Category Archives: tribe

What exactly does it mean to be Kenyan?

Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! The Psalmist


File photo showing Ghana’s past presidents together. Credits

Kenya’s 2017 election pitting Raila Amolo Odinga as challenger to HE Uhuru Kenyatta’s incumbency has been billed as a 2-horse race between two corrupt parties. While this may be true on some level, I hereby opine for time and eternity that there are far deeper concerns at play than corruption. This is not to say that corruption is not an issue. Rather this is to say that corruption is a secondary issue. What is at stake is the very concept of Kenya as a nation and a going concern.

The Ganges’ Jewels and Jinja

The state of Kenya formed as a secondary outcome of geo-political chess. The British Empire’s crown jewel was India from which she derived spices, textiles and jewels. The fastest route from Brittania to India was through the Suez Canal. Whoever controlled the Suez Canal controlled India. Egypt controlled the Suez. Whoever controlled the Nile controlled Egypt. Hence the control of the Nile was of utmost importance to the preservation of the British Empire’s crown jewel. It so happens that the origin of the Nile is in Jinja, Uganda; which is Kenya’s immediate neighbour to our West. Hence a direct logical line of thought can be drawn from the riches of the Ganges to Jinja in Uganda. The physical manifestation of that line happened to be the railway line from the port of Mombasa in Kenya to Kampala which was to later become the capital of Uganda.

Building the Mombasa-Kampala railway was a long, tedious and arduous process. And as they say, the journey is the destination. Some of the builders stopped and smelled the roses and in so doing, fell in love with these environs. The end result of this process was that large swathes of indigenous Kenyan land ended up occupied by our former colonialists. A by-product of this was the so called Happy Valley set. Eventually the railway arrived in Kisumu and from then onwards to Kampala. But history could not be reversed. Our colonialists’ love affair with Kenyan vistas and wildlife left an indelible mark whose result was the creation was the British Protectorate of East Africa.

In this manner, what began as a geo-political game to gain mastery of India, resulted in the formation of a transport corridor upon whose heels followed the creation of a colony which would later come to be known as Kenya. This is how the state of Kenya was formed; as a geographic area on either side of a railway. This geographical area contains tribes and communities within it. This was the Kenyan state that gained independence, and could have turned into a nation of brothers; but has severally failed to rise to meet the defining challenges that have assailed it.

Flashforward to today. Our 2017 election is pitting the son of Kenya’s first president against the son of Kenya’s first vice-president. The fact that 50 years of intervening history have brought us to this juncture is a failure of both our leaders as well as a our parents’ generation.

Various facts are both incidental and causative to this emergence of ethnicity which include more geopolitical chess, political repression, assassinations and the raw need for political mobilisation given the context. But the point remains that Kenya in 1963 was not a tribal country. Kenya in AD 2017 is. Tribalism and ethnicity need not be a negative thing. Our diversity can and should be appreciated. With that covered, let us cover a little bit of sociology.

States, Nations and Identity

For starters some definitions. A state is defined as a patch of land with sovereign governance. A nation is defined as a group of people who are bound together into a single body, through history, values, language, culture, art and religion. (Notably missing from this definition are railways. The British built theirs and still had to leave. But we digress.)

The development of an identity from state to nation is often not easy. National identity is often forged during national crises or challenges. As a psychological rule of thumb, when an entity is faced with a challenge and especially an existential challenge, their response will be a function of their identity. Therefore failure to form a strong and cohesive identity cripples one’s ability to respond to a challenge or crisis. By extension, a polity either rises to the challenges facing it or succumbs under these challenges, as a function of the polity’s identity. Failure to form a strong and cohesive national identity cripples a nation’s ability to respond to challenges which it faces.

