The eyes of a typical Kikuyu are those of someone who has been wronged

The eyes of a typical Kikuyu are those of someone who has been wronged

Kenyatta Otieno

In March 2008, at the height of uncertainties brought about by post-election violence, I found myself in Eldoret. I had just lost my job, which somehow did not bother me, and then my church asked for volunteers to go on a prayer and humanitarian trip organised by churches across the country.

We went down to Mombasa then drove back to Nairobi, Naivasha, Nakuru, Eldoret and lastly down to Kisumu. The Nakuru and Eldoret sections of the trip have stuck with me to date. Even the Christ in us may not have withstood the weight of the stories we heard in Nakuru. The people from Western Kenya were sheltering behind the walls of Afraha Stadium to the south of the town. The Kikuyu, who were many, displaced from their farms as far as Eldoret, were at the ASK showground to the northwest of Nakuru.

We first stopped over at Afraha. The numbers were low but the stories were heart wrenching. Some people from western Kenya in the entourage got carried away but kept their fortitude, which is a normal reaction. You could see the Kikuyu among us going through the paces. At the showground, I sat down to talk to children who were drawing what they had seen, and I got transfixed to the ground where I was squatting. I let the others venture into the camp then walked away. It was just too much and one could see the Kikuyu in our midst break down.

I was born in Nakuru and towards the end of 1992, just after completing my primary school studies, experienced the effects of tribal clashes. It had become a common scene in the town and estates to see people seeking shelter after fleeing clashes in Molo. This was a few weeks to the first multiparty elections in Kenya. I was in town one evening when I bumped into a crowd surrounding a group of women and children seated on the pavements. I squeezed past a few people and caught a glimpse of DP Chairman Mwai Kibaki wiping tears as a woman narrated her experience. The 2008 experience reminded me that things had not changed, fifteen years on.

There is one thing I always remember about the Eldoret circuit of the journey. The town bore the brunt of the violence that our almost one thousand-strong Christian force looked inadequate. We split up to cover as much ground as we could, but the Kiambaa Church where people had been burned alive as they sought shelter, was a must see for most. People went to minister all over town, and the stories that evening could have brought down the walls in the hotels we were staying in.

I went to the ASK showground in the afternoon after a heavy downpour, where I saw a young boy, about five years old, standing barefoot beside a tent about twenty metres from where I stood facing a canopy of makeshift tents. He was not interested in our presence unlike other children who were excited to see visitors. I turned my focus on him and looked him in the eye. I was met with red-shot eyes on a face that shielded a heavy heart. He looked at me with suspicion of a child who wanted to run and embrace me but like there was a voice was quietly warning him to keep off. His recent experience had robbed him of trust or maybe he knew we would raise his spirits but leave him in the cold in their makeshift tent. That scene is as vivid in my mind today as it was then.

Much later, I read Baraka Obama’s biography Dreams from my Father and the image of that boy came flooding into its pages. Obama describes a child he met at his grandfather’s home in Kendu Bay as having the ‘eyes of someone who had been wronged”. That line cemented the picture of that Gikuyu boy in Eldoret in my mind. Many times, I have looked at the Kikuyu community through his eyes. At the height of 2017 election debacle, a friend of mine with whom I went to that trip, told me that the Nakuru experience left him with a Kikuyu consciousness he did not have before that. 2017 did for me what 2008 did for him; I could relate, and told him as much.

The Kikuyu suffered the brute force of colonialists, especially during the State of Emergency from 1952 because they had good agricultural land. They had the fortune of getting power from the colonialists at independence through Jomo Kenyatta. To the kikuyu elite, it was time to push other communities to the periphery and amass wealth to compensate for that historical pain.

The unquenchable crave for land which they felt the colonialists had used to create wealth and make them poor has never left the heart of the Kikuyu. Their elites, composed more of home-guards than freedom fighters, took over the large tracts of land left behind by settlers and then settled the peasants in Rift Valley and parts of Coast Province. This brought about the hatred from the communities in Rift Valley and the Coast. This has made Kikuyus to settle everywhere in Kenya while central Kenya is homogeneously Kikuyu. This is always used as a threat against them during elections which throws them into “siege mentality” mode.

