Friday, February 15, 2008


“Kenya born, Kenya bred, strong in the arm, and thick in the head”, goes the rhyme about the Kenya ‘cowboys’, the bazungu. Jokes about Kikuyu revolve around money, and Luo about vanity and brains.

Stereotypes amuse, and are always unfair, but Kenyans enjoy them, or used to; they’re part of Kenyan life. Nairobi must be one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Africa; people from a wide variety of backgrounds live side by side. The country has opened its arms to thousands of refugees and visitors, and countless tourists make annual visits.

Kenyans, and not only the educated ones, have been marrying across ethnic divides for generations. Masai took Kikuyu wives; Luo and Luhya will fight on the soccer pitch and after the match, but have no problem inter-marrying; it’s said that many Kisii men prefer to marry outside the group; a few Asians and Whites too have married Kenyans.

Kikuyu and Luo marriages are not at all uncommon, especially among the younger generation. Among educated people “inter-marriage” is no big deal. Town kids grow up hardly aware of which ethnic group they belong to; even when they find out it doesn’t matter much.

So, what has been happening in Kenya in the past days is not easy to understand, apart from the land issue. Now it has become much more than that. It is all-out killing of the “perceived enemy”.

Gangs have taken over parts of Nakuru and the area near Naivasha. Road-blocks, sometimes manned by hundreds of rowdy, machete-wielding youth, screen passengers and let them pass, or beat or kill them on the spot. The police, meanwhile, have looked on helplessly.

What started out as driving away “the others” because they “occupied” our land has now turned into something much more sinister: orchestrated vengeance killings, which can go on for ages, often using the most brutal methods.
Kenya’s ethnic groups are very different among themselves. The British noticed this, and used some for administration, trained others as teachers, and placed the ones good at fighting in the police and the armed forces. This is Kenya’s strongest point: the rich kaleidoscope of its peoples.

The Kikuyu, Kisii and Kamba, good at business, trading and farming; the Kalenjin, hardy men who can conceal their emotions, perfect soldiers –and athletes, as it happened; Luo, excellent debaters and academics; Luhya, with their winsome “people skills”; the Coast peoples, warm and easy-going. The perfect combination.

So, what has gone wrong? In the run-up to previous elections, militias were training in forest areas in the Rift Valley; property was burned, hundreds of families camped in church compounds, people were murdered.

At the Coast, in 1997, politicians set local troublemakers against people from up-country, and tourism went into the doldrums for a few years, and was now picking up nicely.

But there has never been anything on this scale; some areas of the country have become civil war zones, with families fleeing with whatever belongings they can salvage, and these are the lucky ones.

Can Kenyans go back to their quiet, but generally good-natured relationships of old? During the Jomo Kenyatta years and the early years of Daniel arap Moi, all high schools accepted students from all corners of the republic, and were considered “national schools”.

However, schools in areas favoured by the previous regime –Central and Nairobi- had been recording the best national results. This called for “affirmative action”, and provincial schools henceforth had to admit 85% of students from their areas; and this requirement remains until today. This has meant less student mobility, and less cultural interchange.

Boarding schools are the norm in Kenya, and many a conversation in the mess, dormitory, changing rooms or just waiting for a teacher to appear, ended up discussing ethnic and cultural differences and peculiarities; and so many prejudices and myths, picked up during one’s formative years, were laid to rest. Many of those cross-ethnic friendships, which continued to university and the professional world, have remained to this day.

This is not the short-term solution. The quick solution may be nothing short of a presidential resignation and re-run, or the intervention of the military, if the present Kofi Annan-brokered negotiations fail. But long-term the return to the “national school” system will certainly help.

A Kikuyu married to a Luo- When his mother died, his father, instead of marrying again, adopted two Rwandese children, orphaned in the 1994 genocide. This is the kind of Africa we can hope to see in future: A one people- no tribe, all God’s children, and we can carry on with our jokes about ethnic stereotypes, as before.

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