Easily accessible historical examples of challenges forging national identities include the US Civil War (the challenge was slavery and secession, the identity response was democratic and constitutional deliberation) and the Cold War (the challenge was territorial and existential, the identity response was capitalist and expansionist). For Britain the destruction of the Spanish Armada could be said to have been a signpost in their national identity (this challenge was existential and their identity as a sea-faring nation was called upon) in much the same way as the Franco-Prussian war was formative for Germany (the challenge was France, the identity forged was conservative, capitalist and Protestant). The Hundred Year’s war was similarly a crucible for both England and France. Closer home, other examples have been discussed at length in the piece immediately prior to this one. Let us now dig into the crux of this argument.

Brothers or Children of a Lesser god?

In the aftermath of the 2002 election Kenya was officially the most optimistic nation on earth. To paraphrase one victorious naval commander, Kenya had “met the enemy and they were ours.” The subsequent political machinations that quickly soured into 2007’s post-election violence should serve as a signpost for any statesman on the path towards nation-building. President Kibaki’s 2002 win may have been significantly more marginal or even contested had Raila not said “Kibaki Tosha!”

Over and above that, Kenya’s first president, Kamau wa Ngengi aka Jomo Kenyatta, rose to that position after Raila’s father arm-twisted the colonial government into releasing him as a pre-requisite for national independence. The subsequent fallout between these two founding fathers has never quite been resolved since then.

In the wake of this fallout, the Luo community has had the worst of it on the ‘national’ stage. Key names that dot the landscape include Tom Mboya who was assassinated in broad daylight. An intelligent capitalist and political mobiliser if ever Kenya had one, Tom Mboya was responsible for the student airlift which gifted the world with America’s first black president. This was as a result of a fortuitous meeting in Hawaii between Ann Dunham and Barack Obama Sr. It is said that Ann Dunham fell for Luo nyadhi and then weaponised it into the political operative who stormed the White House. Another Luo great who is said to have fallen to ethnic strife was Dr. Robert Ouko. He exited the land of the living courtesy of a bullet to the head. In his final position as Minister for Foreign Affairs he so impressed George Bush Sr. that the sitting power structure felt sufficiently threatened by possible regime change.

It has further been said that should you visit the Turkana, Samburu or other Northern Frontier Districts, upon your departure to return to more beaten paths, these communities tell you to “Salimiana ukirudi Kenya.” Translated literally this means “Greet your people when you return to Kenya.” A more succinct way of communicating systematic alienation and under-development may not be found in our history. This systematic alienation of politically ‘light’ communities by successive governments was the result of development agendas based on cronyism and political tokenism. This skewed development is what necessitated our new constitution. It must be noted as an aside that constitution development is traditionally not a peacetime achievement. This should perhaps further underline the extent to which government budgets have been directed at arbitrary, non-national and tokenist targets.

This record must also note that this new constitution was an arduous labour of love which was fought severally by sitting governments. These included the long-drawn out process of the Yash Pal Ghai’s commission in 2000, followed by the bait-and-switch of the Bomas Draft and the Wako draft in 2005 and finally governmental lethargy in 2010. Even Kenya’s best president economically, Mwai Kibaki was against the 2005 Draft and only relented to political pressure by joining the Yes vote late in the 2010 Yes campaign. The heavy political lifting during this interminable process was carried out by one Raila Amolo Odinga. Wait, where have we seen that name before?

And finally there is the little-known and oft-overlooked fact that it was Jaramogi Oginga Odinga who pulled our 3rd president out of Makerere and installed him in the upper echelons of KANU in 1960. It must be noted that at this time Kenyatta was still in prison.  From there Kibaki took a brisk walk into treasury in 1963 and from there to the office of the Minister for Commerce and Industry in 1966.

In other African nations, such good turns are often returned in due course. By this I am referring to the curious case of Ghana. Ghana’s current president’s father paid the immediate former president’s tertiary education fees in Ghana and flight tickets for further education in Russia. As it so happens, HE Nana Akufo-Addo unseated John Mahama right in the middle of Mahama’s incumbency. What am I trying to say? In short that one good turn deserves another.

