Better a Kikuyu than a Luo

On Sunday after church, I met a Kenyan Quaker who shares both my name and my age. We also share similar tastes in beer and music. However, despite our similarities, one possession remains exclusively his: memories from Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007 and 2008.

Eric was living in the slums of Nairobi at the time, which saw some of the worst clashes that eventually claimed an estimated 1,300 lives. Although Eric’s account of having been witness to rape and murder was disturbing, more disturbing still was the calm, matter-of-fact tone with which he recounted those chaotic weeks, including the death of one of his close friends.

How is it that this hopeful nation of pious Christians and Muslims, which leads the region in education and development, could have descended into a state of chaos that saw scores killed, an untold number raped and beaten, and an estimated 650,000 people displaced and sent into hiding? Unlike Rwanda and Burundi, where the presence of two, distinctive tribes fomented mutual distrust and climaxed in bloody conflict, Kenya possess no less than forty-two tribes which are physically indistinguishable from one-another. Under such conditions, how can wanton violence arise?

The answer is that the violence had both everything and nothing to do with tribalism. Based on what I’ve read and heard in the last three weeks, I will try to provide my version of the narrative:

When the British colonized Kenya, they employed what was by then a typical strategy of ‘divide and conquer.’ Individual Kenyans–who belonged to disparate and fluid sub-tribes whose particularities were ignored–were organized into immutable ethnic units on the basis of common language and moved into territories whose boundaries Britain had literally drawn in the sand. Although Kenyans had not previously adhered to the concept of strict land ownership, this arbitrary redistribution of territories (which rewarded the most cooperative tribes with the largest and most fertile ‘grants,’ and punished the tribes that actually resisted British rule) nevertheless saddled Kenya with strong intertribal animosities that still simmer today. Violent skirmishes over land boundaries remain a regular occurrence – but it must be stressed that land, rather than tribe, is the real issue behind those clashes.

The British also chose to groom two tribes, the Kikuyu and an elite cadre among the Luo, to be their proxy rulers. Those two groups therefore share a grossly disproportionate amount of wealth, power, education and opportunity as compared to all other Kenyans, and the result is a class divide that masquerades as a tribal one. The Kikuyu in particular, who constitute the largest, richest and most powerful tribe in Kenya, are the target of many negative stereotypes resulting from their envied position. It is the Kikuyu, I have been told, whose wives beat their husbands, and who raise homosexual children, and who are lovers of money.

But how do these tribal identities, which were reinforced and made to oppose one-another through colonial manipulation, play out in the elections? David Zarembka, the lead coordinator of my NGO and a hero of mine, explains:

“This is how tribalism is used by politicians for their own benefit. First, the politician proclaims that he or she is the leader of his or her tribe. In order to get their fair share of government resources, the tribe must support their leader. If it does not, then other tribes which do support their leader will get the resources and the tribe that does not will be left destitute. If the leader is convincing enough and get[s] 90% or more of this tribal vote, he will be [the] indisputable leader of the tribe. With this, he or she will negotiate a position in the government [by pledging his or her tribe’s votes to a political coalition]. In the end, the ‘tribal’ leader has hoodwinked his tribe because the benefits will accrue to him or her and his or her families and closest supporters. The average citizen will see little benefit. When that leader is accused of corruption or misuse of office, he or she will wave the tribal flag so that his or her tribesmen will unite behind him or her, stating that this is a political ploy to destroy the tribe. For reasons that I can not understand, this works. Regardless of the fact that few benefits trickle down to the average tribal citizen; that the tribal leaders’ family and cronies become exceedingly wealthy; that this tribal politics destroys the unity of the country; and that conflict rather than a working together to improve the whole nation results, this unjust system continues” (A Peace of Africa, 199-200).

And, when in 2007 Kenya’s current president Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, blatantly stole the election, tribal machinations were blamed as the root cause of democracy’s despoilment. The resulting feelings of confusion, betrayal and rage, supercharged by and understood through Kenya’s tribal framework, unfortunately had no other recourse but to be catalyzed into violence, which “was frequently enhanced by the concept, ‘You are trying to kill me, so I will kill you first.’ Of course, the other side thinks the same thing so preemptive violence occurs” (222), and hence the scenes of utter chaos that Eric witnessed. All of that being said, it is a fortune beyond fortunes that most of the post-election damage occurred to property rather than people, and that the death toll did not approach even 1% of the figure from Rwanda’s tribal conflagration.

