Shun Tribalism: A Plea to Preserve the Diverse Kenyan Ethnic Identity

February 24, 2009 at 3:07 pm 15 comments

“Muwacha mila ni mtumwa, mkosa mila ni mfungwa.” Only an idiot will think ethnicity is negative. The hypocrites will argue than ethnicity should be shunned then go back home and practice the very same ethnicity. In their very limited comprehension and use of language they have taken to the street shouting “you are naked” defining naked as “allowing any part of your body to be seen” while they walk around with their faces uncovered.  If that is not sheer stupidity or hypocrisy, then educate me on what it is.

For those linguistically challenged, I implore you to bear with me as I develop this otherwise very complicated thesis. Quite often tribalism is a hotly contested subject discussed by many people who beyond their personal experience know much less than the spelling of this word. So I start by asking a rhetorical question. Who is to blame when a pen writes the wrong spelling – the pen or the writer? maybe both. I have purposed to clarify my terminologies so as not to leave any doubt as to what this post is meant to communicate. Three words must be looked at: tribalism, ethnicity and ethnocentrism. At some point, the word nation and its cognate, nationalism needs to be understood too.

Tribalism comes from the word tribe which is viewed historically or developmentally, as consisting of a social group existing before the development of, or outside of, states. Many anthropologists use the term to refer to societies organized largely on the basis of kinship, especially corporate descent groups that link back to clans and lineage. Some theorists hold that tribes represent a stage in social evolution intermediate between bands and states. Other theorists argue that tribes developed after, and must be understood in terms of their relationship to, states (Wikipedia). It is this latter theory that Kenyan politicians and other like-minded elements have often exploited to achieve some of their dirty goals.

It is what leads to the definition of tribalism as “tribal consciousness and loyalty ; especially : exaltation of the tribe above other groups.” Tribal people see only the members of their own tribe as “people,” and denigrated all others as something less. Many languages refined their identification as “the true people,” or “the real people,” dehumanizing the other people or simply considering them inferior. In this sense, tribes – though an inevitable fact, unfortunately leads to tribalism, which is indeed a crisis today.

Ethnicity or ethnic identity, on the other hand, refers to membership in a particular cultural group. It is defined by shared cultural practices, including but not limited to holidays, food, language, and customs.

Ethnocentrism can be understood as the disposition to read the rest of the world, those of different cultural traditions, from inside the conceptual scheme of one’s own ethnocultural group. The ethnocentric attitude assumes that one’s own ethnic Weltanschauung (worldview) is the only one from which other customs, practices, and habits can be understood and judged.

Ethnocentrism thus is conceived critically as involving overgeneralizations about cultures and their inhabitants, others’ or one’s own, on the basis of limited or skewed, if any, evidence. So the notion of ethnocentrism is conceived as a profound failure to understand other conceptual schemes, and, by extension, practices, habits, expressions, and articulations of others on their own terms. Standing inside our own conceptual schemes, we are blinded even to the possibilities of other ways of thinking, seeing, understanding, and interpreting the world, of being and belonging—in short, other ways of worldmaking.

It would seem to follow, as many definitions in fact insist, that ethnocentrism is a claim about the superiority of one’s own culture or ethnic standing. While this is perhaps a strong presumption in many ethnocentric claims, we should be careful not to make it definitionally so. As a matter of fact, everyone is ethnocentric through no fault of their own. Man is essentially finite and thus cannot overtly claim comprehension of everything that there is in the entire universe. We all follow the primary school mathematical principle of moving from the known to the unknown. So when we encounter things that alien to our understanding, our first instinct is to interpret them in light of our own experience. The fallacy lies in the belief that all that we know is all that there is. It is the reason why nations develop and implement obnoxious and ineffective foreign policies. They use their own historical prejudice in judging the situations in other nations. It is the reason some missionaries have made mistakes, presenting their culture as the Gospel.

Ethnocentrism leads us to make false assumptions about cultural differences. We are ethnocentric when we use our cultural norms to make generalizations about other peoples’ cultures and customs. Such generalizations — often made without a conscious awareness that we’ve used our culture as a universal yardstick — can be way off base and cause us to misjudge other peoples. Ethnocentrism also distorts communication between human beings.

Ethnocentric thinking causes us to make wrong assumptions about other people. It leads us to make premature judgments. “They” may not be very good at what we are best at. By evaluating “them” by what we are best at, we miss the many other aspects of life that they often handle more competently than we do. We cannot do so much about our ethnocentric predispositions apart from recognizing that we do not understand, that we are falsely assuming something that is not the case and is out of context. But how can we consciously become aware of something that is happening subconsciously? In this case, how can we know when we are being biased? I leave that for another day’s discussion. This article is meant to help us clear our guilt – those of our own making and those imposed to us by people who have made us believe that we are better of born in other sociocultural settings. I submit that ethnocentrism is not the greatest threat to our national stability and unity – tribalism is. Other people in reacting to ethnocentrism, which they confuse for tribalism, have embraced xenocentrism, thus rejecting everything they have always regarded as right. Some have been encultured while others have gone native.

