A few months ago, I planned a group interview with residents of certain parts of Nairobi. When I got to the venue of our meeting, I asked the guard to allow me in for the meeting. To my surprise, her response was, “unaenda ile mkutano ya waluhya?” Quite irritated with the question, I informed her that I didn’t know the ethnic identities of the people that I was meeting.
Shortly after that incident, I attended a meeting in a different community in Nairobi. In this meeting, no one seemed to know the name of any of the people they were discussing, and the descriptions ranged from the “Kikuyu mama”, “Mkamba shopkeeper” to the “Mkisii policeman” and the “Kalenjin watchman” among other ethnic related identities.
Using ethnicities as a primary identity seems pervasive, not only in Nairobi, but other parts of the country as well. Late last year for instance, I was conducting research in Turkana County, and I had this wonderful taxi driver who picked me up from the airport, took me everywhere I wanted to go, and was extremely helpful to say the least. On the last day of my stay, as he was driving me to the airport, he asked the common question, “na nikuulize, kwenyu ni wapi?” I told him that I am from Nairobi, since that is where I was born, raised and live.
As is common with many other Kenyan conversations, he wanted to know where my “real home” was. I knew that he wanted to know my tribe, so I told him where I came from just to see where he was going with this.
When I told him where I came from, he almost jumped up to hug me. I had never seen him this excited the entire time I was with him in Turkana. Seeing how excited he was, I asked him “kwani huko ni ushago kwenyu, ama unajua mtu huko?” He wasn’t from the place, and didn’t know anyone from the place, but he was my tribesman, and judging from his response that must have been the most important thing he got to know about me.
I think about these incidents, and I get the sense that we are losing it as a country, given the significance and primacy that is increasingly being pegged to ethnic identities. The number of times that people ask me where I am from, so that they can know my tribe is all too common. Some will go ahead and ask whether my surname belongs to my father or my husband. Perhaps because to them, my physical identity does not match that of the community that they associate my surname with.
A surname unfortunately is now used to judge political standing, and in some cases economic and social standing, as we saw with a recent tweet by a well-known political analyst. We elect “our own”, and are satisfied with the simple idea of having “our people” occupy top positions in government, never mind that that they often do not represent us or our interests, often looting public resources for themselves and the few people surrounding them. As citizens we are often left bearing the brunt of the self-interested leadership of “our people”.
We seem to be sinking lower into the morass of tribalism by the day. The recent incident of a man by the name Mugo wa Wairimu, raping women while masquerading as a gynaecologist, demonstrates how low we have sunk as a society due to tribalism.
When I visited Mugo wa Wairimu’s Facebook page following the scandal, I was shocked to see how much support he had from his tribesmen, who purported that this was a political and tribal scheme by the opposing political and tribal camp. His supporters alleged that this was an agenda to “destroy” their man, and encouraged him to be strong, knowing that the plan of the “evil one” would not prevail.
God was on his side, according to his supporters, who continued to encourage him with examples of men that had suffered tribulation, but emerged stronger and victorious.
Not too long before that, an audio clip of a woman who was being raped went viral in Nairobi. This time it was by a man by the name Morris, but given the name Mollis, as the woman he was raping could not pronounce his name correctly due to mother tongue influence. Using her accent to determine her community, jokes went round that this was evidence of the lack of sexual prowess by the women of her community, as the stereotype goes.
Tribalism seems to be eroding our humanity, intelligence and sense of justice. Value for humanity, pursuit for democracy and justice have been replaced and blurred by tribalism, to the extent that as a society we no longer care how much we suffer or who suffers, the perpetrator will be supported by those they share an ethnic identity with.
It’s a sad state of affairs, and only time will tell how long we can continue this way, and where this will lead us. What I know for sure is that this is not a healthy state for any nation to be, and as with all diseases, the longer it goes untreated, the more devastating and tragic the final outcome.