By Michelle Digolo
Ethnicity and politics are taboo topics in our present age. Nobody wants to talk about them outright unless s/he is surrounded by people of the same ethnic group, or perhaps they share the same ideologies. There they feel a sense of safety. The debate is usually the subject of whether ethnicity and politics should mix. Or are they like oil and water?
Carole Hillenbrand once said, “History repeats itself and we would do well to heed its lessons so as not to commit the same errors as our ancestors.” Since time immemorial, the relationship between the different ethnic groups has been murky and conflictual. The end of the hotly contested 2017 elections brought the fore already brewing confrontation between Jubilee and Nasa to worrying heights. It was a sort of clash of ethnic civilisations. Or was it?
Why do we pit the Luo against the Kikuyu? Why is the Luo community seen as a threat to the peace and security of the Kenyan state? Why does the media focus on the unrest in Kisumu as though Luos are an unruly people who do not abide by rules and regulations? Why do we flirt with these ethnic biases? Why do we as a nation disintegrate into ethnic enclaves instead of addressing the root cause of the challenges we face as a nation? Why do we preach peace whilst simultaneously sowing seeds of dissention? We do it in the comfort of our homes, in our WhatsApp chat groups, on Facebook and Twitter. Do we realise how insidious this is?
As we entertain these ethnic biases, they mutate and become even more challenging to eradicate with each generation. Change starts with you. But, you’ve heard this before. The peace you seek is not going to be given by politicians. Why can’t we focus on what unites us, as well as the challenges we face, and not our ethnic differences? This therefore calls for an examen d’identité or an identity check-up as ethnic cohesion appears to be Kenya’s Achilles heel.
This relational aspect closely resembles Sperber’s thesis on Epidemiology of Representations (1985). It argues that the human population is inhabited by a wide array of mental representations that change in an extremely random manner, and these representations operate in what Sperber calls “maximum relevance”, which is, ideally, narratives constantly repeated and logged in the subconscious mind. In our case, these representations, as passed on from the elites or politicians to the common vulnerable mwananchi, and lodged in the mind, eventually affecting the way the person thinks and behaves towards members of the other ethnic group. Therefore, a person “catches” these ideas the same way one would catch a virus, and it spreads, many a time unnoticed, even though these representations condition the mind to behave in the way these representations have been exposed. A person acquires these kinds of epidemiological process gradually, and it almost invisibly spreads in a population and then indeed reaches a “tipping point” as Malcom Gladwell puts it (2000). The tipping point in this case is ethnic violence.
Although I firmly believe in Sperber’s theory as Kenyans it is time we take ownership of our own narrative and realise the power of language and social media. I was utterly shocked during the week of elections that is when it became evident that tribalism is a language spoken with such proficiency by millennials. Their articulateness when it came to spewing hate speech was tragic! Language has power and when you have the youth stating on social media that a certain politician is cursed and cannot therefore be president, or that they have a muthamaki (King), and that they cannot be led by an uncircumcised man, every phantasm of a hope of some sort of dialogue is quickly eroded.
Language has played and continues to play a vital role in the schism between the two ethnic political entities. Encompassing nearly 70 per cent of the voting power, the youth perchance could trump political tribalism. They are the backbone of a nation and they ought to be a rheostat. So, if they are misled or misinformed, then the gangrene spreads around the whole nation fast.
We need to undertake a critical assessment of ourselves and remove the scales from our eyes. Pointing fingers and violating the civil liberties of people in the Luo and Kikuyu nations, as well as in the other 44, will not help lessen the tension. The onus is on the militants for peace to reduce the conflictual nature of the current ethnic wars we continuously fight. In other words, whatever steps we take, we shouldn’t make a tough situation worse. We should not “other” another ethnic group by using cultural differences. We need to stop all forms of ethnic disparagement. This is the time that the “youth nation” must show its real soul. If we don’t, it will be a confirmation that negative ethnicity is per se a negation of all the dreams we have of a healthy future.
So how do we begin to construct this reality of a better Kenya?
We must ask ourselves critically what we want for our country and what we want for ourselves in Kenya. Do we want a corrupt-free environment? Do we want a conflict-free country? Do we want a country with more women leaders? Do we want to address the horrifying extra judicial killings? Do we want to eradicate poverty? What is our modus vivendi? What type of leaders do we seek to nurture from the youth? Then, what kind of leadership do we need to end the kind of issues that we have raised? How do we create the reality we want given the leaks that we have spotted in our counties and country at large?
Let’s stop pointing fingers at the politicians and media. We, the millennials are the one’s reinforcing or re-inscribing prejudicial views and tribalistic practices by forwarding, discussing and even entertaining stereotypes instead of challenging them to promote multicultural understanding and intercultural dialogue. What happened to Mimi ni Mkenya or the Tribeless Kenya movement? By doing this we wickedly compromise systems that we need to get ahead. If we did not truly have arcane tribal tendencies then we would call our leaders to account and not laugh at corruption scandals. Where is our morality as a people? We can’t “shoki” and “azonto” with the devil and wonder why we are in hell.
But then again, the middle class live in a bubble because they are not the ones who survive with salaries as low as Sh3,000. So, they do not seem to understand the gravity of the struggle and the implications it has on future generations. Why can’t we shatter the wall of the current matrix? Tribalism is a weapon of social control, social exploitation and social engineering. It divides people with labels and boundaries that we are “never allowed” to explore. We’ve seen what happened to people who had intermarried during the post-election violence of 2007/8.
A paradigm shift is imperative in addressing the schema between the different ethnic groups. Intellectual worldviews need to change so that we can reshape policies and eventually the future. If humanity can evolve technologically to heights previously deemed impossible, why is not possible for us to evolve mentally to the point where your tribe does not determine whether you get a job or not? It could potentially be the key that unlocks and addresses Kenya’s sorest points.