As the debate for the Kenya we want rages on, we must be careful enough to rid what we don’t need yet at the same time preserve what is valuable and distinguishes us as authentic entities of our own kind. I introduce celebration of ethnicity as the only bridge that can help us extinguish tribalism while at the same time diffuse the guilt of ethnocentric feelings. It is not the fault of any living being to have been born in any social or cultural group, strata or sub-stratum. I was born a Luo through no fault of my own. A Luo I am and so forever I will be. It is meaningless, futile and retrogressive beginning to think of myself as something different – better or less Luo. However, when my luoism gets into my head and I begin to think that anyone not Luo is backward, limited and carries no intrinsic human value, then there tribalism begins.

Moreover, I become tribal when my tribal instincts compel me to think, believe and consequently act in ways that extol the luoism as the only authentic way of life and depict every other way or some specific tribal and cultural groupings inferior. When this worldview has been incubated, it is hatched into nefarious and atrocious undignified tendencies. Like pride, the problem with tribalism is that its authority is illegal, its correction is difficult and its punishment is severe. This must be understood eschatologically – with the end in mind, that is.

It is the genesis of corruption and subsequent decay of our moral substance that takes away our human worth. It inflicts us with the seed of impunity and makes our heart grow callous. We become stiff-necked and begin to define impunity as purity. It beckons our destructive nature and trashes every other moral code. This superiority begins to find its way in employment opportunities, social gatherings and political spectre. When we feel tribally superior, we begin to employ only people of our tribes. It is uncommon to see various organisations, Churches and government departments employees of one tribe occupying over seventy percent of the positions allocated – qualification and competence not withstanding.

In some places of employments and in institutions of learning, individuals come together to extol their tribal superiority. They speak in their vernacular where there are individuals from other tribal groupings who do not understand the same. Where they are contemptuous enough, they openly insult or use derogatory language against colleagues who belong to other tribes. in fact a big company in Kenya is reputed to have many underqualified staff  from a certain tribe placed in positions of higher authority than the qualified ones from other tribes.  It is also said that they sometimes conduct business meetings in their language and when asked say it is the country’s official  business language. A friend was once told that it is the people of this paticular tribe who  run businesses in Kenya and if he wanted to keep his employment he’d better start learning and speaking the language.

In the political spectrum, ‘leaders’ appeal to people of their own tribes when they want support, they also use their tribes as leverage when they bargain for positions and favours in government. Whether we are using others or being used to fulfill certain agenda that has a tribal denotation, we all remain guilty of tribalism. So “small” as well as “big” people have been perpetrators of tribalism as in the case of ethnic cleansing where some incite the violence, some fund and some perpetrate the funded violent acts.

Many proposals have been made on how to fight tribalism in Kenya – some have proposed legislative measures akin to the Rwandese resolve others think intermarriage is the magic. I will not comment on either but leave it upon you to use your head to determine your reason for marriage… as for me I would marry any “pulchritudinous*” girl, whether from Pokot, Punjab or Othaya.

Everything has been said about tribalism but one thing remains unsaid: The problem with tribalism is that like pride, its authority is illegal and its correction is difficult. Finally its punishment is severe. This must be understood eschatologically – with the end in mind, that is Having said all this, celebration of ethnicity remains my pet subject.At least I have endeavoured to distinguish myself from one with a tribal mindset or one about to die of acute ethnocentric fever.

Many pieces have been written about tribalism and all its related terms. Most of the time they fall short of admonishing us to shed off our cultural identities something that I am not prepared to do and will not do. I hear the rallying call to patriotism and nationalism. By the way nationalism for those not in the know is derived from  nation – Nationality refers to our citizenship — in other words, the nation we are a member of. People can share the same nationality but have different ethnic groups. For example, citizens of Kenya are of many different ethnic backgrounds. People who share an ethnic identity can be of different nationalities. Asian citizens of Kenya and Asian citizens in India share an ethnic identity but are of different nationalities.

These ethnic groupings are endowned with unique forms of art and culture which distinguish them from other ethnic groupings. Sometimes their morphological make up, that is structure and appearance (including complexion) differentiate them from others. These are certain attributes that we cannot call upon our fellow citizens to shed as a show of patriotism. Whenever we consider throwing away our tribal orientations (if at all we will ever, being the gullible idiots we have always been) we must not confuse it with our ethnicity. This goes especially to our civil educators and religious leaders as well as other moralizers.