As we finish up, (lol) it should be clear by now that the nation of Kenya owes much to its Luo leaders if not its Luo people. Given that RAO and the Luo people have not appointed his successor, chances are that this bloc will splinter if Raila were to pass away (God forbid) without identifying his successor. And even if he did appoint his successor, chances are 90-to-10 that this successor will not be as widely accepted by the Luo people. Accordingly, and in the knowledge that we may not have the opportunity to repay these good deeds in good time, it would behoove us to repay the Luo people before the bloc splits. Otherwise there will be a lingering “ethnic debt” which happens to be a wedge in the identities of other African nations.

This brings us to my final questions on Kenyan nationhood.

  1. What shall we as the nation of Kenya do with this man Raila Amolo Odinga, who fought for our new constitution which is devolving funds to previously marginalised counties?
  2. What shall we as the nation Kenya do with this community whose brilliance is globally recognised and whose contribution to our political progress has perhaps not been sufficiently rewarded?
  3. Shall we continue to play exclusionist games of tag with our presidency?
  4. Shall we choose to define our national identity as inclusionist, or exclusionist?
  5. Or shall we continue to label certain communities as “opposition material?”
  6. And if we do so, the logical follow-on question is; if the Luo who we (partially) owe our new constitution (remember I said partially) cannot be rewarded for their contributions to our political progress, under what circumstances will the Samburu, the Turkana and the Masai ever qualify to be termed as Kenyan or worthy of Kenyan leadership?

Exactly what does it mean to be Kenyan?



On Ngugi, Dylan, Gadaffi and the new Thai king

There has been typical social media outrage over the fact that Ngugi wa Thiongo did not win the Nobel Prize for literature. More to the point that it went to a musician and lyricist. Bob Dylan writes some good music man. The fact that Nobel has tried contacting him without avail is besides the point. I wanna weigh in with my perspective from early 21st Century Kenya. Let us hope that it does not sound like “Those grapes! They were so full of wrath!” lol

The source of art is conflict, whether internal or external. Someone once said a comparison of Swiss and Italian art reveals this dichotomy. The Swiss had peace for 500 years and it produced Swiss watches and chocolate. The Italians had 30 years of murder, warfare and violence and it produced Michelangelo, da Vinci and the Renaissance. On this basis, Chimamanda Adichie once rightly asked why we dont have Kenyan stories about the Mau Mau rebellion. Half of a Yellow Sun, arguably her magnum opus, is her candid perspective of the Biafran war. That is a portion of Nigerian history which is hard to resolve and which few people can revisit while accurately splitting hairs the way they need to be split. The same is true of the Mau Mau rebellion. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that history is written by conquerors. And out here, I still feel like it’s the home guards in power. In my opinion this is what has muzzled art on this topic. It takes an atypical personality type to produce art on this matter without attracting the wrong kind of attention.

Ngugi wa Thiongo is arguably Kenya’s most notable writer, either him or Prof. Ali Mazrui. I respect them. For goodness’ sake I have never written a short story, let alone a novel. So I doff my hat to him. The problem is his rendering of the Mau Mau rebellion is a bit too socialist. And I mean socialist in the sense that it emphasises ‘the movement’ over the individuals. In so doing it fails to capture the individual lives, the pathos, the dire straits and essentially the heroism of the Struggle for Independence. These were men and women who walked into forests with sticks and a sense of oppression. When they re-emerged they had handmade guns and a feeling of freedom. These were men and women who forfeited their comfort and lives to live in dark caves. They strategised, regimented, planned raids, procured resources, dealt with snitches, harried their enemy and basically conducted a war on wholly unfamiliar terms. They fought for their land, for their loved ones and for liberty among other high ideals. Shortly afterwards a State of Emergency was being declared here in Kenya and troops were being shipped in from places on and off the continent to contain the insurrection. It was not contained. Eventually the Union Jack was lowered and the Kenyan flag flew free for the first time – a new dawn for a new nation.
Now, a lot can be said about the fact that World War 2 was demographically draining for British society; that after losing the colonial crown jewel named India, there were no more resources left to run the other colonies; that America pressed for the liberation of the colonies. But let the signal not be lost in the noise, let the facts above see the light of day. Let it be known that those men and women who fought for Kenya’s independence were real heroes. Once when Idi Amin wanted to extend his coasts to Lake Naivasha one of those generals offered Mzee Jomo to go and deal with the man. They had sand, gravitas and character. In startup parlance they got stuff done. We have just come out of Mashujaa Day, or Heroes Day in English. That heroism is part of our national history and heritage. The ideals for which they fought must be striven for. It is this elevation of the best in the human spirit, the highlighting of the evils and the glories of human struggle that literature on the Mau Mau must capture. It is these notes which Ngugi wa Thiongo failed to hit in The River Between and Weep Not Child. And it is for this reason that I don’t think he deserves that Nobel prize. Yes he has kinky black (now grey) hair and all, yes I identify with him but… this is my opinion.

