The clash of Kenya’s identities

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Mar 2nd, 2012

Ngunjiri Wambugu
Kenya needs to get to a point where intra-national identities do not threaten nationhood. It should not matter what tribe, race, religion, gender, class or age one belongs to.

‘We must work from the basis that Kenya is a garment of many colours, which is beautiful because each colour is present. We cannot be one colour because we would be dull. Some colours cannot run over others because we would be ugly. We must all stay in place and be bright’ – Mayor of Garissa.

A research was conducted by Change Associates between 2009 and 2010 in 12 Kenyan communities including the Maasai, South Asians, Somalis, Kikuyu, Luo, Kisii, Teso, MijiKenda, Kalenjin, Luhya, and Kamba. It was carried out through a100-pax intra-ethnic discussions in each community, with a final forum where all the communities had their representatives attend and share their experiences.

The amount and intensity of frustration, anger and community-based hatred demonstrated at many of the discussion forums was almost overwhelming. This was primarily because this initiative was happening slightly over a year after Kenya had gone though the Post Election Violence of December 2007 and January-February 2008 where crimes had been committed; community against community. Emotions were still very raw and these discussions illustrated that most of the country’s citizens had started to question their individual and corporate commitment to the Kenyan identity, versus their ethnic or racial identities.

The initiative was based on candid conversations on 4 key questions: (i) What makes someone a member of a particular tribe or race, (ii) how does a typical member of such a community relate with members of other communities, (iii) can you be an authentic member of your community and a Kenyan at the same time, or are the two identities mutually exclusive, and (iv) what does a typical community member expect from their Kenyan identity.

The first lesson we learnt was that every community has a positive view of itself. ‘We are hard working and entrepreneurial’, said the Kisii. ‘We are generous’, said the Teso. ‘We are entrepreneurial and hard working’, said the Kikuyu. ‘We are peaceful, law abiding, generous and welcoming of other communities and learn their languages’, said the Luhya. ‘We engaged in the anti-colonial struggle, joining hands with African nationalists’, said the Asians.

We then learnt that each community believed that the source of Kenya’s cohesion problems was the ‘other’, community, religion, gender and/or race. Not only did the various ethnic groups have negative stereotypes and grievances against their neighboring communities, there were also significant grudges among sub tribes and clans within ethnic groups. For example there are subtle rivalries between Kikuyus of Nyeri, Kiambu and Muranga: between the Maragolis and the Bukusu: and between the various Kalenjin sub-tribes, etc.

There were also communities that felt that they had been isolated from the Kenyan identity by others. The South Asians felt they had been systematically denied their entitlements as Kenyans by other communities and had to grovel for their rights. The Somalis also felt that they were viewed suspiciously by their fellow Kenyans and had to fight for basic recognition of their rights as Kenyan citizens. The indigenous people of the Coast were another group that felt that everyone treated Coast as ‘Kenya’ while holding onto their indigenous regions for their local people. This was in addition to the local Arab, Swahili and Mijikenda suspicions.

The other issue was the distinction between communities and the government, which some viewed as a distinct social identity by itself. Some communities like the Somalis had begun their relationship with the Independent Kenya government on a negative note that had then shaped their social identity. The Shifta war to quell cessationist intentions had also left Somalis bitter and broken and most felt that a deliberate policy had been instituted by subsequent governments to keep them poor and uneducated so as to manage them politically.

The other identity distinction we became aware of was class. At the Coast they talked of the three broad Kenyan socio-economic classes: walala hoi, walala heri and the walala hai. We learnt that the walala hoi are the poor who are not guaranteed a meal a day, and are treated as the ‘consumables’ of Kenyan society. They are the ones involved in militias and manual work. Then there was the walala heri (heri wao) who are the middle class. This group has met their basic needs and is now involved in a struggle to meet its wants. The walala hai are the top of the food chain, the group that is able to meet its needs and wants. However the other two groups, especially the walala hoi, refer to them as people who are ‘eating their own food and that of other people’!


What was quite clear was that our identity-based animosities had created a deadly cocktail for conflict, and the 2007/2008 crisis had shown where we were headed with these scenarios: there would be no victors at the end of any such clash between identities.

In the 2007-08 election-related violence, what had started as anti-Kikuyu political protests due to allegations of ‘stealing an election’ had expanded to Kisiis who got into trouble for voting in the ‘Kikuyu’ government. Then the second wave of violence caught Kambas for ‘joining Kikuyus’ in government, and then Kikuyus hit back in self defense as well as in ‘support of their suffering kinsmen’, before other groups got caught up for various local reasons. Then the government ruthlessly defended the status quo by beating back and killing those who were committing violence.

Within a span of a few weeks it had become very clear that there were no winners. Property was looted, women of all ethnic groups were raped, hundreds were dead and/or maimed, food was abandoned on farms, schools were closed, and fear ruled as further retaliation was anticipated. Kenya’s neighbours became jittery as their supply lines were blocked and the country’s image was battered as we became consigned to a failed state status. The impressive economic gains made in the 5 years of Kibaki’s first term turned into huge losses, and millions of Kenyans were faced with starvation. The national cake became even smaller and what we ended up with was a power sharing agreement as a peace measure, and a divided limping government that threatened to collapse and throw the country back into bloody conflict.

