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Part 1: Tribalism as shorthand for political problems

The question of ethnic identities in Kenya is intricately tied up with the country's politics and influences to a greater or lesser degree the class cleavages in ways which often defy orthodox analyses from the right or the left.

But if you ask Kenyans across the political, ethnic, racial and religious divide what is the cause of major political problems in Kenya, many of them will, without hesitation, cite "tribalism" as the number one problem. Depending on who you are talking to, it will be either those "Kikuyus"and their determination to hog all political and economic power to themselves. Or it will be those "Luos" who are perennial trouble makers and stone throwers not content with accepting the status quo. If you go down to the Coast, you may hear people grumbling about those upcountry "Wabara" people who have consciously marginalized the Coastals. A good friend of mine argued in a national newspaper column a few days ago that the "small tribes" have really been left out by the dogfights between the "major tribes". And on and on it goes with outbursts against those "Indians" when it comes to looking for a convenient scapegoat to explain away our economic woes.

Quite frankly these perceptions are naïve, shallow, ahistorical and dangerous.

There is no doubt that certain elites in Kenya converge around and along narrow ethnic or even sub-ethnic agendas that are detrimental to the national good. It is true that what passes for political parties in this country are frequently nothing more than vehicles of political expediency fueled by tribal agendas and tribal constituencies. It is also a fact that political elites have hijacked the neo-colonial state to divvy out economic goodies based on a system of ethnic and regional patronage. As someone who argues from socialist positions, I am also aware of the reductionism of certain doctrinaire approaches which reduces everything in society to class, overlooking gender, racial, religious, generational and other specificities. In other words, nobody in their right mind can downplay the corrosive and debilitating effects of what some observers call “negative ethnicity” in Kenya.

When I assert that using a broad ethnic brush to explain away our national problems is naïve, shallow, dangerous and ahistorical, I am merely pleading for a sober, scientific deconstruction of ethnic identities in Kenya based on our collectively lived historical experience.


The entity we now know as Kenya is a product of the historical interaction between diverse African peoples in this particular patch of the eastern part of our great continent with the forces of world monopoly capitalism. A version of the many anecdotes about the origin of the name Kenya has it that in the mid 1840s when a couple of German missionaries were busy exploring and “discovering” Africa they ran into a bunch of locals in the Mount Kenya region. Depending on whether it a Mgikuyu or a Mkamba retelling the story, Herr Krapf (or was it his counterpart Rebmann?) pointed to the snowy peaks of our tallest mountain and inquired via their guide about the name. He was allegedly told “ Kirinyaga” or “the place where God lives”. To his Teutonic ears, the German visitor heard and contracted it to “Kenya”, leaving us stuck with a distortion which ended up being the name of the country famous for its long distance runners, stunning environment and exotic wild life.

In a sense, our national identity was built on a stencil cut out by a clueless European traveler almost two hundred years ago.

More fundamentally, the process of “becoming Kenyan” was directly connected with the imperialist incursion at the tail end of the 19th century- from the ravenous carving up of the African continent at the 1884 Berlin Conference to the annexation of our country by the British, first by the Imperial British East Africa Company in 1888 to the formal declaration of Kenya as a British Protectorate in 1895 to the promulgamation of Kenya as a British Colony in 1920.

What hitherto had been a conglomeration of diverse Kenyan peoples at various stages of socio-economic development from the autonomous semi-feudal kingdom of Wanga in the west to the Ismalized coastal city states of Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu etc and the myriad communal, largely egalitarian communities among the Mijikenda, Luo, Agikuyu, Maasai and the like were now transformed into a territorially distinct “country” where each and every one of these diverse Kenyan people were considered “British subjects” subservient to the Crown in the UK; a colony where the best land was grabbed by racist British settlers; a missionary lab where Christian ideologues attempted to wipe out all vestiges of the indigenous traditional cultures; a tea, coffee and wheat plantation dotted with vast ranches- with most of the proceeds destined for the so called “mother country”.