Which brings us to a footnote on this home guard business. Kenya emerged in 2013 from a bruising electoral cycle with a few unresolved strands, the monster of tribalism rearing its ugly head and some home guards back in the driving seat. Frankly speaking I did not vote for the current government and for a considerable while I was highly critical of it. Actually I still am. But after observing alternatives societies for long enough, I am convinced that we actually don’t have it that bad. Yes, our system is very uniquely flawed but it is not yet broken. And as the saying goes “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This is not to condone mediocrity, corruption or the hundred and one things that ail our country. No, a hundred times no. We may think that we have it rough but there are places that have it much worse off. The main reason I say this is because we have an example to look to a bit further north, which is Libya. It may be an extreme example, but it fits the bill. Gadaffi may have been a bit off-kilter, and seriously unpopular in certain quarters of his country, but Libya under Gadaffi was orders of magnitude better than Libya today. Word on the streets is that housing was in order, water was not a problem (in that dry land!) and education was provided for. I hear refrigeration for newly-weds was also taken care of but that may be a bit of a stretch. Granted, we are not sitting on motherlodes of oil to facilitate such largesse but besides the social net they had peace.

The point that Libya’s history makes is that in situations where there is a 55%-45% split and the very legitimacy of a government comes into question, the presidency is a unifying figure. Mark I said the presidency, not necessarily the president. We laughed at the new Thai king in a tank top (watu wa 80’s ndio sisi) and carrying a poodle being saluted by generals, but I think we need to doff our hats off for the generals saluting him at attention. If ever there was a lesson in there for us it is this; respect the seat, even if you didn’t root for its occupant. I think the point that must be raised in honour of those generals is this; of the leaders among that splintered 45% in Libya, who is unifying the country now? This is a hard gospel to take, and I say this with utmost respect for the opposition here in Kenya, based on gaining the new constitution and toppling Citizen Moi. We haven’t dealt with our African eminent personalities homework and so we still have too much steam in the system. We must tread carefully and practise how to live together as many peoples in one nation.

The story is told by Paulo Coelho of two brothers who lived in Ancient Rome in the time of Emperor Tiberius. One was a poet and the other a soldier. The poet achieved instant fame because he wrote delightful poems acceptable to the day and the times. The other brother was a soldier, a toughie who fought wars in distant lands. One night the father of the two sons had a dream in which an angel appeared to him and told him that the words of one of his sons would be learned and repeated throughout the world for all generations to come. Later he asked which of the sons that was and the angel told him it was not the poet, but rather the soldier. And the soldier’s words were “My Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. But only speak a word and my servant will be healed.” The point made by that story is that everyone plays a central role in history yet normally does not know it.

Time is ephemeral. History has sides. Let us tread on the right side of history.

Pills, Tribe and Leadership

I will admit to some weakness. At some point in my youth I was a complete wuss as far as dating is concerned. (My friends and I have heated arguments about the duration of this stage, and whether it is really over J) Naturally my first point of reference was Google. In the process I came across hierarchical stratifications of males both in the wild and in controlled environments. The dating philosophies related to these stratifications are thoroughly flawed but the stratifications themselves hold little nuggets of truths.

