Political Clashes Put Focus on Kenya's Tribes As Kenya remains embroiled in violent disputes over President Mwai Kibaki's re-election, there have been frequent references to tribal allegiances playing a role in the unrest. Guests discuss what a "tribe" is and why some people take issue with using the word in the 21st century.
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Political Clashes Put Focus on Kenya's Tribes

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

News reports from Kenya over the past couple of weeks include frequent use of a word that makes a lot of people uncomfortable - tribe. Many object to term and say it carries the whiff of colonial paternalism. Others respond by saying that tribe is an important identifier that most Americans don't fully understand. The media use it to help describe the political divisions in the aftermath of a contested election that's left as many as 700 people dead and over 250,000 displaced. The president who may or may not have been legitimately reelected is Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu. And the opposition is led by Raila Odinga, a Luo. And there are dozens of other tribes in Kenya.

Later in the program, running for office as a black man in this country, on the Opinion Page this week.

But first, what defines a tribe - language, culture? What role does your tribal identity play in politics and in everyday life? Our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

We'll begin with Caroline Elkins, associate director of African Studies at Harvard University, author of "Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya." And she joins us from member station WBUR in Boston.

Nice to - thanks for coming in.

Professor CAROLINE ELKINS (Associate Director of African Studies, Harvard University; Author, "Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya"): Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: And in the Kenyan context, what defines a tribe?

Prof. ELKINS: Well, in the Kenyan context, it depends in part on who you're talking to. But I think, in many ways, tribe becomes probably the most salient political factor within politics today.

CONAN: Well, is it language? Is it culture? What is it?

Prof. ELKINS: Well, I think it's a combination of a couple of things. And I think it's important to distinguish between culture and politics here, right?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. ELKINS: I mean, language is part of the culture. But ethnicity as being a political identity is something quite different, right? That's something that's embedded within the structures and institutions of the state and something that's so potently manipulated by political players within Kenyan society. As opposed to cultural identity or cultural ethnicity, that's something that tends to be much more fluid and identified with things like language and religious customs and things like that.

CONAN: I've read that - especially up until recent years - if you ask somebody from Kenya who are you, what are you, they would say I'm a Kenyan. More and more though, these days, they would tend to say I'm a Kikuyu or a Luo or whatever.

Prof. ELKINS: Yes. And I think that's also very significant because, you know, the question becomes where does national identity take precedent over ethnic identity? And it's not surprising to see ethnicity come into the fore particularly during times of political turmoil, or certainly election. And ethnicity is the card that's so often played by the ruling elite and - for their own end. And I think that what we see happening with both Kibaki as well as Odinga are each of them playing this ethnic card, not necessarily because they are the men of the people, not necessarily because somebody like Odinga is looking to really push some kind of democratic change, but because these are elite politicians looking to either retain - in the case of Kibaki., or assume power - in the case of Odinga.

And I think, in that sense, we have to be thinking about ethnicity as one of those fear factors that are so easily preyed upon. We see it happening in other contexts and other elections. Race is always a big one in places like Africa, and particularly in Kenya right now - it's ethnicity.

CONAN: And I read in an op-ed piece you published in the Philadelphia Inquirer that at one time, during colonial days, the British forced people to carry around an identity card that listed your tribal grouping on it. And I know that doesn't exist anymore. Can people in Kenya identify members of another tribe by accent, the minute they open their mouth or by looking at them? Is that common?

Prof. ELKINS: Well, certain identity cards still has ethnicity on it, number one. And number two, I think this is probably one of the most important points that we need to come back to. And that is the genesis of, as I pointed out before, political identity or political ethnicity. And that we trace back to the British colonial period. You know, many people will say, well, you know, I wrote this piece in the Inquirer and the Post that stumped to this. And they said, well, listen, people, obviously, thought of themselves as being Kikuyu or Luo long before the British arrived. And that's absolutely right. But they thought about it in cultural terms.

But once culture is picked up and shaped as a kind of genuine tradition, as it was by the British, and then embedded within a legal code so that there are legal distinctions in terms of what ethnic group you belong to. There was a specific set of laws for each particular ethnic group called customary laws. And the point of all this was that Africans in Kenya were not supposed to have a kind of racial common future. There were supposed to have a different ethnic future based upon which ethnic group they belong to. It's vitally important to see it in that context.