The British foreign domination was of course resisted by communities all over Kenya. In 1895-96 Mbaruk al Amin Mazrui led a valiant guerrilla war against the invaders along the Kenyan coast. In 1913-15, Me Katilili, an octogenarian grandmother emerged as a leader of the Giriama people in Kilifi mobilizing local peasants to resist forced labour and compulsory taxation. For her efforts she earned herself the title of Kenya’s first political prisoner- forcibly exiled hundreds of miles away from her community but heroically escaping from custody to continue her fight. Among the Dawida, Mwangeka also led and inspired an uprising. At around the same time in central Kenya Waiyaki wa Hinga was leading the charge against the British- he was later buried alive in Kibwezi. Among the Nandi, Koitalel arap Samoei was conducting a ten year armed resistance to the incursion of British imperialism, symbolized by the Kenya-Uganda Railway. Other stalwarts of these early resistance movements include women like Syotuna among the Akamba and Moraa wa Ngiti among the Gusii- not to speak of later nationalist heroes like Harry Thuku, Mary Nyanjiru, James Beuttah, Makhan Singh, Elijah Masinde, Oginga Odinga, Chege wa Kibacia, Muindi Mbingu, JD Kali, Pio da Gama Pinto, Achieng’ Oneko, Fred Kubai and others.

In the end, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, the British had the Maxim gun and we did not.

One of the immediate consequences of the brutal British take over was the question of entrenching tribal identities at the expense of more nationwide agendas. First and foremost, even the question of who were and how we called ourselves was mediated by the British colonial state. A colonial bureaucrat had in 1917 written a memo cited by Professor Al Amin Mazrui in his book on the history and identity of the Swahili peoples stressing the urgency of enforcing tribal identities as a bulwark against growing national consciousness. It is for this reason that the colonialists outlawed nationwide social and political organizations, restricting people to such outfits like the Kikuyu Central Association, the Ukambani Members Association, the Kavirondo Tax Payers Association, the Taita Hills Association and so on. This did not prevent these associations from collaborating together in a joint anti-imperialist project for national independence.

The other noxious by-product of British colonialism was the phenomenon of being "named" and identified by our oppressors. For instance upto this day in 2008 it is standard practice to talk of the "Kikuyus" even though the proper name is the Agikuyu; people refer to the “Taitas” even though they call themselves the Dawida. Fortunately slurs like “Kavirondo” for the Luos; “Suk” for the Pokot and “Kitosh” for the Bukusu have long since been abandoned. In the 1930s the colonialists robbed the Yiaku people of the Mukogodo forest in Laikipia District just north of Nanyuki of their identity by forcibly merging them with the Maasai. One of the consequences of that is that today, among the 4,000 remnants of the Yiaku, LESS THAN TEN can still remember and speak of their mother tongue and the majority are in their eighties and nineties dying out by the year. Similarly, the original indigenous hunter-gatherer communities of Kenya like the Ogieks, the Njemps and others are often arbitrarily “absorbed” into more dominant ethnic groups.

Also in the colonial period certain artificial clusters were baptized “tribes” even though it was often a convenient fiction to suit certain political agendas. An example is the appellation, “Abaluhyia” to refer to several distinct linguistic groups (Samia, Abakhayo, Marachi, Manyala, Wanyore, Ikhisa, Tiriki, Maragoli, Bukusu, Isukha, Idakho, Marama) as one tribe. The same goes with the “Kalenjin” cluster which brings together the Kipsigis, Nandi, Tugen, Keiyo, Marakwet, Pokot and other communities. One can make a similar argument that there are no such group as the Meru, but rather it has to be broken down to the Tharaka, Chuka, Tigania, Imenti and Egoji people. Until recently the Mbeere people were lumped together with the Embu. And in the 1960s, for political hegemonic reasons the larger “Meru” and “Embu” communities were cynically appended to the Agikuyu.

That is why it is bizarre to see, read and hear of violent evictions of so called “enemy tribes” in the 21st century- killed and displaced using the spurious and specious excuse of “ethnic purity”- when no such purity existed in the first place and even if it did has been thoroughly eroded through inter-marriage, urbanization and resettlements across the country.


Here is my theory about so called "Pure" Ethnic Identities in Kenya:

By and large, these are historically determined, socially constructed CONVENIENT community MYTHS.

Some years ago- 2005 to be exact- when I was still residing in the west end of Toronto, Canada, I ran into a middle aged Southern Sudanese who happened to be a Dinka. He had also lived in Kenya for over a decade and he told me his version of how the Southern Luos ended up in Kenya. He said that in Sudan they have another name for the Luos which means that this appellation came later in the history of this community.

