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  • Young Urban Kenyans

    Youth in Kenya Feel Few Tribal Ties

    By Stephen Buckley
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Sunday, September 28, 1997; Page A01

    Two Kenyan teens study together at school/Photo by Carol Guzy - TWP Thecla Sterk tenderly touches Mbugua Ngugi's face as they work on lessons at the International School of Kenya.
    (By Carol Guzy/The Washingon Post)
    NAIROBI -- His nickname is Skip. He wears a gold stud in his left ear. His school uniform is usually a Nike T-shirt, Nike sneakers and loose-fitting Levi's. He listens almost exclusively to hip-hop, watches reruns of "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" on television and says basketball is his favorite sport.

    His real name is Mbugua Ngugi, and at 18 he is a child of urban Africa who has never spent more than a few days in his family's rural hometown. That fact does not matter to him.

    Asked if he ever wishes he had spent more time in the countryside, he shrugged. "I don't really think about it that much," he said.

    Mbugua is part of the first generation of Kenyans -- indeed, of Africans, as the phenomenon is visible across the continent -- who do not really think much about the countryside. Their working-class, middle-class and upper-middle-class experiences have anchored them in urban centers, pulling them away from the rural links that shaped their parents and grandparents.

    Their parents worry that a vital part of what it means to be African is slipping away, that honored traditions will wither and that one of Africa's most important institutions, the extended family, will begin to drift apart. Meanwhile, these young people try to understand and appreciate a life they know mainly from photographs and stories.

    Two Kenyan teens in a library/Photo by Carol Guzy - TWP Mbugua Ngugi, his mother Josephine and his brother Mike eat dinner by the light of a flourescent bulb during one of the frequent power blackouts in Nairobi.
    (By Carol Guzy/The Washingon Post)
    The consolation for parents is that their urban children are less likely to be trapped by the tribal thinking that has poisoned political discourse and made national unity an elusive goal in this East African country and throughout the continent.

    About 75 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa still lives in the countryside. But the continent is becoming urban so rapidly that within a few decades there will be many people -- young men and women at the heart of Africa's economic and political life -- for whom village life will be little more than a history lesson.

    "My children would identify themselves as Kenyans first, and then as Nairobians," said Casper Awuondo, a sociology professor at the University of Nairobi. "That is concrete. Their [rural] home is abstract."

    Kenyans began to pour into urban areas during the 1950s, drawn mainly by jobs and the surge toward independence from Britain, which occurred in 1963. Over the next four decades, urban hubs such as the capital, Nairobi, in central Kenya, and Mombasa, on the coast, experienced explosive population growth.

    Nairobi became the flagship city of one of sub-Saharan Africa's more stable countries. It became the center of Kenyan industry, as well as regional headquarters for international bodies such as the United Nations. Roughly 830,000 people lived in Nairobi in 1979; today the population has soared to more than 2 million.

    At the same time, population pressures grew in rural areas. Kenyans found they had smaller slices of land to cultivate as the country's population rose by a staggering annual rate of 3.6 percent.

    Mbugua Ngugi leaning on a car/Photo by Carol Guzy - TWP Mbugua talks on a portable phone while leaning on his family's Mercedes.
    (By Carol Guzy/The Washingon Post)
    The rapid population growth wore down infrastructure in rural areas, overwhelmed public health facilities, left schools under-equipped and teachers underpaid. Those factors, combined with the distance many urban Kenyans must cover to reach their rural homes, have only deepened the disconnection between city dwellers and the countryside.

    Some urban dwellers stay away from the countryside because of their children. They fear disease and worry that rural relatives will foist superstitious teachings on their youngsters.

    Sometimes the children themselves, spoiled by the relative ease of urban living, cannot abide sleeping in huts, eating unfamiliar food, listening to an unfamiliar language, fetching water, using pit latrines or trudging long distances on foot.

    Some urban youths, Awuondo said, "don't know the difference between a sheep and a goat."

    Kenyans who have grown up in Nairobi are often stunned by the tribalism in rural areas, where sometimes one's whole life revolves around tribal identity. In some places one's neighbors, work mates, the business owners and the government administrators are all members of the same tribe.

    In Kenya, and throughout Africa, tribes tend to dominate specific regions of the country. That means outsiders are spotted quickly and often viewed suspiciously.

    Robert Odongo, 20, said that recently he visited a town outside Nairobi, "and I started talking to people, and I would tell them my name, and they would immediately say, 'You're a Luo.'"

    Two Kenyan teens in the library/Photo by Carol Guzy - TWP Mbugua grimaces as his friend, Anis Albhai tries to give him directions to a party that night as they study in the library.
    (By Carol Guzy/The Washingon Post)
    Odongo actually belongs to two tribes, the Luo and the Kikuyu. His father, a Luo, and his mother, a Kikuyu, married during an era when inter-tribal unions were rare.

    Odongo's uncles ostracized his father, a senior government engineer, because he had married outside the tribe. In part because of that, Odongo spent little time in western Kenya, where his dad's family is from.

    He went to his father's hometown for the first time in 1994. And that was to bury him.

    During holidays he noticed that many of his friends would be off visiting family in rural Kenya. His family would be the only one in the neighborhood to stay in Nairobi. It made him angry.

    "I didn't get to know any of my cousins," Odongo said. "If they passed me on that street, I wouldn't know who they were."