CONAN: And also, that in Kenya, like in other places, the British used divide- and-rule tactics - rewarding one particular tribe, in particular, as a ruling cast almost, and elevating them others.

Prof. ELKINS: Yes, absolutely. And I think, again, when we think about what's playing out today, there were certainly an enormous fear during the colonial period of what was considered to be Kikuyu ascendancy. And that was feared both by the European colonist as well as the other ethnic groups within the colony. And the Kikuyu themselves lived - if you will - cheek in jowl with the European planter settlers who were the most impacted by the capitalist tea and coffee plantations, and they were seen as being some of the most progressive.

And the European government did its best to invoke a divide-and-rule policy, in part based upon what I just laid out - through customary laws to preventing unified political association set, they prevented groups like the Kikuyu and the Luo from actually forming political associations prior to the end of colonial rule. And in fact, it was when there was an actual unification between the Kikuyu and Luo that we saw dramatic change in the late 1950s. This same kind of fear - the same kind of fear with Kikuyu ascendancy carries over into the present day.

So my point being is that this is historically embedded over the last 100 years. And it's not something that's very easily undone.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in this conversation. 800-989-8255 is our phone number. 800-989-TALK. E-mail: talk@npr.org. And let's begin with James(ph). And James is calling us from Virginia Beach.

JAMES (Caller): Yeah. Thank you for putting me on the program. I'm originally from Ghana but I've been following the events in Kenya. More importantly, Ghana is also up for elections in December. So the concern what is happening in Kenya is also a concern to some of us over here. But I just want to back where you get to saying that, you know, as Africans, we belong to different tribes or ethnicities or whatever you may call it. We've been put in artificial boundaries by the colonial powers during the partition of Africa. So we are kind of coexisting within countries but when you go within and you see a country as in Kenya, you see everybody as a Kenyan. But when you go within the country, people also want to identify themselves with their tribal or ethnic groups.

And when it comes to election, people tend to vote on their tribal lines. So they see a candidate like Kibaki - no matter his record - as belonging to another tribe and not my tribe. So other person try to vote for somebody in their tribe. And unfortunately, when you have election like what is going on in Kenya, the international communities are not helping things. Observers are seeing that the election was a rig. They observe fraud in the elections. Yet, why is the United States calling for a unity government? If it is clear that the election was a rig, then the rightful winner must be declared or the election needs to be count void and fresh elections must be organized.

CONAN: Now, James….

JAMES: My last…

CONAN: Just getting back to the issue of tribes, though. When you're asked, are you Ghanaian or do you identify yourself as a member of one of the tribe of Ghana?

JAMES: Okay. This is the catch. When we're outside the country, we want to call ourselves Ghanaians or Kenyans or Nigerians. But when we're back home, we normally refer to ourselves as whatever tribe we came from.

CONAN: And that would dictate where you live and how you live?

JAMES: Normally, it is your name dictates your tribe. Like when somebody here as my last name, (unintelligible) - you would be able to tell which part of Ghana I'm coming from, that's easy to tell. Sometimes, you can tell by the physical appearance.

CONAN: Or by the language or by the accent?

JAMES: The language also and the accent also.

CONAN: So it means a great deal?

JAMES: It is.

CONAN: Yeah. Thanks very much. We appreciate it.

JAMES: You're welcome.

CONAN: Okay. And that sound similar to what you were describing, Caroline Elkins, in Kenya?

Prof. ELKINS: Yes it is. And I think there are a couple of points that he raised which are quite salient. Number one, I think that if we're thinking on the international scene, the credibility if you will or, you know, the amount of moral authority that either the Americans or the British have - particular in Africa, but elsewhere throughout the world - based upon our own, whether it's our 2,000 elections here in the United States or whether I'm looking at, you know, the legacies of British colonial rule. I think there's the assumption that we're now the purveyors of democracy, when in fact when you talk to people on the ground - it certainly had been my experience in Kenya - they sort of raise their eyebrows and say what are the Americans and British doing here. I think that's number one.

I think number two - and think of a very important point - when thinking about nationalism versus identity, what's important when thinking about this is these are really variants of the same thing. Nationalism and ethnicity - and this is one of my points that I made about, sort of, political identity - are both very much created things. They're created and constructed. And they're very difficult to do.

