In Kenya, Tribalism Starts at Thirty

Every time you see a couple of Kenyans trying to get acquainted with one thing is bound to happen. They will always demand to know one’s second name. I seldom tell a stranger my second name, though I have just done that today.  A second name just rings of ‘tribalism’ to me.

Well I believe tribalism begins at thirty. Kenyans don’t have a problem mingling while growing up through kindergarten up to college until they hit thirty. A few months just before the 2007 general elections, while in a matatu enroute to Strathmore University I heard a conversation over the radio that underlines just how much tribalism is deeply etched in our hearts.

‘Hello, are you Mr Onyango?’ the radio presenter asked. ‘I am calling from Radio Citizen.’

‘Yes,’ a man replied in that deep throated Nilotic voice associated with bragging. ‘I am a secondary school teacher in a very prominent school in Nyanza. I am in fact on my way to the school right now. I hope this is not about an official matter. You have to wait until I reach the school if your call is official,’ he added. Most passengers laughed, enjoying every moment.

‘Have you subscribed to the Daka Mkwanja Promotion on Citizen Radio?’

‘No,’ replied Mr Onyango. “Maybe this is a wrong number you have dialled.”

“It is not a wrong number. It belongs to you.”

“Allow me to ask what the purpose of your call is.”

‘I have five thousand Kenyan shillings waiting for you…’ the presenter interrupted, stressing. ‘Since this is your phone number, this money belongs to you,’ he continued when Mr Onyango became silent. ‘Do you know what five thousand shillings mean?’ It suddenly became so quiet inside the matatu you could hear blood roar inside our tribal veins as we waited for Mr Onyango to do the right thing.

‘I am going to do the right thing,’ Mr Onyango said at long last as we sighed with relief. We finally knew Mr Onyango was finally going to make our day. Five thousand Kenyan shillings is no mere joke! We were happy Mr Onyango had decided to take the money.

‘I’ll consult my wife and children to see if they were the ones who used my phone!’ he said instead to the chagrin of all of us. Of course, we all reacted differently to what Mr Onyango had done.  

“What a pity!” a passenger exclaimed when the driver switched to another radio station. “Trust a jang’o to louse things up,” she added, in an accent that gave away her tribe.

It is equally a pity that Kenyans still insist on knowing someone’s second name for purposes of placing a tribal tag on him. For instance, Onyango, a Luo name stands for wife inheritance. Kamau, a Kikuyu name stands for the Mungiki, a lust for economical gains and botched M.O.Us. While Mutuku, a Kamba name stands for kamuti and witchcraft… The list is endless.

Though Kenya has not experienced a large-scale war due to tribal intolerance, we don’t know what peace means. Each new day brings fresh doubts and fear. We are so uncertain about the present that we cannot dare bank our hopes on a distant better tomorrow. We have lost faith in everyone including our hypocritical pastors currently nurturing political ambitions.

Fortunately we have become wiser and are now demanding much more than mere promises. We hope to see an end to tribalism. It is only then that things will change for the best. But this is something we can’t trust our political or religious leaders with. For depending on our leaders have reduced us to mere actors who keep moving in and out of each other’s lives. We are a people who still need each other. But for different reasons that are largely for self-preservation, settling scores and self-enhancement.

The coming elections will be the right time to bring long-lasting solutions that will bring us peace. Peace will not be within our grasp if it is something we cannot fight and strongly stand for. It is because of this that we must vote for a leader capable of uniting us regardless of our tribal and racial inclinations. We don’t want to go on putting a tribal tag on everyone as we look for a scapegoat to vent our frustrations and shortcomings on.

 By the way, the first edition of the Daka Mkwanja one million jackpot ended just before the 2007 general elections. Being thirty years of age I am happy it wasn’t someone from the other tribe for a change! There…! I hope I have done justice to trashing tribalism.