When people feel they have been wronged, they don’t always know what to do with those hurt feelings. The effects later are either an aggressive or withdrawn reaction. One of the most common responses is a form of reaction formation where they repress the discomfiting sense of being vulnerable and alternatively present a strong, even aggressive facade to the world. If this was the response from the Kikuyu at independence, then they chose a passive-aggressive mien by chasing money at whatever cost but becoming withdrawn socially. The net summary of such wounds is that wounded people wound others.

The irony comes in when they easily dropped any thought of revenge on home-guards who collaborated with the colonialists. People like the late John Michuki, who is rumoured to have castrated captured MauMau fighters, even got elected to parliament later. This ability to suppress negative feelings, unlike the Luo who wear their emotions on their sleeves, has worked for and against the Kikuyus.

It has worked for them in politics where they are always able to conceal their intentions. This is how they managed to survive under Daniel arap Moi’s 24 years of covert ant-Kikuyu push. It has worked for those who decided to amass wealth at whatever cost to compensate for the hurts. On the other side, I believe it is responsible for the other half of Kikuyu nation people avoid or talk of in whispers. The alcohol problem, broken families, crime and abject poverty lie below the industrious spirit and affluence in central Kenya.

Kikuyus are generally not physically aggressive. I have learned that Kikuyus will rarely tell you NO to your face. They will act in a way that you can pick out that your request was declined. They are not ones to insist on culture but are known to adhere to order and rules. This explains why PCEA, which they call mutaratara (planned order), has thrived in central Kenya. This could be a carry-over from their agrarian culture, where planning supersedes aggression and one has to wait for the crops to ripen.

Another irony I have noted among Kikuyus is their streak to keep their side of the bargain in a business deal even without a written agreement. On the contrary, Kenyans know Kikuyus as crafty and dishonest with an eye and scent for money and innate ability to take advantage of or swindle you out of your coin. At a personal level I would rather do business with a Kikuyu than with someone from any other tribe in Kenya. Their trustworthiness, I have deduced, is out of their respect for the hustle of making money.


When Moi came to power in 1978, his Kalenjin cronies asked him to either give the Kalenjin land the way Kenyatta had done to his people or chase away Kikuyus from the Rift Valley. The latter was not an option to take officially so Moi let the Kalenjin clear large tracts of Mau Forest and settle. The Kalenjin elites allocated themselves large tracts while the peasants got about five acres each to create a picture of a settlement scheme.

In places like Ndefo, along the Njoro-Narok Road, the boundary between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin is a former cut-line that is now a road that marked the end of Kikuyu settlement and beginning of Mau Forest. Several burned down shells of houses and abandoned homes that once littered the area are visible on the Kikuyu side of the terrain. The Kikuyus moved further away from the boundary, but still carry the audacity to come back to their land to farm although they are afraid of settling. This has been the case since 1990. This scenario replicates itself in Njoro, Molo, Burnt Forest and Eldoret. The wounded generation among the Kikuyus is those born from the 1980s in the Rift Valley.

Political power

These land clashes and fear of future attacks has is what motivates the Kikuyu elites to want to hold onto power at whatever cost. This is something that has been said they swore immediately Mwai Kibaki succeeded Moi in 2003. They control many sectors of the economy which political power safeguards but they sell the protection of Kikuyu settlements outside former central Province to Kikuyu peasants. This has led to high voter turnouts in the name of safeguarding the kingship.

I visited several counties in Kikuyuland in 2017, where several people I spoke with said that the Jubilee administration had not met their expectations and they were not expecting much from Uhuru Kenyatta. Some were candid enough to tell me they had nothing against Luos, but their survival depends on a Kikuyu presidency.

Anyone interested in finding a solution to the high strung politics in Kenya must look at it through the eyes of the wounded Kikuyu. The wounds they have suffered over time have made them approach political power with a do-or-die mentality in total disregard of the desires of other communities. Such a scenario can never generate a win-win solution.   ^

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