We appreciate their good campaign but we must make the critical definitive distinctions on these matters. The call to discard tribalism must not be understood as or confused with the call to discard our ethnic orientations . Indeed,  however much we try we will never. Our ethnicity encompasses much more than how we speak. It is deeply who we are – it is a cultural stamp. Some Christian pietist is about to ask me the place of Christ in culture. I know that but for the sake of this article: its scope and thesis, hold your horses for a different discussion. Modern science has brought to our knowledge the danger of some primitive cultural practices – those we know and have no business sticking to.

As responsible citizens, we must not shy away from pointing out and shunning tribalists from our midst. This important act of good citizenry must be done regardless of whether they belong to our tribes or not. Tell them and tell them that they are enemies of development.

However, some cultural traditions and practices that define who we are – especially to the core, both functionally and aesthetically cannot be discarded. I have a friend who does not forget to remind us that she is a true “Manyala” and not a “Luhya.” I sincerely can’t tell the difference but if there is any, this is the distinction that must not be allowed to die.

I grew up eating osuga, akeya, athola, aliya, obambla and drinking adila and as far as I am concerned, most of these have been considered as weeds by other tribal groupings, with the exception of the neighbouring Luhya and Gusii. I have eaten many things as I travel round the globe, but nothing else meets these foodstuffs. They remain my very best. I listen to music but I will tell you that I compare nothing to rhumba – Mbilia Bel and Franco to be precise.

BBC and CNN teach me a lot and so does KTN and NTV however, I have been thoroughly entertained as well as well taught by Abich Jodongo – a traditional programme of the KBC Luo service. I love the guitar and the saxophone but orutu and nyatiti will make my day. I once served as a Youth Pastor for three months in Nairobi. This church had a youth group (which I still technically belong to to date) which played hip hop. Before then, I only knew Coolio’s tribute to Tupac “See You When you get There.” In three months, I was wrapping along with the boys as we propagated the gospel all over. I still don’t feel hip hop is music – but what the heck, if it plays its role so be it. That is why I still treat Franco Luambo Luanzo Makiadi as my best musician and I still listen to D.O. Misiany and Ochieng Kabaselleh when I want to relax with good music. Of course I love country music too. Now with all these diversity, does this make me a lesser, inferior being – not so. At least, not so far as I am concerned. Does that make my hip hop boys backward or most forward, not so. I wouldn’t trade if I had the option, and would die teaching despite the fact that my dad retired as a school teacher and has not so much to show for it. i just love to teach – it gives me little or no money but it gives me fulfilment that  trade cannot bring.

I say this because most of my contemporaries are struggling with the question of ethnic identity. I will say this without batting an eyelid, If reincarnation was true and I was asked where I would like to be reborn, I would still spell LUO with confidence. I love Luo, I was cultured as one and is the only thing I understand how best to be. I don’t disrespect or disregard any other group but I see some things differently from them and would prefer some different things from theirs. The other day I was looking at my phone books and emails and true to it, I hang out with everybody else in this world. Significant people in my life, apart from my parents and siblings are not Luo and I intend to keep it that way. My previous house-mates were two Kikuyus and one Gusii and now I live with Americans. My most preferred Pastor is Luo and the other is Kamba. I read a lot of Greek literature and would love to visit Israel someday. I have always wanted to marry a Kikuyu but I have been open to any eventuality of late.

This is what I call unity in diversity. We are all different. We have different preferences but we are together in the universe. So I say, bring on those cultural nights and let the Luyhas dance the kilumi if they want to. I will still attend the Ramogi nights and if I have an Indian wife i’ll carry her along. I will also invite my Taita and Egyptian colleagues and if you invite me to your Maasai or Mumbi night, count me in as long as it is humanly possible. I will enjoy the diversity but will still go back to my “simba” and appreciate the fact that I came.

This is the ultimate synthesis to the tribal antithesis – unity in diversity. God created me a Luo and intends to keep me so – at least anthropologically, it remains so. I may speak other languages, I may borrow a cultural practice here and there but I will remain a Luo. It is my heritage and pride. This heritage should lead me to appreciate my nationality and richly bring to the nation a diverse cultural fabric that beautifully displays a united but diverse Kenya to the world. The tower of Babel depicts disunity of the nations, the Pentecost experience brings back various nations to one understanding: that through Christ and In Christ we are one. We essentially exist in many sheds to display his glory, to witness to the universe in many colours and to point the whole world back to its maker. So let the Maasai enjoy their culture and still be proud Kenyans as the Kikuyus as well as Giriama, Pokomo and Ogiek will and so Will I as a Luo. God did not make a mistake, He meant it jsut that way. Nothing else makes much sense to me!


