Did Somebody Say “Tribal Clashes”?

Just before New Year’s, I attended a garden wedding in the Nairobi suburbs, where the maid of honor, who flew in from California for the event, greeted the guests in Kamba, Luo, and English. By the following Tuesday, I was glued to CNN International back home in New York City, watching with horror news footage which showed the smouldering ruins of a church in Eldoret, a sanctuary to which members of one ethnic group had fled, in vain, to escape retaliation from another tribe.

Which is the real Kenya? The cosmopolitan, multicultural society in which marriages between people from different backgrounds and regions are wholly unremarkable? Or the nation rent by “tribal clashes,” whose ethnic violence has been broadcast around the world since last Sunday’s rigged election?

To answer this question, outsiders must pay greater attention than they have yet to a key factor in the unfolding crisis: Kenyan politics. Politics in Kenya is almost the national pastime. Everyone, young and old, has an opinion to share. Everyone who can reads at least two newspapers a day, and can recount the detailed background behind political headlines that stump the casual browser.

Most Kenyans will tell you that their politicians are corrupt. But at least until this last week, they would do so with the rueful relish of Americans who tell you their pop idols are strung out (again). And Kenyans follow their politicians’ every move with the attention Americans reserve for celebrities, even giving them affectionate nicknames (Raila Odinga is “hummer”; Kalonzo Musyoka is “wiper”). When a new tabloid hit newsstands this past year, it was quickly forced to back down from its pledge to feature only idle gossip and lifestyle concerns. Consumers weren’t buying it, and so politics soon entered its headlines, along with everyone else’s.

A major topic in this national conversation over corrupt politics and how to improve them has been the so-called “tribal violence” and “land clashes” that have bedeviled certain regions of the country, particularly in the Rift Valley province. Many Kenyans are of the firm opinion that such clashes are stoked by politicians—not only presidential candidates, but also parliamentarians looking to consolidate their vote. While Kenya’s cities and towns are usually ethnically diverse, the countryside tends to be less so. And grudges over land—most of which go back not into the mists of time, but originate rather in land grabs that have occurred since independence in 1963—can quickly be stoked to a blazing flame, particularly when “tribal warriors” of dubious provenance appear on the horizon, striking terror into wananchi (everyday people) who then, as has happened on a large scale this week, flee for their lives. An ugly criminal gang named Mungiki, Kenya’s answer to Haiti’s Tonton Macoutes, has triggered further chaos in Nairobi slums, and is reportedly poised to infiltrate the western provinces as well.

How does ethnicity factor into Kenyan politics? Beyond the English and Kiswahili-speaking elites, it certainly is the form of politics. How and when politicians address audiences in their native tongues is a constant preoccupation for Kenyans, who have gone so far as to require that all leaders speak Kiswahili, the only language Kenyans consider to have transcended the nation’s ethnic distinctions. The hardened political identities that the scholar Paul Gilroy has described as “encamped” can emerge in periods of stress, and as the worst crisis since the 1982 coup has unfolded, Kenya has indeed seen those hardened identities unleashed. But most Kenyans recognize and reject tribalism wherever they see it. Ironically, the big push to unseat President Kibaki was largely motivated by this very rejection of tribalism; during his five years of power, he has favored a tight clique of drinking buddies from the same few villages near Mount Kenya. And amidst the horror there are signs of promise, like the NGO Common Hope for Health, which is delivering aid across tribal lines and defusing tensions between rival youth gangs in the west. The vast majority of Kenyans still long for peace and a shared homeland.

Ethnicity is the form of Kenyan politics, but the content is the same as everywhere else: money, power, land, influence, and, increasingly these days, democracy. Opinion was divided over the wisdom of the opposition protest rally called for last week in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. But a fear that Kenyans could not conduct open, democratic politics in a multicultural context did not stop all the major presidential candidates from holding rallies and political events in the lead-up to the largely peaceful and orderly election last Thursday. Kenya is not Rwanda, and reports of a “majority” and “minority” tribe engaged in a struggle to the death are widely off the mark. In reality, all of Kenya’s leaders know that in order to govern the country they must put together a coalition of interest groups from many regions. It is even written into the constitution that any successful candidate for president must poll at least 25% of the vote from a majority of Kenya’s provinces.

Kenya is both the pan-tribal wedding in Nairobi and the horrific slayings in Eldoret, Kisumu, and beyond. Although Kenyans have taken pride in our country as a regional beacon of stability and freedom, we are awakening to uncomfortable truth about ourselves. The sooner the people and the politicians alike demand an end to the slaughter, the more likely democracy, and not autocracy or civil war, will remain our future.

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