Growing Beyond the Pull of the Tribe in Kenya

Seniors Frida Gacheri, left, Eva Njeri and Janet Ndambuki say they are good friends, though from different tribes.
Seniors Frida Gacheri, left, Eva Njeri and Janet Ndambuki say they are good friends, though from different tribes. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 18, 2005

NAIROBI -- The girls all wore gray sweaters with their stiff green skirts and clunky black shoes, and their short hair was pulled into tight ponytails, a dress code required by their high school to enforce uniformity.

They all moaned about the overcooked school lunch of pounded maize, and they all spoke a slang mixture of Swahili and English known as Sheng, a practice they enforce as rebellious teenagers.

But even though the students at the State House Girls School appeared similar, when their tribal background came up, stereotyped views of one another poured out.

"Kikuyus are the most powerful and the richest tribe," Janet Ndambuki said, looking at her Kikuyu friend, Eva Njeri.

"Well, Kambas perform witchcraft," Eva, 17, fired back at Janet, who replied: "Well, not me!"

"You do have relatives," chimed in Frida Gacheri, a round-faced 17-year-old from the Meru tribe, raising her eyebrows inquisitively.

When Janet and Eva accused Frida's tribe of being "the worst dressers in all of Kenya," the three girls exploded in laughter.

"Tribalism in Africa, it's still very much there," proclaimed Frida, whose family has often told her she should not marry someone who is not a Meru. "But do we really want to be like our grandparents, quarreling over such tired ways? Aren't we all Kenyans at the end of the day?"

The conversation offers a glimpse of the abiding force of tribalism in Kenya, where, as in most of Africa, it often overrides any sense of nationalism. Political parties form along tribal, not ideological, lines, and opportunities often stem from blood ties. Such allegiances have fueled relentless conflicts across the continent, including those in the Darfur region of Sudan and in Ivory Coast.

Before colonialism, tribal structures served as the equivalents of the modern state, and people turned to their leaders for loans, health care and mediation in domestic disputes. The European colonial powers, arriving in the late 1880s, carved up Africa into new nations that often ignored and sometimes exploited long-standing tribal alliances.

In Kenya, there are 50 tribes, or ethnic groups, with members sharing similar physical traits and cultural traditions, as well as roughly the same language and economic class. Their divisions are dramatized daily in Kenyan soap operas and debated on radio talk shows.

There are signs, however, that among Africa's urban teenagers, the pull of tribalism is waning. Today's youth, called Generation 2, or the second generation since colonial rule ended in 1963, speak the same language, dance to the same Swahili hip-hop beats and laugh at the old tribal stereotypes.

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