And in the case of Kenya and Ghana, which used to be the gold coast within the British Empire, we don't see the British colonial authorities having any desire whatsoever based upon this divine-and-rule policy and based upon the firm belief that Africans live in tribes - that's something that they firmly believed in - to create a kind of national identity. They were very much inspired to create very numerous different ethnic groups, or if you want to call them tribes and all these various colonies. And this is one of the legacies, the very strong and potent lasting legacies of British colonial rule. And with…

CONAN: And you suggest that subsequent to decolonialization, rulers have also found it useful to perpetuate these divisions.

Prof. ELKINS: Absolutely. There's - I mean, if you think about - it's, again, important to be thinking about these postcolonial rulers throughout in Africa and, frankly, throughout much of the developing world as not necessarily as men of the people, but rather individuals who are looking at access to the state. Now, what's the best way to do that? The best way to garner votes is to play the ethnic card and they do that quite effectively. And we've seen that happen in Kenya over and over again. We've seen in happen in the country that the gentleman was just talking about, Ghana. We've seen it all over. Zimbabwe, we could pick a place and we can talk about how this factor of ethnicity has played out in political elections in the post-independent period.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for joining us today. We appreciate your time.

Prof. ELKINS: Thank you.

CONAN: Caroline Elkins, associate professor of African studies at Harvard, also author of "Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya." She joined us by phone from Boston.

Much of the recent violence in Kenya has broken down along tribal lines. When we come back, we'll talk with two of Kenya's leading intellectuals about how they see tribal differences and how it functions in the everyday lives of Kenyans.

If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Give it, or send us e-mail, talk@npr.org. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're discussing tribes this hour. In Kenya, much of the recent conflicts surrounding the elections has broken down along ethnic or tribal lines. We'd like to hear from you. If you're a part of a tribe, what does it mean to you? How does it function in your everyday life? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail us talk@npr.org. And you can also check out our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Joining us now from member station WSKG in Binghamton, New York is Ali Mazrui. He's director of the director of the Global Cultural Studies at the State University of New York, Binghamton as well as chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Nairobi, Kenya.

Ali Mazrui, and it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Dr. ALI MAZRUI (Director of Global Cultural Studies, State University of New York at Binghamton): Delighted to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: And how do you - you're a Kenyan, obviously, how do you identify yourself in terms of ethnicity?

Dr. MAZRUI: Well, I belong to a language group rather than a tribal group. And the difference is that the tribal group - although the term is not very popular among Kenyan intellectuals, a tribal group there's a presumption of having been descended from some shared ancestors in the past, a kind of bloodline. A language group may have different biological ancestry but speak the same language. So I'm what is called an Mswahili(ph), a native speaker of the Swahili language. So we contributed the national language to the country. But we are not categorized as a tribe but as a language group.

CONAN: And obviously, as you suggest, intellectuals prefer other descriptors including ethnic groups and language groups as well. In terms of everyday life in Kenya, what difference does it make?

Dr. MAZRUI: Well, it affects the circles people move around in, the areas of probable dating and marriage. And then in the case of groups that have different languages, there are complications when they get married and bringing up their children and which languages they should learn.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. MAZRUI: And then, most of the time, of course, people have a joint clubs; they may support the same football or soccer team. The issue is not omnipresent in everyday life. But in politics, it is very often it looms large whether or not politicians activate it. So I disagree with people who think it's not real except the politicians are created. It is real that's why the politicians exploit it. They exploit sensibilities which are potent and fully resizable.

CONAN: Is there much fluidity between the groups?

Dr. MAZRUI: To some extent, there is. And then, some groups are closer together linguistically than others. So that the Kikuyu may be closer to them to the Meru - and to some extent with the Kamba - than they are to the Luo. And then, they may have different other customs. Some groups circumcise their children, others don't, you see. And that's supposed to be an important differentiation between non-circumcising Luo on one side and circumcising Kikuyu on the other.

Most of the time is not - that side of thing is not articulated in public discourse, but it is part of the differentiation when it comes to boys and girls dating or wanting to marry.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail question we have from Calvin(ph). Can you explain the difference between tribe and ethnic group? Generally, when the kinds of conflicts now going on in Kenya occur in Europe these conflicts are called ethnic conflicts and the world tribe is reserved for Africa.

Dr. MAZRUI: That's very true. There is a tendency to concede clan in European experience like Scottish clan, but no longer readiness to accept tribe - the suitable vocabulary for European groups. And very often the way the groups behave may be very similar to what our called tribes within Africa. And because the - we can speak the English language and use the word tribe, it has acquired a lot of baggage through colonial period.

