How do we define our generations?

How do we define our generations?

By Janek Sunga

Every time I hear or see the word millennial in the Kenyan media, I groan and ache, sometimes quite audibly. Who are these so called millennials? Wametoka wapi?

You see, this term is totally divorced from the Kenyan condition. In the United States, millennials are those considered to have been born in 1985-2000.  By the way those years are approximate, they might change depending on who you are talking to or reading. Those years are not significant enough in Kenya history, at least not 1985. American millennials have no characteristics in common with Kenyan millennials. Defining generations is difficult, but that’s what I attempt to do in this essay.

Boundary posts can be set in the years of birth, or when a generation came of age. The year of birth method makes sense especially viewed from a Western perspective. A generation is generally considered to be thirty years. According to the biblical tradition, “A man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Soon after a child emerges from that union.  The median age of first birth for Kenyan women is around 20 years, and just a little more for men. So a Kenyan generation could be lowered to 25 years.

The coming of age perspective is rooted in more African customs. Traditionally, those who faced the knife at the same time belonged to the same age-set. The bonds forged here were sometimes stronger than those between blood brothers. That’s saying something since age-set members were usually already kinsmen by virtue of belonging to the same clan. You were all initiated into adulthood at the same time. The rite of passage into adulthood extended beyond circumcision. Age-set members took the same classes under the strict supervision of elders as they learnt the secrets of adulthood. Age sets were not necessarily made up of people of just the same age. However, the members were close enough in age.

The easiest method to denote generational cohorts is to define them by Kenya’s successive presidential regimes. Kenya has had four presidents. Jomo and Moi ruled long enough that it is possible to use them as generational markers. Kenyatta was president for 15 years during which the country gained its independence and firmly established itself. Africanisation took place politically and economically. The formal colour bar was erased from official policy, and people started getting used to seeing Africans sitting behind desks. Even though patronage started with Kenyatta, the civil service back then was more professional compared to that of subsequent governments. Two of the most significant political assassinations also took place then: Tom Mboya and JM Kariuki. Mboya’s death started the Luo-Kikuyu rift, and JM’s death took away the last man who could have reconciled those two tribes.

The 24 years of Daniel Moi’s Nyayo generation are easily recognisable. The Nyayo generation has so many rich pickings that easily define its cohort. It is difficult to choose, but there are a few. The 1982 coup brought significant reverberations throughout much of Moi’s reign. The coup led to the complete closing of the political space which had already suffered repression during the Kenyatta years. Kenya became a de jure one party state. The Mwakenya years followed with its numerous detentions. There was also the clamour for multipartysim. While corruption existed in Kenyatta’s time, grand corruption officially came in vogue with Moi’s administration. Other than Moi, nothing actually defines those who drank the Nyayo milk more than the 8-4-4 education system.

Those born in the Kibaki presidency grew up very familiar with technology, but I would not say that technological penetration is enough to equate them with the millennials in the United States. Even in the urban areas Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp are not as ubiquitous as you may think. However, what is omnipresent even in rural areas is the technology that makes all those social media apps possible – the mobile phone. Because of the proliferation of M-Pesa in every sector, I shall call this the Safaricom Generation.

In 2000, Kencell (present-day Airtel) entered the market. Suddenly, the complacency that Telkom the state provider and precursor to Safaricom, disappeared. The change was instantaneous. Overnight, almost everyone had or wanted a mobile phone.

Those born during the Kibaki and Uhuru administrations, when Safaricom properly thrived, could be called the M-pesa Generation.

Cell phones have revolutionised Kenyan society. They have democratised many aspects of life faster than the politicians could ever dream of. Cheap and fast communication was obviously the first frontier. Before mobiles, word of mouth was the most common mode of communication. Letters, landline phone calls and telegram all followed as a pack at a distant second. Telephone calls were strictly limited to official business and urban areas. Telegrams were used as a last resort, and for emergency purposes. Even though I never used them, I remember my maths textbook contained problems on how to calculate the cost of a telegram. I doubt my sisters and brother even know what a telegram is.

The mobile generation ends in 2013. I am yet to give a name to those born after it. I should have gone with 2010 because it was the year that the new constitution was promulgated, but I am sticking with 2013 because it is the year that Devolution came into practice after a fifty year hiatus. Already the impacts of devolution have been felt far and wide, so I won’t dwell on those points here. As well, while this generation’s beginning has been defined, we are yet to see its endpoint. I feel this generation is more amenable to the name the Second Republic than those born in 1992.

So far I have restricted myself to post-colonial generations. However, several colonial era generations had a big impact on independence Kenya. First of all, the generation of Kenyans that served in World War II made a major contribution to the Mau fight for independence. It was those who would later be called Anake a Forty. This group of forty consisted of Kikuyu fighters who became politically conscious after coming home, and realising that the colonial government would never fulfill its promises to African veterans of the war. They served in the 1940s in various countries including most famously Burma.

The Group of Forty would inspire the Lancaster Generation. These were the men who negotiated independence for Kenya. I would group Moi and Kibaki in this generation. Moi because he was at Lancaster, Kibaki because he would be in the same age set. The Lancaster generation proved to be quite hardy. They have been in charge for pretty much of Kenya’s history. Much of Kenyatta’s cabinet and civil service was comprised of the Lancaster generation. Simeon Nyachae and John Michuki were civil servants in the colonial regime. Only a humiliating election defeat would pry Nyachae from public life.

When Kenyatta took over, he was well advanced in years, so I am reluctant to put him in the same generation as most of the politicians that were in that first independence cabinet with him. There was a reason that Kenyatta was venerated as Mzee.

Generational lines are not set in stone, and they actually blend into each other. It is possible to extend Safaricom generation to include those born during Uhuru’s presidency, because the political events in the Kibaki presidency are closely tied to what happens in Uhuru’s presidency: the first referendum, the 2007-2008 election violence, the second referendum, and the birth of new constitution leading to devolution. Furthermore, they are social constructs so it is not possible to have complete consensus on their definitions, but this is a start. (

— The writer is a Political Science PhD student at Northern Illinois University, USA; @janeksunga

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