So this shall be our focus today, the world of men as depicted by these stratifications. Before we delve too deep, it must be noted that the original study which was the basis of the below categorisations, was done on animals in captivity. Animals in captivity behave very differently from animals in the wild. Let’s get right into it.

Many social groupings can be categorised into the following segments:

Alpha – these are your typical king of the ring, found at the top of a social pyramid. Alphas are culturally stereotyped as barrel-chested, charismatic and brilliant; head and shoulders above the rest both literally and figuratively. More often than not they are depicted as multitalented with excellent pro-visionary and artistic skills. These chaps have the rest of the clan following behind them in lockstep, single-file with martial discipline.

Sigma – Kings without kingdoms, sigmas go through a separate development path away from the rest. Once they get beyond a certain developmental (or is it survival?) threshold, evolution takes place and pack thinking falls by the way side. They normally possess raw talent but prefer to operate outside the hierarchy. It is worth noting in passing that the life cycle of male lions requires at least 1 or 2 years of solitary existence away from any pride before they can claim leadership of a pride.

Beta – These are almost alphas. They are high up in the hierarchy but subordinate to alphas. They are often lieutenants to alphas and are often being groomed to take over after the alpha leaves.

Other categorisations exist but they fall outside the scope of our focus today.

By definition a leader is an alpha, a sigma or a beta (when alpha leaders have been culled or are under development). Some leaders have the luxury of developing organically, while others are thrust into leadership roles. The process is immaterial. The outcome is the same. As a result of being thrust into leadership roles, leaders must deal with issues of real and perceived value. They are forced to face facts and manage real situations. A leader by definition must structure order out of chaos. If you read any analysis of a presidency, the sense of lurching from crisis to crisis is very real.

Normally in these cases, what you know defines how you play the game. Information asymmetry is sometimes crucial to this process. The possession of information oftentimes separates the few from the many. In feudal societies dukes ran the world. The term ‘duke’ is derived from the Latin word ducere which means to educate. Dukes were in many cases blood brothers and relatives of the ruling king. These guys saw the big picture and knew the score. Everyone else was just paddling along.

We could choose to use the possession of information, and its resultant thinking patterns, to classify people into 2 groups; blue pill thinkers and red pill thinkers. Blue-pill-thinkers know the rules, work with the rules, play by the rules and believe in the rules. In most cases they are protected by the rules. A classic case of rigid blue-pill thinking (despite strong evidence to the contrary) is Sansa Stark before her education by Ramsey Snow and Lord Baelish. Red pill thinkers get exposed to the flaws and the cracks in the rules, whether advertently or inadvertently. As a result of this exposure, they begin to question the causes, effects and application of these rules as well as the motives of the various actors. As The Matrix accurately put it, each pill has irreversible effects.

Many alphas are red pill thinkers who deliberately perpetuate blue pill thinking among their followers for the maintenance of order within the pack. They will shield their charges from certain facts because some people just cannot handle the truth. This is part of what it means to structure order out of chaos. An example of this kind of thinking within a corporate context is the Gervais Theory of organisations. Somebody commented that it described his career spanning 20+ years. Most sadly this explanation was coming at the tail end of the individual’s 20+ years!

Perhaps another way of illustrating this stratification is the understanding of tribal arithmetic. The 2008 and 2013 elections opened my eyes to tribal thinking. So one place that I found to be a veritable treasure trove on this was quite surprisingly the Bible. So I tried to run it through the history of Israel. In truth, if you read through Judges, all tribes judged Israel at one point or other. The children of Israel forgot that their security was Jehovah Elohim for any consistent stretch of time. So this is what came up.