But most Kenyans speak Swahili or Kiswahili. We use the word kabila(ph) and that makes no distinction between ethnicity and tribe. So I love depends upon which particular language you use because the negativism is substantially within the English word for the phenomenon.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Ezekiel(ph). Ezekiel with us from Lansing in Michigan.

EZEKIEL (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call, Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

EZEKIEL: Well, I'm going to disagree with the Harvard professor by the definition of saying, you know, the - Kenya is - the identification of Kenyans is different tribal lines, which lately has become the case. But in the previous government which was led by Moi - he was a Kalenjin, but before he left office, he appointed a Kikuyu to lead the party, the party of Kano. And the Kalenjin and the other tribes afforded him of only out and put in another Kikuyu, who was - who is right now Kibaki.

And even at the opposition right now, Raila Odinga, he has a coalition of many tribes, including Kalenjin. So when Kenyans fought that they really didn't fought based on tribal lines rather than change. And Kibaki, obviously, went back to office illegally or he rigged the - forced to get back in power.

So I disagree because, you know, when I came to American seven years ago, my relationship with other tribes, basically Kikuyu, was not based on tribal life. I mean, it's just being Kenyans and even now, we co-exist as Kenyans. And the things that we see going on in Kenya is utterly atrocious. We just - at least I don't believe it's a tribal case.

CONAN: Thanks very much for that. Ali, Mazrui, it's my understanding there's a history in Kenya of political movements starting out as, you know, pan-tribal, if you will or multiethnic, and then devolving much more into uni-ethnic groups.

Dr. MAZRUI: Yes, that's true. For as long as we fight in colonialism, there was considerable solidarity across ethnic lines. And Raila Odinga's father, Oginga Odinga, who also had presidential aspirations, was a major ally of Jomo Kenyatta for as long as they were fighting the British. Their divide emerged soon after independence, because the rivalry before long became - manifest. A major problem is not simply that the British emphasized tribal identity. It's just the artificiality of the countries that were created by colonialism. There was no such country as Kenya before the British demarcated particular boundaries and enclosed particular groups.

So the nature of the rivalry is partly the newness of the competition within political borders that's of imperial invention. And people are trying to make sense of these borders to create a sense of Kenya-ness when it didn't exist a hundred years ago. In reality, almost the only true African countries that have a long, long historical ancestry are Ethiopia and Egypt, because they're both been there from pre-biblical times. They are both to mentioned in the Bible at random. Almost all the other African countries are relative inventions of the colonial experience. And that is a major effect behind so-called tribal or ethnic rivalry.

CONAN: Well, let's bring another voice into the conversation.

Joining us now from member station KUCI in Irvine, California is Ngugi wa Thiong'o. He's the author of "Wizard of the Crow" and director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at the University of California, Irvine. And Mr. Ngugi, nice to have you on the program.

Professor NGUGI WA THIONG'O (Director, International Center for Writing and Translation, University of California, Irvine: Author, "Wizard of the Crow"): Yeah, thank you.

CONAN: In a recent op-ed, you wrote that the only two tribes in Kenya, indeed, across sub-Saharan in Africa are the haves and the have-nots. Would you explain?

Prof. NGUGI: Yes. I have (unintelligible) on the concept of the tribe. It is definitely a colonial invention in the sense that when colonial invasion came to Africa, they often invaded one community with soldiers from another community. In other words, right from the beginning of colonial occupation, the imperial power, whichever it was, set about dividing - making sure there is no sense of oneness even though when they had created some of this new arrangements like Nigeria or Uganda, you know, or Kenya. But thereafter, they made sure that people operated as much as they could on ethnic lines.

An example is Kenya itself. From 1920, whenever any person or if any people try to form a political party or a political movement across ethnicity, the colonial state always stop that. They wanted you to organize political parties as Kikuyus or Luos. And as late as, say, in the 1950s, about 10 years before it got independence, political parties across regions were banned. Sometimes, you could - in fact, the only political parties allowed for sometimes were not even parties across the whole region, but per district-based parties and so on.

So for as well the consulate tribal itself, which is very, very derogatory to begin with, but tribes themselves are and was an invention of the…

CONAN: Colonial.

Prof. NGUGI: …colonial regime.