My uncle, the veteran historian Prof. B.A. Ogot has documented in his seminal text on the Southern Luos how many Luhyia clans in Gem (Siaya District) were assimilated as Luos. And he should know- this grandson of Agina the son of Paulo Opiche and grandson of Ayieko. His grandfather is my father’s grandfather and my father told me that this polygamous ancestor of Onyango Oloo had both Luo and Luhyia wives. Ogot’s grandmother was a co-wife of my father’s paternal grandmother (who I was told by my own paternal grandmother was another Luhyia who did not speak a word of Luo. Interestingly enough my own “Luhyia” grandmother from Emanyulia- who spoke BETTER Dholuo than her sons and daughters- in law from Karachuonyo, Oyugis and Seme- startled me when she revealed to me sometime in 1972 or 1973 that her folks had actually been “Luos from Alego” who had resettled in Emanyulia near the Butere-Yala train tracks.

Quite frankly I never believed her- until over thirty years later, when a Kenyan woman born and raised in Emanyulia writing online from southern France repeated this story in a certain Kenyan cyberforum almost word for word- yes, indeed there was actually a Luhyia clan in Emanyulia who were originally Luos from Alego! She herself was quite conversant with the Luo language and had relatives from Anyiko on the outskirts of Yala Township.

When I once argued that many Kisiis are former Luos and many Luos are ex-Kisiis I was virtually slapped by tribal venom from Luo and Abagusii friends and colleagues of mine. But I was right: the Luos know it and the Kisiis know it.

It is just that our accumulated, largely mythological creation stories have encouraged us to imagine the "ethnic jirani other" as the enemy who stole our land, raped our grandmothers and placed a multi-generational pox on us.

I should have added that there are similar kinship ties among the Luos and the neighbouring Kalenjin communities. For instance, one of my sisters has a kid whose name is Samoei- even though the kid’s father is a Luo. But guess what, his grandmother is a Nandi. Back in my Luanda Dudi village in Kisa West, Khwisero, Western Province there was this old pint sized cattle-herd who never ever married. And he used to tell us that he was a Meru. Again, how far fetched that story is I am not sure.

What I am saying about Luos can be extended to the Agikuyu and the Maasai; the Akamba and Meru; the Waswahili na Mijikenda and even many Kenyans who imagine they are pure Wahindis. How many people know for instance that Kenya’s SECOND Vice President Joseph Murumbi was part Mhindi and part Maasai? How many people know that Najib Balala is part Mhindi and part Mwarabu (with probably some Mijikenda relatives somewhere down his lineage)? How many people know that John Keen’s father was of European descent? How about Kariuki Chotara? His last name is often a pejorative equivalent to the equally derogatory “Point Five” slur used to describe Kenyans of mixed race.

In my own immediate family I have cousins who have Swedish mothers; nephews who have Tanzanian fathers; in laws who are from Nanyuki. My own son has two Meru grandparents on one side- apart from the whole mchuzi mix on his father’s side.

Who knows what Kenyan communities and the attendant ethnic identities would have emerged had the British colonialists not invaded and occupied our lands?

Is it possible that over time, the Luos, the Luhyias and the Abagusii would have merged into a synthesized ethnic group called the Abagusiluohyias? Think of the stranglehold they would have on the Soccer Championships!

Could we be talking about the Maagikumerumbians?

Or the Akamboranas?

Or perhaps the Turkopokotomarkweiyo?

How about the Gujarasomalis or the Arabogiriamas?

The possibilities are just endless.

What happened in Kenya instead is the REALITY of historical colonial oppression.

About thirteen years ago I read a book called The Swahili: Idiom and Identity of an African People by author/activist/scholar Alamin Mazrui and Ibrahim Noor Shariff. Somewhere in the pages of that book I recall a passage about a 1917 letter from some colonial DC instructing other functionaries to do everything they can to foster tribal identities among the Kenyan nationalities as a way of thwarting the growth of a collective national consciousness.

This is one of the reasons why the first nationalist organizations had names like the Kikuyu Central Association, the Taita Hills Association; the Kavirondo Tax Payers Association, the Ukambani Members Association and so on and so forth. It is not that Kenyans back then were so tribal that they could only form “tribal bodies” - on the contrary - they wanted to form nationwide patriotic formations but this was considered a grave threat to the colonial status quo.

For evidence, you will find out that all these organizations collaborated and worked together and had a common anti-imperialist objective of fighting for Kenyan independence. As early as 1923 Kenyans of Indian descent defied the attempt to segregate them from their African brothers and sisters by leading the fight which led to the defeat of the White Paper which wanted to transform Kenya into an apartheid state like South Africa or the former Rhodesia.