The tribe of Ephraim were alphas and without a doubt the bad boys of Israel. Ephraim was the son of the last patriarch, Joseph, and an elite Egyptian priest’s daughter. Ephraim was born into royalty in Egypt. Manasseh, his brother, was his trusted sidekick while Dan may have been his trusted lieutenant. With a political following this effortlessly developed, Ephraim oftentimes lorded it over the other tribes. It is my suspicion that this was the reason they used to ask Judges from other tribes, “Why didn’t you call us to the battle?” When the 10 tribes split from Judah Jeroboam set up his headquarters in Ephraim.

One of the tribes I find most fascinating is Naphtali. Naphtali was the lastborn son of Leah’s handmaid. In terms of patriarchal love, he started out from very low in the hierarchy. This apparently did not bother him and he flourished to become the free spirit of Israel. He bordered the northern ‘frontier territories’ and was a skilled warrior performing military feats during the times of the Judges. Naphtali played a key role in the reign of Solomon and greatly assisted his various construction projects. He appears in my mind’s eye as an artistically gifted, dreadlocked hunk.

Benjamin was blessed by Jacob with the words “Shall raven as a wolf…” He was Jacob’s lastborn, a brother of Joseph and the son of Rachel. As such his status and identity among the 12 tribes’ hierarchy was not in question. So he was not out to jockey for position. It is possible that the truth was more important to him than it was for the other tribes. The fact that the prophets Jeremiah and Paul were both Benjamites is (in my understanding) a direct consequence of this fact. CORRECTION: Jeremiah was a Levite, albeit from Anatoth – a Levite town within Benjamite territory.

Immediately after Joshua’s death, the tribe of Judah led Israel for a while. Thereafter the title of Judge circulated among the tribes in succession. My take is that during this time Judah was your typical sigma. Their ‘turning alpha’ was precipitated by the national crisis of the Philistines. That was the whole point of the Philistines anyway, but more has been said of that elsewhere.

An interesting aside is that Judah had a bond with Benjamin stemming from Judah’s pledging his life for Benjamin when Pharaoh’s representative (Joseph) was testing them in Egypt. Additionally, the two were neighbours. When Judah co-opted Manasseh, Ephraim’s blood-brother and confederate, Ephraim’s tribal alliance was crippled.

Normally a leader will be perceived to be wrong in one way or other. The thing about leadership is that everyone has an opinion. Or as Alliser Thorne in Game of Thrones phrases it so well, a leader has the right to be “second-guessed” by every single one of his charges, even though the ultimate responsibility for outcomes lies with him. By this token, ‘there comes a time’ when a leader’s followers must choose whether they want to continue following or whether they want to chart their own course. The alpha will at this point need to make a choice as to whether they want to play the political game and strike compromises with the wants of their charges or whether he will stick by their ‘non-negotiables’ and go it alone. This in some cases boils down to their rating on the ‘need-to-lead’ scale vis-a-vis the compromises being asked for. Examples of this happening include Israel asking Samuel for a king, Israel under Jeroboam asking “What part have we in Judah?“, the Conservatives rioting against Margaret Thatcher and the Lord Jesus Christ asking his followers, “Will ye also go away?

In some cases this is how a sigma forms. In many cases a beta makes a play for alpha, fails and is summarily dismissed from the pack. Whatever the case or cause, one defining characteristic of sigmas is that they represent a legitimate alternative narrative which counters the prevailing trend. Examples of this state include Mike Corleone prior to the Sollozzo debacle in The Godfather and Cross deLena prior to the Virginio Ballazzo incident in The Last Don, Maximus in Gladiator, Merry and Pippin at the tail end of LOTR when retaking the Shire.

This ‘alternative narrative’ often poses an instinctive and existential threat to an alpha and their widely propagated blue-pill thinking. It could destroy the foundation upon which the alpha’s superstructure is built. A sigma need not necessarily replicate himself in order to spread. But his beliefs can. How else would one explain the phrase in the Bible “and they took knowledge of them that they had been with Jesus.” Examples of this happening include Elijah at Carmel, Socrates, Sir Thomas the Archbishop of Canterbury, Che Guevara and PLO Lumumba.

Anyway, so much for analysis, live your life.