    Odongo does not speak his tribal tongue, does not eat Luo food, does not listen to Luo music. Neither does he speak Kikuyu or listen to Kikuyu music. He said he has spent a little more time with his Kikuyu relatives in recent years, but does not consider himself close to any of them.

    In school Odongo was teased by fellow students who did not believe he was Luo. "They didn't see how I wouldn't know my mother tongue," said the shy, gentle-mannered young man. "People would start talking in Luo, and I would have to stop them and say, 'Sorry, I don't speak Luo.'"

    Mbugua Ngugi, who is Kikuyu, understands. He too never learned his tribal language, a deficiency that bothers his father, Pius Ngugi.

    One recent afternoon, sitting beside his son near a gurgling swimming pool and a patch of gorgeous orange and red and yellow flowers, Pius said: "I haven't told them to learn their mother language. I know that is wrong. It is very wrong."

    To Mbugua's silent nod, the father added: "You will start working on it tomorrow."

    Pius, 54, is one of Kenya's most successful businessmen. He has his hands in coffee farming, candy manufacturing, nut processing, insurance, car sales, dairy farming and winemaking. He employs 4,000 people.

    The Ngugis live in a vast white house with a rose garden, three cars, a basketball hoop, a squash court and a steam bath. On a recent afternoon Pius wore a Reebok T-shirt and cowboy boots; his wife, Josephine, sported Ferragamo shoes and headband; and Mbugua wore a gray T-shirt with Ralph Lauren sweat pants.

    Pius, a deliberate man with a serious teddy-bear face, does not apologize for his affluence. But he worries that his children's lack of rural grounding has robbed them of important lessons.

    "Probably the only thing he has missed is that he does not know how to go without food," the father said. Next to him, Mbugua munched cakes, sipped tea and nodded.

    "There are so many children here in Kenya that have gone without food," Pius said. "It is good for someone to know this. You must feel [hunger] to know that this happens. Hunger is why somebody kills for 10 shillings [20 cents]. You understand our people. Otherwise, you think they are all animals."

    His anxiety is not uncommon. Middle-class and well-off parents worry that their children have lost an important sense of community and a host of rich traditions.

    They especially lament the little time that urban children today spend with their grandparents, who historically have played a special role in the rearing of African youngsters.

    Grandparents taught grandchildren manners: how to address certain relatives, where to sit in a stranger's home, how to laugh in public, how to dress for certain occasions. They also taught them how to attract -- and keep -- a mate.

    Grandparents "taught us what was expected of us," said Malaki Warambo, a surgeon whose five youngest children have had little connection to village life. "They taught us about standards. We have killed the interaction between the children and the grandparents."

    Asked whether she knows any of her Luo tribe's traditions, Mary Warambo, his 24-year-old daughter, turned to her mother.

    "Mommy, help!" she yelled across the living room to Anne Warambo. "Do I know any? I don't know any."

    The Warambos enjoy many benefits of urbanization -- the variety of their children's friends, the lack of attention to tribal labels, the exposure to foreigners.

    "If I were to get close to someone, I wouldn't think, oh, he's a Luyah, I can't get to know him," Mary said. "What tribe he is would not be the first question I would ask."

    But her mother is not so sure about cross-tribal marriage. "From my experience, as a parent who cares, I would be against it," she said. "It's not easy to deal with [tribal differences], not easy to handle."

    Inter-tribal marriage will likely only become more popular as urban youths, particularly from the middle- and upper-middle classes, place their national identity ahead of their tribe. That is no small thing in a country where tribal animus is as pernicious and pervasive as malaria.

    Robert Odongo said he has come to appreciate his urban upbringing. His best friend is half-Masai, half-Kikuyu, and he is close to lots of people from other tribes and ethnic groups -- Kambas, Indians, "a wide cross-section," he said.

    "I've had to deal with people differently," he said, "not looking at a person's tribe, but looking at someone as he is. I don't look at people and see tribe first."

    Young people such as Mbugua Ngugi say they think of themselves as Kenyans first. They are not necessarily ashamed of their tribal heritage; they just have not found it very relevant.

    Mbugua, blessed with easygoing charisma, flits through different groups at the International School of Kenya without a stumble. He is typically the only black Kenyan in his classes, and there are usually only a few Africans in them. He does not seem to care.

    "It took me a couple of weeks to get used to it," he said while walking across campus, "but now it doesn't really matter."

    His muscular shoulders caved slightly as he shuffled around the school's verdant, sloping campus, responding to cries of "Hey Skip!" that seemed to trail him everywhere.

    "Hey, he's mine!" a girl with a British accent yelled after him as students changed classes one recent afternoon.

    "No, he's mine!" cried a girl he was walking with, who is half Belgian, half Nigerian.

    Mbugua's closest friends in school are a Kenyan of Indian descent -- a rare relationship in this country -- and a Tanzanian. He sits next to his Tanzanian friend, Chedi, in each of the three classes they share.

    Mbugua said they became good friends not because Chedi is an African but because "we played a lot of basketball together."

    For a moment, the ethnic tensions that have long eaten at this country seemed far away. "Maybe now we'll become a nation," Malaki Warambo had said in his living room, "and not just a collection of tribesmen."

    This series of occasional articles will look beyond Africa's wars, disasters and tragedies and chronicle how people on the continent go about their daily lives.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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