When we pick up this multi-ethnic patriotic thread in 1990 when Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia and to a certain extent the Reverend Timothy Njoya went public with their agitation for multiparty democracy we should not forget the very important 1981 to 1990 chunk of underground anti-imperialist organizing featuring patriotic and again multi-ethnic formations like Second of March Movement, Cheche Kenya, the December Twelve Movement, the Kenya Anti-Imperialist Front, Harakati ya Kupambania Demokrasia Kenya, Upande Mwingine, the Kenya Socialist Alliance, Chama Cha Ukombozi, the Kenya National Front, the Kenya Revolutionary Movement, Ukenya, Umoja, Mwakenya, the Me Katilili Revolutionary Movement, the Kenya Patriotic Front, the Muungano wa Kupambania Demokrasia Kenya, the Organization for Democracy in Kenya, UWAKE, the Februray 18th Movement and many others that have slipped my mind.

As a rule all of the above formations were multiethnic, multiracial NATIONAL progressive and patriotic formations something that can be gauged by some of the insiders and foot soldiers- Ngugi wa Thiongo, Koigi wa Wamwere, Willy Mutunga, Alamin Mazrui, Abdilatif Abdalla, Shadrack Gutto, Micere Mugo, Edward Oyugi, John Munuve, Rubiik, Odindo Opiata, Adanje, Shadrack Mwarigha, Kathini Maloba, Maina wa Kinyatti, Ngugi wa Mirii, Kaara wa Macharia, Omondi K'Abir, Njuguna Mutahi, Wahu Kaara, Wang'ondu wa Kariuki, Mwandawiro Mghangha, Wafula Buke, John Odongo, Zarina Patel, Shiraz Durrani, Sultan Somji, Irung'u Houghton, Njeri Kabeberi, Jembe Mwakalu, Oduor Ongwen, Odenda Lumumba, the Mungai Brothers, Tirop arap Kitur, Onyango Oloo, Adongo Ogony, Kishushe Mzirai, Mwangi wa Githinji, Chitechi Osundwa, Karimi Nduthu, Yusuf Hassan, the late Mwakdua wa Mwachofi, and a whole bunch of other people some of whom are alive and some who have passed away.

Ironically, some of the "Young Turks" veterans were much, much older than the patriotic comrades that I have name-checked in the preceding paragraph. But again, you see them continuing the very same multi-ethnic NON-TRIBAL national tradition of political mobilization- FORD’s founders like the late Jaramogi and the late Mzee Muliro and Martin Shikuku, Jaduong’ George Nthenge, Kenneth Matiba and Shahib Bamhariz liaised with younger firebrands like Wamalwa Kijana, Raila Odinga, Paul Muite, Gitobu Imanyara, Anyang Nyongo, James Orengo, Murtaza Jaffer, Kiraitu Murungi and other patriots to create the massive opposition that would have surely toppled Moi in 1992-were it not for the artificially created schisms imported from without.

The period between 1992 and 1997 again exhibited yet another multi-ethnic phase of popular mobilization with the likes of Dr. Willy Mutunga, Njeri Kabeberi, Kivutha Kibwana, Timothy Njoya and Davinder Lamba forging the NCEC into the most militant and progressive political machine agitating for democratic reforms and constitutional change.

The period between 1998 and 2002 we saw the faith communities led by stalwarts like Ndingi Mwana Nzeki, David Gitari, Timothy Njoya and Reverend Mutava Musyimi picking up the thread from fiery clerics of an earlier era like Bishop Alexander Kipsang Muge and Henry Okullu to lead the fight for democratic reforms.

And of course we see the Unbwogable Eruption of 2002 leading to this massive anti-KANU pan Kenyan coalition umbrella group bringing together Charity Ngilu, Mwai Kibaki, Anyang Nyongo, Wamalwa Kijana, Raila Odinga, Najib Balala, Kipruto Kirwa, Mukhisa Kituyi, Kivutha Kibwana etc to confront and defeat the Moi-KANU dictatorship. Again we see that Kenyans coming together as Kenyans- not as Luos, Gikuyus, Kalenjins etc.

In summary, my argument in this section is that contrary to mainstream clichés, Kenyan politics has NOT always been dominated by narrow ethnicity as the driving force.

[To be continued]

* Onyango Oloo is Secretary General Social Democratic Party of Kenya Nairobi. This paper was delivered at the Goethe Institute, Nairobi on June 18, 2008. Be sure to look for Parts II and III in the next two issues of Pambazuka News.

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