John Sibi-Okumu

In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community. The views expressed are entirely his own. His website:


In mid-January this year, I came across an article in The Star, a local newspaper, with the following headline: Asians petition Uhuru to recognise them as Kenya’s 44th tribe. The article went on to reveal that a petition, signed by Hindus, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Sikhs and Goans had been sent to the country’s president, seeking constitutional acknowledgement of their standing as Kenyan citizens. It was suggested that the petition also needed to be forwarded to Parliament’s Equal Opportunity Committee, for debate. Speakers at a gathering to evaluate progress on the matter, who included an MP, had made reference to the many contributions by South Asians to Kenya’s pre- and post-colonial era, significant among them being the construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway. The feeling was expressed that South Asians had remained without a voice, regardless. Then there was the added misconception that all South Asians belong to a privileged élite, estranged from the day to day realities of the average fellow citizen.

Having acknowledged that this development was interesting, (‘I see, I see…’), I decided to unpack it, as people like to do these days. First of all, do South Asians who are Kenyan citizens make up an organic community? No. Do they have a supposedly ancestral region, which would allow a tourist guide to declare confidently: ‘We are now crossing Wahindiland?’ No. Do they have one language which they are striving to preserve from generation to generation? No. Is ethnic grouping, which they are claiming, the same thing as the race to which they belong? No. Can it be said, since they are all presumed to be rich, that all Kenyan South Asians are, by definition, of right wing, ‘Conservative,’ or ‘Republican’ persuasion? No. Has not belonging to a tribe, thus far, prevented them from being good, productive and responsible citizens? No.

So, if the nays have it on all these significant indices, what do these petitioners want? The presumption must be, particularly if feeling voiceless is a preoccupation, that they want mainstream political power, beyond having several elected and nominated politicians and beyond being a very powerful lobbying and funding group in Kenyan politics. To arrive at this end, the constitution would have to be amended so as to allow certain, racial as opposed to ethnic minorities – to be defined by parliamentary debate - to vote expressly for themselves in counties where their numbers warrant it. This would make for Kenyan-style affirmative action, ‘bussing’ racial minority leaders to parliament, so to speak, in the manner of the American civil rights’ movement. Which might work well for Europeans or Wazungus, who could well coalesce around one ‘white’ MP for Nairobi county. However, with sub-sects like the Arya Samaj and Lohanas within Hinduism, for example, and the residual influences of the caste system to complicate matters further, would South Asians queue up for hours on end to choose one MP for the same county? Or would the Brahmin candidate automatically prevail over his or her Ismaili competitor? And what of gender? Would women candidates be genuine contenders in a male-dominated society? Despite these imponderables, there is, indeed, some merit in considering a Kenyan solution to the Kenyan problem of how best to include Asians and Europeans, who have played a very large part in Kenya’s recent history, more calculatedly in public, political life.

The unpacking process must end with a personal consideration of the notion of tribe and tribalism, generally, in the Kenyan context. When I was a young boy, the question: ‘Which tribe do you belong to?’ was usually taken for granted in every introductory conversation. I remember that the prime adjective of association with the word tribe was ‘primitive.’ And certain tribes had defining characteristics, perceived by our British colonisers, which predisposed them to certain actions and activities. Thus, for example, Luhyas were good natured yet sluggish and made good cooks and gardeners, Kambas were honest and trustworthy and made good soldiers, Maasais were courageous but unquestioning and made good watchmen. Marital unions between tribes, unless they were immediately adjacent to each other, were rare, frowned upon and discouraged. So many decades later, western-style education has spread enlightenment, towns and cities have brought together people from different parts of the country and intermarriage has become more acceptable and common. Since the days when restless inhabitants were capable of boiling an errant explorer in a large cooking pot, the word ‘tribe’ has taken on a  pejorative sheen of another sort, now that such primitive behaviour is no longer the norm. For a while there, it was politic to talk of ‘ethnic groupings’ and ‘ethnicity.’ Nowadays, it is best to talk of ‘communities,’ although not in the accepted sense of the word ‘community.’ And politicians have taken to referring to the ‘Taita nation,’ or the ‘Pokot nation,’ once again really stretching the dictionary definition of the word ‘nation.’

What must be acknowledged is that, apart from ‘ethnic group’ which suggests members with a common language and customs, the words ‘tribe,’ ‘community’ and ‘nation’ are all suggestive of division and exclusion. The current wave of populism in the USA and Europe is all about creating barriers between them and us; making sure that we do not have any contact with them. Similarly, when people from different tribes, communities, nations, what you will, were incited to set upon each other in post-election violence at the end of 2007, some estimates (via Wikipedia) state that around 1,300 people were killed and 600, 000 were internally displaced. Happily, a recurrence was avoided after elections in 2013. However, divisive sabre-rattling, founded on tribe, or community or nation is yet again the order of the day in the build-up to new elections in August, 2017. Politicians love to appeal to tribalism as a fool-proof way of advancing a divide and rule agenda to a gullible electorate. It could be argued, quite forcefully, that tribalism has been the major force working against national cohesion and development since independence in almost every African country. If this were to be explained, in very simple terms, to a small child, then that child would be sure to come to a telling conclusion: if the aim is to create one big, happy, Kenyan family then tribe, community and nation, used in the contexts we have described, are bad words, best avoided in polite conversation.

Therefore, I would encourage the petitioners, who inspired this piece, to abandon their quest to become tribe number 44 in favour of letting their Kenyan citizenship and their conduct as exemplary citizens be adequate guarantees of their sense of belonging and inclusion. And the rest of us, who have already been numbered up to tribe number 43, would do well to do the same.

Copyright: John Sibi-Okumu

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