On the eve of Super Tuesday, the whole world watches to see who will emerge as the Democratic front-runner, and possibly the next president of the United States. Here in Kenya, people are especially excited, given Barack Obama’s family roots.
“He’s one of us,” they would tell me. “He’s a Kenyan.”
But in the last month, something has changed. Since the ethnic violence that has gripped the nation after the disputed presidential election in December, not everyone I speak to supports Obama. I now hear surprising comments such as, “A black man will never be president.” I meet Kenyans who say they support Hillary, but can’t articulate why.
“I don’t think Kenyans have supported Obama so much,” Evans K. Kamba, a businessman from Nairobi, told me. “I think it’s only one tribe that supports him here, but not other tribes.”
Kamba is a Kikuyu, and even though he didn’t vocalize it, the rabid tribalism that has spawned the ethnic violence that’s killed nearly 1,000 people, and left hundreds of thousands more displaced in Kenya, has crept its way into the debate over American politics.
Obama’s father was a Luo, the tribe of opposition leader Raila Odinga. But the animosity exhibited today between the Kikuyu and Luo, two of Kenya’s biggest tribes, is as old as Kenya’s independence, over 40 years ago. When the country gained independence from the British, Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and Kenya’s first president, named Oginga Odinga (Raila Odinga’s father) as his vice president. But differences in how the country should be led resulted in a split that became so nasty, at one point, Kenyatta had Odinga arrested and detained.
The stereotypes that were established more than 40 years ago Kikuyus are thiefs, they steal land, they are corrupt; Luos are wild, uncivilized, unclean are words I am hearing, sometimes subtly, and others blatantly, today.
There are reports that, in Kikuyu strongholds prior to the election, ethnic propaganda went out flyers and talk radio, in the local language, warning, “We will never be ruled by a Luo,” and “Raila will kill all Kikuyus if he wins.” Last weekend, Kikuyu gangs went on a rampage of revenge attacks in two major Rift Valley towns, and in the Nairobi slums.
In the Rift Valley, where most of the worst ethnic violence has taken place, it’s not Luos targeting Kikuyus in the area, but a tribe called the Kalenjin, who have land grievances also dating back to independence.
The tribalism exploited by Kenya’s leaders throughout history the militias, the propaganda have exploded in the leaders’ faces and left the country spinning out of control. Endless tales of hacking next door neighbors with machetes, of mobs chasing innocent people of different tribes into churches and homes, and burning them alive, and clashes using poisoned bows and arrows, are almost daily headlines.
Even this reporter has to be careful. Though I am black American, I am constantly mistaken for a Kikuyu. I have to always wear press credentials (which have been checked by rioters before), and scream that I am American, with my accent, to get people to believe me. I don’t even say “asante sana” “thank you” in Swahili, the national language of Kenya for fear someone will mistake me as being Kenyan from the “wrong” tribe.