The Glaring Face of Tribalism and Negative Ethnicity, and How I have Encountered It

It’s become the talk at the bar, at the salon, at every meeting point: tribalism in Kenya. We witnessed it, four/five years ago, and just when its ugly face was coming to light, it was curbed. Since then, we have read and heard of first hand experiences, empathised, sympathised and said that we won’t let it happen again.


This morning, unbeknownst to me, on a matatu ride from Adams Arcade to Lenana Shopping Centre, a matatu driver and conducter have shocked me back to reality on just how bad the situation is.

I owe this post to my inquisitive nature. *Forgive any lack of decorum, poor grammatical compositions, writing this down as  I have just experienced it. This is a first hand encounter, and doing my level best to present this sensitive matter as objectively as possible. Anyone reading this must keep an open mind, if not, please check out LOL cats for a happier feeling.*

Seeing as I was in a rush, I entered the matatu to realize I was alone. I had my earphones on, seated at the front with the driver. The conductor asked me where I was dropping off, I missed that. So the driver looked at me to get my attention. When I removed my earphones, I found the two in dialogue about what I was listening to. [Sidenote:Ever since I got dreadlocks, a whole lot of people refer to me as ‘sista’ and lead conversations with ‘wagwans’ and such-like greetings…it’s assumed for me that I’m of the ‘rasta culture’.]

The conductor was implying that I was listening to Metro FM. The driver said I look like the Inooro FM type. [At this point, I’m throwing my eyes back and forth, wondering what is going on]. The conductor then refused that claim, turned to me and asked me if I’m Kikuyu. (Inooro FM is a vernacular radio station that reports in said language.) I decided to play it safe, and answered that I ‘understand’ the language. He stared at me and then offered his conclusion, there’s no way I’m Kikuyu. Why? I asked. ‘Damu huitana’….’Blood calls to blood‘.

Well, I laughed at that and indulged the two gentlemen. The driver then changed his previous stand on my ethnicity after fixedly looking at me, and told me ‘You are not a Waithera.’ (Waithera is one of the more common names from the Kikuyu tribe.)

The conversation then took a new tangent…the driver issued a comment that I don’t quite recall, the intensity of those few minutes is still catching up with me as I write this…the comment was one on how Kikuyus will be known come the next election.


The following are highlights of the ensuing dialogue…grim, in nature.

I asked him what he meant, and he said that this time round ,‘they’ are waiting for any sign of attack, and that 2007/2008 PEVs will be nothing in comparison.[I shall refrain from specifying, he had no grounds to be speaking on behalf of every member of said community] . The conductor reinforced this point by saying that if we thought we’d seen the worst, that we were wrong..

Inquiring further, the driver told me that anyone who stands in the way of Uhuru vying for presidency will face the music. He had a particular look at this point that completely wiped off the smile on my face. He touched on the very sensitive matter of the PEV, and shared his conviction, that Uhuru protected his people when they came under attack in Molo, Naivasha and Nakuru areas, from the Nandis and Luos. (His references…he could have the particular Kalenjin sect wrong…please don’t quote me on this). He argued that Raila should not stand in the way of Uhuru’s bid for the highest office, and that ‘their’ prayer is that he(Uhuru) would be cleared of all charges. If so, there will be no cause for war. He then narrated a recent incident in Thika, where Ida Odinga was speaking, and this old lady walked right to the podium, and in the midst of Mama Ida’s speech/talk, told her that she(the old lady) had a message for Raila: ‘tell him to leave ‘our children’ alone.’ The driver offered his thought on who ‘our children’ were: Uhuru and Ruto…with reference to their status quo.

The driver was of the opinion that the charges should be on the president and the PM, not Uhuru and Ruto. He then talked about where he lives, Matasya (Ngong’ area), and how a Luo man bought property there recently, built his home, and upon realizing that he was the only Luo in the area, predominantly has Kikuyu-origin residents, slaughtered 3 goats, invited the residents to his home and said, ‘I am not Luo.‘ I then asked the driver what that ‘renunciation/annunciation’ meant. I asked him if that declaration will ensure the guy’s security, in the event that things get heated up.

‘Italingana na uchungu tutakuwa tukihisi’….’ It’ll depend on the pain we’ll be feeling.’

Those words imprinted themselves in my mind. I asked this passionate man, what good tribalism would serve, and even he admitted that it’s a bad thing, but that it’s far from over. He even offered that if I’m married to a Luo, now’s the time to get a divorce, for if such a time comes,that there’s a need to take up arms, ‘tutachinja yote, si tu kutairi.‘ [I don’t want to translate that…it’s….intense!]

All this while, I remained the only passenger, as the matatu remained parked at the petrol station past the Junction, opposite the Meteoroligical Dept headquarters, as we awaited more passengers. A guard, whose name tag and therefore ethnic origin I got to deduce, came and informed the driver and conductor that they couldn’t park at the area they had. The driver then told the conductor in Kikuyu, to pay the chap 20shs, that it’s hunger that’s bugging him, and he was back to our conversation.

He asked me where I was when the 2007/2008 ugliness reared itself. I explained to him that where I lived at the time was  buffered with army men’s residential areas, and so we were rather sheltered, but could see and hear what was happening, in Kibera for instance, by way of smoke and wails.

In an attempt to inject some different thought into his seemingly convinced mind, (the conductor had since taken up the duty of luring passengers into the vehicle), I offered him these words. ‘If you and I have lived in the same area all this time, if we burn each other’s homes, and we still remain in this place, how then, will  we have solved the problem?’. To which he smiled and moved on….

I have probably left out a lot more, and this is not a transcripted conversation. When I got to my drop-off point, I offered each a goodbye, yanked out my phone and sent out a few tweets,whose responses justify this post.

Earlier this week, there was a call to ending hate speech online/on social networks. To interesting responses it was received. What I have just encountered is not just hate speech. It is a conviction. Had I taken the vehicle’s registration numbers and pursued the matter with the courts, I’d probably have traced these two gentlemen and had them charged with hate speech. I didn’t offer my ‘tribe’, so maybe that steered the course of the conversation differently. But even if these two were to be charged with that, they represent, what I believe is a resonating school of thought/conviction. They have aligned themselves behind a political leader, and have sworn to draw blood from anyone who stands in the way of his campaign. The driver even offered that a presidential aspirant, like Peter Kenneth (his offering..not mine) from said community who dared say that Uhuru should be committed to trial, cannot hold rallies in their hometowns. He highlighted this issue by pointing to the recent rally in Ruiru town,by Uhuru and Ruto, and asked me to think about the number of attendees. He informed me that  there’s no residential dwelling in that area that would draw  out the numbers in attendance from that area alone. These were people from all over Kikuyuland, he said.

‘Ethnicity is a disease of the political elite.’ Raila once said. Have the political elite preached at and inundated their political following with the notion that ethnicity will bring forth justice? Because that’s what I deduced from these two men this morning. It is a conviction, a viable alternative remains unpresented.

Allow me to sign off by imploring you to watch/listen to this special feature on Kenya’s State of Tribalism that was filmed last year, in Nairobi, that had an interesting pool of participants sharing their insights and experiences.

My take out is this: the online hate speech we have observed online is but a hint of what’s being whispered round every corner of this country. The political volcano translates directly into a ethnic/tribalistic one, and therein lies the problem.

By Nanjira

Perched at the intersection of tech & governance, media, culture.