Kenya has more than 40 tribes. Their role is diminishing slowly, but the tribe is one of the main defining features of living in Kenya. On the one hand, everybody admires the sight of proud Masai warriors, dressed all red with their typical spears and shield. And tribes have social advantages, such as mutual help. On the other hand, the tribes in Kenya are holding the country back. This article provides some background information.
The Big Picture Of Tribes In Kenya
Family in Kenya is all-important. Big extended families live together and look after each other. Then comes your clan, your sub-tribe, and your tribe. Since Kenyan independence in 1963, the government has tried to create a national consciousness, stressing the idea that “we are all Kenyans”. But as a result of the tribe system, national identity is very weak in Kenya.
Kenyan tribes are mainly based on language. There are three language groups in which all the tribes can be divided: the Bantu, the Nilotic and the Cushitic speaking tribes. Well-known tribes that still follow the traditional lifestyles as the Masai, Samburu and Turkana tribes are Nilotic. However, many Kenyans speak three languages: their tribal language, English, and Swahili (which together with English is the official language in Kenya).
The biggest tribes are, respectively, the Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Kalenjin, and Kamba (although exact numbers differ widely from source to source).
Tribes In Kenya: Pretty Or Ugly?
Of course, I very much like to watch traditional tribal life. The Masai, Samburu, Turkana tribespeople have magnificent colorful jewelry and clothes, impressive rituals, and beautiful songs. Experiencing this is for many one of the big reasons for coming to Kenya.
But let’s be honest. How many of the tourists who idealize the tribes in Kenya would be able to live that way themselves? Tribes also mean a belief in witchcraft (and better avoid being called a witch in Kenya!), female genital mutilation, and little individual freedom as the course of your whole life is already fixed at birth by tribal customs.
The “White Masai” movie has made this all too clear. It tells the real-life story of a Swiss woman (Corinne Hofmann) who marries a Masai warrior and joins the traditional tribal life in his small village. During the first years, she shows a remarkable ability to adapt. She eats Masai food, sleeps in wooden shacks, and delivers their baby in the bush. But her husband feels increasingly threatened by her independence and abilities. When she opens a small shop in the village, he’s jealous. He gets abusive and she finally has to flee with her daughter back to Switzerland.
The Kikuyu dominate both business and politics. There are several reasons: they are the biggest tribe, have westernized to a big extent, are street-smart in business and led the independence movement in the 1950s and 1960s. This independence movement became the first big political party, KANU, which dominated Kenyan politics for many decades.
The first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, as well as current president Mwai Kibaki are Kikuyu, and both have shown clear favoritism, if not outright corruption towards their tribesmen. Kenyatta used the land reforms after de departure of the British to make himself and his fellow clan members the biggest landowners of the country. Kibaki was elected in 2002 on the promise to end the ever-present corruption, but once in office did precious little to fight it. Instead, he adopted members of his Kikuyu clan throughout his administration. These people are known as the “Mount Kenya Mafia”, after the home region of the Kikuyu around this mountain.
Many voters support a political candidate, not because of his ideas or personal abilities, but because he’s from the same tribe. Political parties are based on tribes, not on ideas. Elections often come down to the question: which tribe is going to exploit the other tribes? The election struggles of 2007-2008 in Kenya also had a tribal background: many non-Kikuyu voters thought that the Kikuyu (22% of the population) under had “eaten enough” (slang for stealing government funds) under the Kibaki government, and therefore supported a politician from the Luo tribe (Raila Odinga).
While some people in the west romanticize the tribal life, seeing this as a ‘purer’ lifestyle that is more social and ‘closer to nature, I personally am happy that I’m not a part of it, and I believe many Kenyans would benefit from a gradual roll-back of the tribe system.
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