Prof. NGUGI: But does it mean that consciousness or that chauvinism has no role in our politics? It has. Because it plays definitely a role in our, you know, in our thinking. In other words, we as Africans have come to look at ourselves through our colonial eyes and what's of needed is the colonization of the mind.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from a man named Masholi(ph). I am from Rwanda. Both tribes, Hutu and Tutsi speak the same language but can be distinguished by physical differences in postcolonial Africa. I see myself as either a Tutsi or a Hutu rather than a Rwandan, and the tribal issue cannot be underestimated. And I think that's some of which you were just getting to.

Prof. NGUGI: I don't think I estimated, but underlying the question of ethnic differences, the question sometimes of uneven regional development and uneven socio-development.

CONAN: As one party gets the power, they reward their tribe as opposed to everybody else.

Prof. NGUGI: No, no, I'm saying structurally.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. NGUGI: Some areas, right from colonial times, obviously, had some industries, for instance, you know, so there's uneven economic, you know, development in Kenya, in Uganda, in Nigeria. And there's also uneven socio-development, meaning that no policies have been put in place to take care of the social needs of the ordinary person, but does that mean that poor Kikuyu is in the same identical position as a poor Luo, a millionaire Luo is exactly in the same position as a millionaire Kikuyu? Tribalism or tribal wars are often intra-middle class wars. In other words, it's the elite - the one group whipping up emotions of ordinary people. So they see that they are the community is the only which have all the haves and we, community as a whole, do not have any haves, although, in fact, there are millionaires on - among all the communities.

CONAN: We're talking with two Kenyan writers. Ali Mazrui, an historian, scholar and intellectual, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who's a scholar from Kenya and a novelist, the author of the "Wizard of the Crow." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me ask you both, as you look at the current situation in Kenya and increasing polarization among different ethnic or tribal groups, is this something that has to be managed within a tribal context or is it possible to work toward a future, an immediate future or intermediate future where there's you start reducing these differences and making them less important? And Ali Mazrui, why don't you start?

Dr. MAZRUI: Well, we do need, initially, to solve the immediate problem of the contested election at the presidential level. Strangely enough, most people believe that parliamentary elections which took place at the same time were more transparent, less ethnic and tribal, and freer. And it was possible for major figures in Kenya politics, who had been powerful in the previous government, to lose their parliamentary seats.

Half of Kibaki's cabinet lost their seats and it was a strong indication at the parliamentary level that elections were not, quote, unquote, "behaving tribally," that people were angry with the politicians and with the regime. The contest soured at the presidential level. So the presidential level, that has to be resolved. And the many Luo people feel that they have been kept deliberately out of capturing the presidency, that there's a kind of conspiracy that initially worked against Oginga Odinga, the father of the present leader of the opposition…

CONAN: And against the son as well.

Dr. MAZRUI: And then the assassination of another presidential Luo hopeful called Tom M'boya, one of the most brilliant politicians Kenya has ever produced, who was assassinated in July 1969. All that is remembered, it was bitterness in Luo land. So they really think they have been excluded for the ultimate pinnacles of power.

CONAN: And I wanted to get Mr.…

Dr. MAZRUI: And so this has to be resolved first before we move towards creating a new political order.

CONAN: And I wanted to give the last minute to Mr. Ngugi.

Prof. NGUGI: Yeah.

CONAN: I'm sorry about that.

Prof. NGUGI: Just very, very quickly. The difference is between Oginga Odinga and Jomo Kenyatta were more socio than ethnic. Meaning that Oginga Odinga, on the whole, stood for and fought for the only person symbolized by the party he formed called Kenya People's Union as opposed to the Kenya National Union of Jomo Kenyatta which had become more and more elitist.

I agree that the current situation of rigging, claims of rigging, and counter-rigging, and counter claims of rigging must be resolved. There's a way of resolving that, very simple - the counting of votes. But it has to be solved politically, no matter how. The reality is that each of the presidential candidates had at least 4 million votes, so either way each will have to reach for the other half. But I would like to say…

CONAN: Very, very quickly.

Prof. NGUGI: What I condemn is ethnic cleansing, targeting a community on the basis of its being a community.

CONAN: Mr. Ngugi.

Prof. NGUGI: The regime can be solved politically by not ethnic cleansing.

CONAN: Mr. Ngugi and Mr. Mazrui, thank you both very much.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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