Another -ism for your vocabulary

You’ve heard abouth racism, anti-Semitism and sexism – but have you heard of tribalism?

Kenyans divide their population into at least 42 different tribes. Inter-tribal marriages are common, and one’s own tribal membership is usually indicated by that of one’s father. According to a book I read, asking a Kenyan directly which tribe, or ethnicity, they are from can be a faux pas, comparable to asking a loose acquaintance whether they’re gay or straight – while it might be of interest to you, it’s inappropriate to ask. So I have never done it. Nevertheless, I found out most of my friends’ ethnic backgrounds sooner or later.

My young co-workers and friends speak quite openly about their ethnicities, about the stereotypes and the jokes that are based on them. They seem to have easygoing, open attitudes towards their descent and that of others. On the other hand, they have some horrible stories to tell.

Like about the post-election violence of 2007/2008. According to The Guardian: “More than 1,100 people were killed, thousands injured and more than 600,000 forced to flee their homes after disputed poll results led to clashes between ruling party and opposition supporters between December 2007 and February 2008.” Neighbours who had lived together peacefully and greeted each other every day, whose children had grown up together, turned on each other because their tribes were on opposing sides of the struggle.

Tribalism in modern Kenya is for the most part a heritage of colonialism. The British rulers divided the very heterogenous society into tribes, sometimes by just combining groups that seemed similar enough to them. They pitted the tribes against each other, favoring some while oppressing others, to stabilize their own grasp on power. Before the British had taken over, the two largest ethnicities that would later oppose each other had lived quite separately from one another, rarely ever coming into contact.

As would be expected, the tribal order has quite an impact on Kenyan politics. For most of Kenya’s history as an independent state, the people with most political influence were Kikuyus. The Kikuyu are the largest ethnicity with about 17 percent of the population, and they are seen by many as colonialism’s fiercest opponents. During the 1950s, they were the protagonists in a guerilla war against the British, the so-called the Mau Mau uprising. Since Kenya’s independence, three out of four presidents belonged to the Kikuyu tribe.

Another tribe you may have heard of are the Luo, who make up around 11 percent of all Kenyans. You may know them as the ethnicity of a certain Barack Hussein Obama, father of the US president of the same name.

One of the most famous tribes, if only for their historical reputation of being fierce warriors, is that of the Maasai. Today, they make up about two percent of Kenya’s population. They are traditionally pastoralists and live off their livestock on a diet of meat, milk and blood.

These are only some examples of Kenya’s many ethnicities. There are Luhya, Kisii, Kalenjin, Swahili, Meru, Turkana, the list goes on and on. I don’t mean to (and just simply cannot) give a representative overview, but rather want to give readers from other parts of the world a feeling for what a ‘tribe’ actually is.

One last remark: While tribalism is certainly a thing, as a foreigner I have not really been confronted with it. In my everyday life, the tribal affiliation of the people I am interacting with does not matter at all. Apart from the occasional political discussion, in which people’s ethnicities usually decide on who’s side they are.

Not having to be confronted with discrimination is always a sign of belonging to a privileged group. I certainly do feel privileged, and hardly a day goes by when I don’t realize it. Hopefully, I am making the best of it.



One thought on “Another -ism for your vocabulary

  1. You write quite well my friend with a balance of being informative as well as being sensitive even to such a tough topic. For the most part though, tribalism is a class problem in Kenya. Often used by politicians to gain power and patronage. Kibaki had a golden opportunity to slay it but his cronies would have none of it. If you were to ask me what are the two biggest challenges of the Kenyan state, i would say Tribalism then Corruption!


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