The (new) tribe has spoken

NAIROBI Kenya is falling apart in a very organized way. Yet another week of violence here has nonetheless seen the emergence of a whole new chapter…

NAIROBI

Kenya is falling apart in a very organized way.

Yet another week of violence here has nonetheless seen the emergence of a whole new chapter to the chaos.

The clashes erupting in several parts of Kenya are no longer anarchical, knee-jerk reactions to the flawed election results of a month ago, but are instead by design.

Kenya is now disintegrating into ethnic “homelands.”

“Exactly,” said Nga’nga, when I made this observation a few nights ago. He had just returned to Nairobi after staring down armed raiders at his mother’s home in the Rift Valley, scene of the worst ethnic clashes.

“There is no country called Kenya anymore.”

Nga’nga is a smart, peaceful man. He had filled empty water bottles with gasoline and taken them to the outskirts of Nakuru, where members of the Kalenjin were attacking his family and other members of the Kikuyu.

But he never lit them.

His family decided to flee their rural home and brick-making company and move into his house in Nairobi. Their Kalenjin attackers, who were formerly their employees, have now taken their entire property.

This is what the Kalenjin want. They consider much of the Rift Valley “theirs,” no matter what a title deed says. Similar ideas of such borders are now seeing hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu, the most spread-out ethnic group in Kenya, pushed away from where they were living towards the country’s central plains.

That’s where they’re “from.”

Now, to understand how a country composed of ethnic groups that were mostly nomadic before the appearance of Europeans, starting about 125 years ago, can be sketching out rigid inter-state borders, you have to understand a word used and abused in Africa: tribe.

It’s key to grasping Kenya’s current chaos but perhaps not for the reasons you might think. The word itself feels ancient, even brutal.

Add an “ism” to it and for many it means a regression to barbarity.

But the tribe in Kenya is a modern creation. What existed before it were groupings of families sharing linguistic and cultural traits.

Today, we would probably call them clans.

There are more than 40 tribes in Kenya, but hundreds, if not thousands, of distinct language dialects and clans.

These languages are sourced from Bantu and Nilotic origins. The former people are believed to have originated in modern-day Nigeria; the latter from along the Nile River. It’s no big secret: Kenyans aren’t really from Kenya.

Clans interacted with other clans in the past here. Sometimes they fought one another, but never as tribes.

Tribes were created only when the British formed a state here in the late 1800s. The key change was land. Title deeds were created as a way to forcing cash to be used in what was once a barter economy.

But fear not, guilt-ridden reader, for it wasn’t until the colonials packed up their frilly hats and copies of Charles Dickens and left, following Kenya’s independence in 1963, that tribalism really got going.

Reflecting the power structures of traditional African societies, government in Kenya — and much of the continent — is a system of patronage first and a democracy a distant second.

Nothing happens without the rubber stamp of the all-powerful bureaucracy or a lucrative government contract.

Secret connections to political power aren’t dirty business; they’re essential. Red tape isn’t merely thick; it’s impassable without help from the inside.

While this is often referred to as corruption (and yes, it’s insanely corrupt) it’s also more developed and organized than it sounds.

The top-down system works quite well for a few of the tribes — the Kikuyus, of which president Mwai Kibaki is a member, or the Luos, of which opposition leader Raila Odinga is a part of.

But for the majority of Kenya’s 40-something tribes left outside this favoured group, government is nothing more than a pariah state.

People quickly realized winners and losers were cut along tribal lines in independent Kenya. Ethnicity became inseparable from politics, and politics was about little more than land and money.

Indeed, the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s that led to Kenyan independence wasn’t a fight for native rule but rather a fight by the Kikuyus to reclaim land from greedy colonials.

For many of the marginalized tribes, Kenya has sort of happened around them. It has never been a country they actually wanted.

And it has become, for many, the main source of grief.

None of this flared up during the past because there was a dictator at the helm.

Former president Daniel arap Moi ruled Kenya for 24 years as an autocrat.

Democratic space was something like the distance between your fingernails and your finger.

In 2002 the country united, that is, the tribes united, to kick Moi out.

So it was this time around, with democratic space opening up, that Kenya started the tribal fight that has been bitterly festering for decades.

It’s a state of affairs that isn’t tribal in the pejorative “ouga-bouga” sense, but tribal as a result of a lack of access to a better life.

A state can’t really be called real anymore if people can’t move around freely within it.

Without that freedom, ethnically pure ghettos emerge and the idea of a nation above them becomes meaningless.

It has happened in countless other failed and broken states. Now it’s happening in Kenya.

Tim Querengesser is a former Yukon News reporter now writing in Kenya.

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