is. She grew up in Nairobi, one of the most multicultural places you can grow up in. we told her mother what she had said and she was shocked too, she was surprised that this would be what her daughter was saying since just a few years ago she didn’t even know what tribe she was trying on different identities the way children love to do. Still something had happened.

This is why I began questioning all the blame that I laid on Kibaki’s feet for the awakening of my tribalism. It’s still mostly latent and a lot of it is subconscious but if it’s there in her I am sure its there in me. It’s strange because this is as tolerant as my family has ever been, I have kikuyu cousins and in-laws. I have been to their funerals and weddings and dowry ceremonies. She has too but even now there is still something that lingers. A part of us that is influenced by all the things our parents told us, a part of us that can pick up on the mood of a party and know which way to lean. A part of us that leads to the demographic breakdown of results that we got.

I remember hearing about Mutahi Ngunyi’s tyranny of numbers I remember hearing anger about it. People were pissed off with his reasoning and questioned his logic, but has anyone ever been so vindicated? I saw an fb update that said “spotted outside nation building, Mutahi Ngunyi telling random people when they will die.” For those who don’t know what this is, mutahi got a breakdown of voter registration from the IEBC, he broke this down into ethnic groups and using this was able to predict the outcome of the presidential election. Luos and Kambas would vote for Raila and Kalonzo, kikuyu’s and kalenjins for Uhuru and Ruto. This is basically what he predicted that people would vote on completely tribal lines. You know what happened? People voted on tribal lines.

It’s a scary thought that a country so literate and seemingly empowered made a decision based on where they were born and not on the issues. It’s scary for me to start to consider how tribally motivated my decision was because I always tried not to be. I tried so hard and even with all that. All the Kikuyu flings and best friends it was still so easy for me to go and make the choice that Mutahi predicted I would. I have no idea what we can do with tribalism. It’s an institutional disease this much I know. The institution most affected by it is the family. I believe that cultural cohesion is an important first step, so go ahead and intermarry, do it more and more. Dilute the tribal blood, leave your children with more than one identity. Let them have conflicting narratives about who they are and who they should support battle for power in their heads. Let them be children of not just one great African culture but two.

Maybe the cities will drive this out given enough time, but my cousin is city born and bred and a vestige remains. Maybe this is what I should blame Kibaki for not the unconscious tribalism that our parents taught us but the ugly, matter of fact one that the last ten years left us with. As soon as Uhuru was confirmed as president he called on religious and spiritual leaders to help us heal the wounds that come after such an electoral process. This would be an unimaginable sentiment to have back in 2002. Democracy didn’t divide us then it united us. And this is what I blame Kibaki for more than anything else, he took a country more united and optimistic than anywhere in the world and in 5 short years he divided us to the point that we killed each other. As a child growing up in Nairobi I never had sentiments like the one my cousin expressed. So I blame my family for making her tribalist but I blame Kibaki for bringing it to the surface, for making it something obvious and expected.

And finally to my president. Number four is the affectionate nickname he wears in my mind that and K2. Congratulations. I never knew you were such a good politician, winning this election in the first round no less shows me that you are a man who knows how to get things done. I am as impressed by you today as I was on the day I watched you speak about KANU. I wish you the best of luck in your tenure as president, may it bring peace and prosperity to all of us. I read somewhere that the soul of a politician is perpetually dissatisfied, that in his own way he is a wanderer who can never be truly content, I truly hope that being president quietens your soul, that it give you a sense of peace and satisfaction.  A lot of us are happy for you right now I want you to find it in yourself to be happy too.

Here’s a toast to number four.


  1. I remember my cousin's wedding negotiation during the first referendum. Bride: Luo; Groom: Kikuyu. Fruits were served for dessert and everyone from the visiting delegation picked oranges while all the hosts all ate bananas. I was amused at the time, but you're right, the subconscious undertones are always there.

    In my house though, my little one supports Martha merely because I do. My little one is half kikuyu, so I have to deliberately teach her lessons, especially when she comes from visiting my relatives and says things like 'I don't want to talk to Wangeci (her own best friend). She's Kikuyu!'

    I have to sit her down at times like that and remind her she's half Luo half Kikuyu and that she must never scorn or reject either part of herself.

    My worry and sadness is that despite having Luo parents myself, I'm so keen on being un-tribal that I end up biased towards my own luo culture, focusing on its negative points rather than celebrating it's good ones - so much so that despite being a luo myself, I've never dated a Luo guy. Which in a way is a bad as shunning 'other tribes' based solely their surname.

    I don't mind when my relatives angrily call me a traitor for loving and child-bearing with 'one of them' because to me, he was simply the man I loved. But it does bother me that my 'neutrality' has turned me into a stereo-typist,which is bad no matter how much of an 'insider view' I claim to have.

    Lately, my little one has picked a new line that she got from her new best friend, who has a giriama mum and a kikuyu dad. "Mum, Amani is full Kikuyu and full Giriama, so me, I'm full Kikuyu and full Luo."

    It gives me hope when kids say things like that,especially mine, because I know what we've been through, so if she can come from 'I hate Wangeci' to saying stuff like that, I know she means it, and that she really does get it. And she's only 10.

    Re: tyranny of numbers, I'm Luo, and I voted Martha. I know a few people who didn't vote tribally, but clearly, we weren't that many. In the end, I think it was more about personality than tribe, because if it was merely tribe, Peter and Martha would have gotten more votes. As is, Dida got quite a following based on character alone.

    Still, we do have to admit that a lot of people did choose their tribe at the ballot, whether out of loyalty to 'their man' or fear of what 'the other guy and his people' would do to them. I think that's really sad, and I hope we'll get past that someday. I'm glad that in my house, at least it's beginning.

    PS: I take it back. Disqus (is that what it was called?) was way easier. Once I figured it out...

    1. yer but it didn't allow links which sucked because its always nice to read from someone who commented.

      on martha karua and petter keneth(these two haven't achieved first name familiarity with me yet) it may be the same reason musalia didn't get all the luhya vote because very few people were ok voting for someone they thought wouldn't win.

      another reason people vote like this, a kikuyu friend of mine told me he only ever hears bad things about raila, i only ever hear bad things about uhuru. and we remember all those bad things when we eventually go to vote. there's probably more to it than that and i can't figure it out yet, maybe residual cultural memory plays a part, maybe that's crap. but its good to know that there are children who are being raised to think differently. they are probaly our only hope. my generation seems sometimes destined to dissapoint