Kenya, Rants

Alan the Tribalist

Tribalism is a touchy subject in Kenya — I don’t even think it’s politically correct to use the word “tribe” anymore. Besides the fact that it’s a bit condescending from an American English connotation, I think we’re supposed to use other words like “ethnic groups” or “communities” instead. In Kenya it ranges from petty nepotism to violent xenophobia. Before you start thinking, “Those Africans are a bit stupid/savage,” go look up the words nepotism and xenophobia and you’ll see it’s nothing unique to Africa. Maybe it’s human nature, because I am feeling a little guilty lately.

I spent nearly the last two years living in a town called Tala in the Kangundo district of Kenya. That district belongs to a region which was/is historically known as “Ukambani”—named so after the tribe who has historically lived there, the Kamba. There are forty-something tribes in Kenya, so you can imagine there are regions all over this country where tribes have lived for generations (basically small countries). There exceptions, but each tribe generally speaks their own language, listens to their own music, prays to their own god, has their own ceremonial foods, traditions, etc. Well, that was true until the white people sliced up Africa for themselves and forced their culture on the continent, but now everyone wears dresses, jeans, high heels, and listens to Lil Wayne. The only things left are names and languages, and that brings me to my point!

Since I lived in Ukambani for two years I can instantly tell when I hear someone speaking Kamba, or when someone has a name of Kamba origin. I know I’m not a Kamba, and I know it sounds funny, but after two years living with Kambas (and none of my “own” people around), those are the only people in Kenya I’ve got! Kenya’s pretty international, so there are a million languages being spoken around you all the time—it’s no wonder I get a little excited when I hear someone speaking Kamba. On a few occasions I’ve just greeted them in our mother tongue or worked my Kamba-ness into the conversation some other way, but I realize that is bad behavior. It’s so easy to get caught up in that “in group” and “out group” mentality. Here’s an example of all the times I’m tempted to ignore the inner voice saying, “Don’t do it” almost daily!

  • Shoe shiner in Uthiru
  • Milk seller on the corner of my street
  • Lady who sells me minutes on my phone in the mornings
  • Retail dudes in the clothes section of my local supermarket

And those are just the few on the top of my head right now! Nepotism is such a sweet and tempting comfort, and it always seems so harmless, but I’m sure nothing good can come of it in the long run. Kenya’s history is full of historical injustices related to these issues but it’s not even worth pointing fingers anymore; everyone is guilty. Just stop!

2 Comments

  1. Thaths

    A few years after my stay in Kenya I was working in India. I decided to go back to the university in semi-rural India where I had studied. I was amazed to find a couple of Kenyans at the University. I was so happy to see them that I was blabbering in Swahili.

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