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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. urxlnc  |  February 24, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    hi, admit have not read the entire post but will do so in due course.

    i agree in principle, but i would like to add that its not so much on the underlying semantics or interchangeable vocabularies ethnicity vs tribal or some other glorified or catchy buzzword. one only succeeds in roping in other hitherto harmless concepts into the same dark dungeon.

    to understand negative ethnicity or tribalism (and for that matter any other differentiator such as race, religion, gender etc that leads to segregationist practice) we need to understand and evaluate the discriminatory practices themselves.

    for example you join a queue for a rare commodity – if the person serving at the counter denies you the service or product or on the other hand gives you preferential treatment while denying or at the expense of others based on whichever factor (race, tribe, height, girth, gender, religion …. you name it..) that there is a huge problem and that person should face criminal charges if they denied you services / products and both of you should face charges if you were provided preferential treatment at the expense of others.

    however if you are on the queue and everyone is served equally with the product and services but on if on reaching the service counter the person serving engages you a little more on conversation/pleasantries due to common interests (culture, tribe, sports, gender, etc) without break in service or denying the others or is a little short for the opposite reasons but the product/services are still of the desired standard then i venture to say that is acceptable.

    my point is – in order to deal with negative ethnicity/tribalism and other discriminatory practice we need to focus not so much on the diversity but on establishing the minimum acceptable standards for product and service delivery to clients/customers. once that is achieved, everything else is immaterial. you will notice that is the emphasis in countries dealing with race or religious issues, that way it does not matter whether the guy serving hates you or loves you, the product/service received is of the quality or standard expected

    sorry had to repeat myself in there several times for the sake of clarity, many tend to misunderstand my brants (blog rants)

  • 2. urxlnc  |  February 24, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    just to add to that, its when opportunities, services or products and other goods whether in public or private enterprise that should otherwise be availed to all in a given standard, if they are denied to a person or given to lower standard that is not articulated thats when its negative, we all know that economic discrimination is practiced and to some extent acceptable (business class vs economy class in planes for example) where paying a premium price provides you added value or comfort. what govts (and people friendly corporations) are supposed to do is establish minimum acceptable standards for the rest of the world and then have a select choice for those who want to and can afford to pay to be above the rest.

  • 3. Emma  |  February 24, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    Great blog, will read more when I have time! xx

  • 4. K2  |  February 24, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    @ urxlnc thanks. at least we agree on the fact that the unwarranted discriminate giving and reception of goods and services at the expense of others is retrogressive and forms the core of tribalism – especially the way we know it in Kenya.

  • 5. urxlnc  |  February 25, 2009 at 12:24 am


    absolutely, i agree with the gist of the post i apologise perhaps didnt make that too clear earlier, i was in a bt of a rush.

    there is nothing wrong with being proud of ones culture or roots or whatever else forms ones background.

    the problems as you point out and i rather laboriously indicated are when

    a) its used to deny or provide preferential services/goods

    b) when this turns into a source of bigotry or chauvinism i.e when one person/group assumes their background or group to be superior to others and either lead to intolerance, abuse or other derogatory treatment

    c) the third issue closely related to (b) is when one tries to “force” or coerce or otherwise hound others to adopt their culture as best practice (sometimes using frivolous or ambiguous reason such as we are better off because …)

    both (b) and (c) above are the source for or contribute largely to stereotyping and associated lame/hurtful or good natured jokes.


    in order to move forward especially in kenya we need to define services and minimum standards acceptable which must be adhered to and optional premium services at a fee or other known and published measurement so that any who “qualify” have access. and move away from this village talk/tribal whispers to gain favor or advantage.

    other countries have defined the discriminatory practices that will not be tolerated in providing services

    viz gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, age, disability, etc

    overall am glad you’ve made a excellent attempt to touch on this subject and hope you are able to reach others out there as well.

  • 6. K2  |  February 26, 2009 at 12:36 am

    @ Emma and urxlnc thanks. I appreciate your comments

  • 7. Mike  |  March 1, 2009 at 3:16 am

    Just passing by.Btw, you website have great content!

    Making Money $150 An Hour

  • 8. K2  |  March 2, 2009 at 3:29 am

    @ Mike, thanks

  • 9. bloonsterific  |  July 10, 2009 at 11:29 am

    Just wanted to tell you all know how much I appreciate your postings guys.
    Found you though google!

    • 10. aletheia  |  July 30, 2009 at 2:54 am

      @ bloonsterific, you are welcome.

    • 11. K2  |  May 7, 2010 at 8:09 pm

      Thanks you, bloonsterific.

  • 12. Usdating  |  January 10, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    Great done and keep posted. Looking forward to reading more from you.

  • 13. Masakhalia Alan  |  February 17, 2011 at 4:19 am

    This is great, tribalism is indeed a cancer that kenyans need do do away with if vision 2030 is to be realised

  • 14. Plavuse  |  March 6, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    Ues, but not everthing black and white, something is gray 🙂


  • 15. Dan Kidha  |  March 7, 2011 at 1:03 am

    My dear readers, it’s long since I last checked this blog. Just letting you all know that I developed it into a full site with a new domain name – all the original content that is here and much more can now be found in



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