Additionally, hope exists. There’s good reason to believe that the 2013 elections will proceed much more smoothly than the 2007 ones. The area where I’m staying, Kakamega, which is overwhelmingly Luya, is evenly split between Mudavadi, a Luya, and Odinga, a Luo, which seems to indicate that voters are moving beyond their basic tribal loyalties. Indeed, even a large number of Kikuyus support Odinga, despite the availability of Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, as a candidate (although it could also be a factor that Kenyatta is currently being tried by the International Criminal Court!). On the flip side, however, the Luo continue to support their candidate exclusively, which suggests to me that the transformation toward true democracy is slow and by no means ubiquitous. It’s worth noting that when I asked my host to confirm that the Luo are ninety-nine percent in favor of Odinga, he corrected me: “point nine.”

As always, the Bible contains great precedents that, if promulgated and understood, could do much to help. Colossians 3:11 tells us that “there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” This same sentiment is echoed in 1 Corinthians 12:13: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body–whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free–and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” If Kenyans, and indeed the world at large, were to implement this lesson of radical egalitarianism, there would be no tribalism, classism, chauvinism or any negative -ism imaginable.

But we live in a fallen world, and any improvements that Christianity can offer must occur incrementally. To that end, my organization and I held a two-day workshop this week, during which we introduced approximately twenty representatives of Kenyan Quaker meetings to a program entitled Turning the Tide (TtT). The purpose of the program, which was introduced by British Quakers as a response to the 2007-8 post-election violence, is to provide Kenyan activists with tools and methods of thought that can be used to analyze social issues, break them down into manageable sub-issues, identify potential allies, and finally campaign to fix said issues. The program was well-received, and I am hopeful that the grassroots efforts that TtT empowers will have a real effect on creating an engaged, informed and effective electorate in Kenya–one that is powerful enough to resist the ideological and political manipulations of Kenya’s cruel power-brokers.

I was also very pleased that a portion of the TtT program was dedicated to the examination of Romans 12:17-8, where Paul exhorts Christians to “live at peace with everyone” and to “not repay anyone evil for evil.” Another noteworthy lesson centered around an interesting interpretation of Matthew 5:38-41, where Jesus’ instruction to turn the left cheek in fact is a form of nonviolent resistance, insofar as Biblical Israelites slapped people with the back of their right hand, and thus slapping the left cheek would require a difficult contortion of the arm. Also, it was claimed that Roman officials were only allowed to compel subjects to carry their luggage for a distance of one mile, and thus Jesus’ instruction to go a second mile was actually intended to get those Roman officials in trouble with their superiors. Finally, the injunction to give a prosecutor one’s shirt also when taken to court for one’s coat was again interpreted to be a form of nonviolent resistance, insofar as doing so shames the prosecution for being so cruel, and would probably result in the prosecutor giving up the case out of embarrassment. Although I find the historical validity of these claims dubious, I nevertheless was pleased to see the Scriptures used as a justification for nonviolent resistance to the corrupt misuse of power.

After the workshop, as I warmed myself around a campfire with a dozen Quaker men, a heated political discussion erupted between them. Thankfully they were speaking in English, and I was able to follow along in its entirety. The energy, conviction and optimism that characterized their discourse was entirely unlike the apathy, cynicism and manufactured platitudes that typify American political debate, and even more surprising was the humor and lack of ill will that was present even during their fiercest moments of dissension. In the United States, as any American reader knows, the subject of politics is usually avoided precisely because Americans cannot remain civil when they disagree.

Early on in the discussion, I was relieved to hear all of the men affirm the notion that votes should be cast based on platform rather than tribal interest. Yet, toward the end of the discussion, that sentiment vanished when someone polled for everyone’s opinion regarding a hypothetical runoff between Kenyatta and Odinga, and someone immediately quipped “better a Kikuyu than a Luo.” To my surprise, the rest of the men quickly and quietly indicated their agreement. Clearly, the tribal specter is by no means defeated.

It may take generations, but slowly and surely tribalism is receding in this county. May God, assisted by the grassroots efforts of the African Great Lakes Initiative, speed its timely departure.