The role of tribal identity in Kenya

politics and culture — By on January 18, 2008 at 7:40 am

A few weeks ago, I had some posts (here and here) about the Kenyan elections and the influence of tribalism in that country’s politics. Now, the Washington Post has an excellent article that explores that topic in more depth and examines the role of tribal identity in shaping the political and world views of many Kenyans. A key excerpt:

Tribe in Kenya is a matter of culture and tradition, a designation — often invisible to the casual observer — that defines social networks and political power and at times serves as the foundation for stereotypes used by politicians to manipulate and divide the electorate…

Of the dozens of tribes in Kenya, the Kikuyu and to a lesser degree the Luo and the Kalenjin…have remained the primary political forces since independence. At the same time, there is a public consensus that tribalism undermines the founding idea of Kenya as one nation. Any politician hoping to appear as a statesman deplores tribalism in public, even though Kenyans tend to vote in tribal blocs. In certain circles, it is considered rude to ask someone’s tribe because it is not supposed to matter.

Though the Kikuyu and Luo have different ethnic roots, they are virtually indistinguishable physically — so much so that during recent election violence, rioting gangs often asked Kenyans for their national identity cards. It is possible to identify a person’s tribe by his or her name.

But neither ethnicity nor religion, which does not divide the groups, explains the sharply divergent perceptions that Kikuyus and Luos have of their place in Kenyan society. Tribe, woven as it is into day-to-day life, is the way many members of each group explain their successes and failures in a country that until the recent elections was considered the most stable in East Africa.

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