By Peter Kimeu
Before the 2007 Kenyan elections we joked about politics amongst colleagues and neighbors in this most famous of East African nations. After the elections we could no longer look each other in the eyes. Our beloved Kenya had fractured along tribal lines leaving more than 600,000 displaced and an additional 1,100 dead.
People whom I considered friends stopped seeing me as Peter Kimeu; they began ascribing to me every negative stereotype they’d ever heard about my tribe. It was dehumanizing and terrifying. How could things change so quickly? How could a matter of days make such a marked difference in the way Kenyans interacted with one another?
Those months are a scar on our history. We were forced to watch as our country, once regarded as a peace-loving nation, smoldered in the flames of politically-induced hatred. We were left wondering what we stood for as a nation and who we were as a people. Five years later, as Kenyans once again take to the polls, these are questions we are still in the process of answering.
While it is easy to blame these events on pure tribalism, what unfolded went far beyond tribal infighting. There were very palpable political machinations at play. Widespread poverty, lack of infrastructure and a disproportionate distribution of resources are underlying issues that can be used as a source of manipulation that pits parties against each other and perpetuates a winner-take-all mentality.
There are people in Kenya who survive on one meal a day — if they’re lucky. As little as 500 shillings about $6 is enough to get a person to turn against his or her neighbor. Politicians use hot button issues such as land distribution or scarcity of resources to flare up emotions. The flag of tribe is waved to drum up allegiance. People fall in step with the idea that their people will be rewarded if the candidate from their tribe wins. It is nothing more than political thuggery and Kenyan citizens are the victims.
Most of all, as Kenyans we ask how we allowed ourselves to be manipulated by the politics of identity? How did we play these roles in the devastation of our nation? I, for one, began by asking when was it that the seed of tribe was planted in my mind that grew into a wall separating me from others? In my case it was when I was a young boy and I was instructed by my elders to hold my bow and arrow tight when the Masai crossed the railway into our territory to steal our cows. On those days we were told a cry would resonate through our mountain warning of intruders. At a very young age we were taught that the “other” was the enemy and that we had an obligation to defend “our people.”
Kenya, however, is not the same Kenya of my childhood. I grew up in Machakos in a part of Kenya only inhabited by the Kamba people. We divided ourselves not by tribe but by clan – our extended family — and we each knew our place within our society. Over the past 40 years Kenya has been transformed by globalization and migration. Kenya’s 42 tribes have come together and been mixed through marriage and association.
My children grew up studying alongside friends from Kenya’s diverse ethnic groups. Unlike me, who was chased away by a machete wielding future mother-in-law for being a Kamba who dared to court her Kikuyu daughter, my children have married across ethnic lines. Eventually my mother-in-law and I became the best of friends, but overcoming the hurdle of ethnic stereotyping initially tore both our families apart.
Recently my daughter married a Masai man in the same village we once patrolled with bows and arrows. Before the marriage festivities began I cried the same call to arms we were taught as children, “The Masai are crossing the railway.” Villagers poured from the hillsides not in a spirit of combat but in one of celebration. It was not only a marriage between two people, it was a marriage of two tribes and we all rejoiced for it.
This Kenya of cultural acceptance and celebration, is the Kenya of our future if whoever assumes the presidency allows Kenyans to embrace as one the 42 tribes that co-exist within our borders. Key in making this happen is creating a government that is truly representative of Kenyan diversity. Appointments can no longer be made based on nepotism and tribal allegiance. Infrastructure development and resources need to be equitably distributed throughout Kenya’s 47 newly-formed counties.
If we are to move forward we must do so as one Kenyan nation serving one Kenyan people. Tribe in and of itself is not a bad thing. Each of Kenya’s tribes should be celebrated as a source of rich cultural traditions which enrich our nation. What is a bad thing is the manipulation of ethnic identity for political gain. That is the root of much of our conflict. As Kenyans we must continue to ask ourselves what role we play in that manipulation and what each of us can do to help forge one cohesive and inclusive identity for all Kenyans.
Peter Kimeu is a senior technical advisor for Catholic Relief Services in Nairobi, Kenya