Growing up in Kenya in the ‘80s, there were certain things we children took for granted. Kenya, for instance.
Unlike our parents, born into the British Empire, for whom Kenya was a continuous experiment, a fragile thing that had only just come into being and might very well go out of being, we children knew Kenya as a fait accompli—immense, indestructible, unchangeable. We had been born into it and it was all we knew. There was no reason for us to imagine otherwise.
Every morning at school assembly, we would sing the patriotic songs of our new nation, songs that spoke of belonging, of ownership. We sang the national anthem and recited the pledge of loyalty and were made to repeat the mantra of nation over tribe. We are all Kenyans. Kenya is more important than tribe. There are no Kikuyus or Luhyas or Miji Kenda. Only Kenyans.
To my eight-year-old mind, these truths were self-evident. My friends were from all over the country. It never crossed my mind to seek out my tribemates for company, nor did I feel any particular affinity for them. People fell into two categories only: people I liked and people I did not. At home, when I would hear my parents talking in broad generalities, ascribing certain values and traits to one tribe or another (Kikuyus especially, but later Kalenjins as well), I would bristle and more than once lectured them, pompous and shrill. I could not believe that my parents, two otherwise-intelligent people whom I loved and respected, could still be hobbled by such retrogressive and manifestly absurd ideas.
But then Kenya in the 1980s was a highly repressive place, a police State that called itself a single-party “democracy.” The presidential ballot had only one name on it: President Daniel arap Moi, self-appointed father of the nation since he became president in 1978. One’s choice consisted of scratching a perfunctory X beside his name or not voting at all. Moi assured us that he was limiting our choices for our own good. He was saving us from ourselves, from the dark repository of ethnic chauvinism that dwelt deep—or not so deep—inside us. Should he be so remiss as to give us electoral choice, the Pandora’s box of tribalism would open, and we would become like our neighbours Uganda, Ethiopia and Congo—basket-case nations. Amidst the sea of ruin brought on by tribe, Kenya was an island of peace.
The old man’s prophecies came true in the first free election in Kenya’s history in 1992. The Kikuyu voted resoundingly for Kenneth Matiba, the only Kikuyu candidate, and propelled him to within a hair’s breadth of the presidency. Matiba’s incoherent ramblings cast serious doubt on his sanity. It gave me pause. Only 40,000 Kikuyus voted for the MP on a FORD-Kenya ticket. The presidential aspirant on the same ticket, from the Luo tribe, got only a few hundred votes. This gave me even more pause.
Yet still I refused to see the country in terms of competing and antagonistic tribes. I was a Kenyan. We all were. I felt Kenyan, not Luhya. We would prosper as Kenyans or dig our collective grave as tribes. Besides, didn’t bigger concerns—corruption, the crumbling economy, lack of education and infrastructure—cut across all lines? The unreconstructed tribalists among us were the old guard, lost causes. My generation was bigger than this.
Looking back now at the 1992 and 1997 elections, it’s clear that in Kenya, two genocides were already well under way, one in the Rift Valley, the other on the Coast. The perpetrators were different—Kalenjin and Miji Kenda—but the main target, the Kikuyu, was the same.
In When Victims Become Killers, his analysis of the Rwandan genocide, author Mahmood Mamdani talks of a “popular genocide,” of mass killing perpetrated by an entire population, of a nation of criminals. In the 1990s in Kenya, similar populations of criminals were born. I cannot drive through the Rift Valley or on the Coast without wondering which men have blood on their hands. Because I cannot tell, I have become suspicious and wary, and hate them all.
Now the killings have started again. The Kikuyu, the people most Kenyans love to hate, are being hounded from their homes and killed. My grandfather’s shops in my village in Western Kenya, rented out to Kikuyu businessmen, have been looted and gutted. I read an article that detailed the vast conspiracy of hatred and murder in Western Kenya: professionals and peasant farmers and shopkeepers taking up arms and slaughtering their neighbours, young braves waiting by roadsides for their prey. Unashamed, unrepentant.
I am terrified by the utter impunity of it all. I am angrier than I have ever been. I have become my parents. Now, when they speak about tribe, I hold my tongue. I can hear the fear in their voices.
What allows people to casually butcher each other, to kill unarmed women and children, to turn friends and neighbours into instant objects of hatred upon which any horror can be justly inflicted? Is it mere opportunism? Or real hatred in all its obscene glory? What have we done to ourselves to let such animus exist in our midst?
I am no longer the unmitigated Kenyan I once was. Now, I can see every straining seam, every rivet and every joint that holds us together. I no longer take it for granted that the centre will hold.