It was quite clear that if Kenyans did not sort out the issues of the conflicting identities we were on a path of mutually assured destruction.

Although the intra and inter ethnic meetings were sometimes difficult and often negative; the fact that people took time to meet and seek solutions in discussions was a clear indication that there is still hope that a solution can be found. The fact that we had passed a new Constitution was also a sign that Kenyans still see a future together. The question is how do we develop a future that will encompass all of us?


The first thing that Kenyans must do is support the work of the Truth, Justice & Reconciliation Commission.

In the last four years the history of Kenya has been written and rewritten on the streets, in sitting rooms, on various media platforms and especially the internet, and in public rallies. Most of this history has been distorted and slanted to support the grievances of particular ethnic and/or religious identities.

We therefore need a system that looks at why communities like the Maasai feel their role and sacrifices in the colonial struggle have been over looked: or why Kalenjins, especially the Nandi, claim that they were discriminated against in the restoration of the ‘White Highlands’ to Africans.

These and other communities need a platform to raise their issues, and be heard by Kenyans. A good example has been the Wagalla TJRC hearings, and what they mean to the members of the Somali community who have been heard, for the first time, by the rest of their Kenyan colleagues from other communities.


Another solution is in the implementation of the new Constitution. If Kenya’s new constitution is implemented without interference Kenya will get a political culture that will ensure adequate and equal representation at national and local levels, as well as devolution of resources to counties. The new constitution will also ensure that the do-or-die presidential political competition will be tempered by a powerful National Assembly, Senate and independent Judiciary. The Boundaries Review Commission will also correct the constituency gerrymandering of the past, which will create the fair and equitable representation required to enable Kenyans to believe in their government.


The reality that absolute poverty co-exists with substantial wealth will keep taking Kenyans back to discussions about how certain groups are in the state they are in because of their community identities. This inequality and the associated sense of injustice will continue to be a key ingredient for conflict because selfish and dubiously wealthy politicians will continue to exploit the inequality and twist it along ethnic and racial lines; rather than engage in sincere efforts to eradicate the problem.

Kenya therefore requires a new political narrative that clearly states that the extreme economic inequalities in Kenya are unacceptable. Political goodwill is a prerequisite in the development of policies and plans that can seriously address poverty. When this is done we will have greatly tempered inter-ethnic grievances.


The demand in Rift Valley and the Coast for example, that land be owned by indigenous people is easy to understand. However it cannot be the future for Kenya.

Indigenous communities everywhere need more than land: they also need banks and markets which will be provided by a cross section of local and international investors. Each community needs to protect forests so that others get water downstream.

Kenyans must understand that we share many common resources including forests, the sea and the port, lakes and rivers, roads, the air, railways, airports, banks, government offices, hospitals, schools, the media, peace and security and our national image. This means that no single community can have a monopoly over any such resources.

However if Kenya is to avoid future identity-based conflict a transparent system must be developed that will protect all these common resources and ensure that all those who directly create and protect these resources benefit proportionately from them.


The current political model where communities elect politicians to fight for ‘our community’ against another is a recipe for the mutually assured destruction explained above.

To avoid this scenario Kenya needs a political leadership, which not only understands what its constituents expect from it, but which also understands the fears and expectations of other communities around and about its own community. These leaders will also need to understand that the needs of their constituencies are not incompatible to the needs of others in other regions: that they are actually complimentary in most cases.

Kenya therefore needs what we can only call a ‘Kenyans for Kenya’ ethic: leaders who understand that though the shades between us might vary, they are based on real and/or perceived grievances and that the feelings of exclusion and victim-hood need to be openly discussed. They will also need to understand that these narratives are built around messages of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, so that we end up with powerful ‘victim’ mentalities all over. They will also need to appreciate that unless demystified, such mentalities are what are manipulated by unscrupulous leaders to support individual political interests, leaving communities to go to extreme levels to get into power.

The ‘Kenyans for Kenya’ leadership will need to build a counter narrative that will unite Kenyans across their various ‘identities’, by rallying them to causes that are important to all of Kenya as a whole. They will also need to make a deliberate effort to build a supreme identity that will go beyond ethnic, race, religious, gender or age differences, and develop a common narrative of aspiration for all Kenyans.
Their political philosophy will have to be that Kenya belongs to all of us, and their attitude must be that whenever a single Kenyan is left behind all Kenyans lag behind.

If we understand all these things, and respond as suggested, then Kenya will get to the point where our intra-Kenyan identities will not threaten our nationhood, or each other. At this point it will not matter what tribe, race, religion, gender, class or age you belong to.

We will above all else, be Kenyans . . . and that will be the all-important identity.

  Ngunjiri Wambugu is the head of Change Associates.
This article was first published in a special issue of Awaaz magazine.

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