Kenya’s Middle Class Feeling
Sting of Violence
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
February 11, 2008
NAIROBI, Kenya - George G. Mbugua is a 42-year-old executive with
two cars, a closet full of suits and a good job as the chief
financial officer of a growing company.
His life has all the trappings of a professional anywhere. He
recently joined a country club and has taken up golf.
But unlike anywhere else, this executive has to keep his eyes
peeled on the daily commute for stone-throwing mobs. When he gets
home after a long day, he has to explain to his daughters why
people from different ethnic groups are hacking one another to
death. Even his own affluent neighborhood has been affected. Some
of the Mbuguas’ neighbors recently fled their five-bedroom homes
because of the violence that has exploded in Kenya since a
disputed election in December turned this promising African
country upside down.
“Nobody’s untouched,” Mr. Mbugua said.
Of all the election-related conflicts that have cracked open in
Kenya — Luos versus Kikuyus (two big ethnic groups), The Orange
Democratic Movement versus the Party of National Unity (the
leading political parties), police versus protesters — none may be
more crucial than the struggle between those who seem to have
nothing to lose, like the mobs in the slums who burn down their
own neighborhoods, and those who are deeply invested in this
The well-established middle class here is thought to be one of the
most important factors that separate Kenya from other African
countries that have been consumed by ethnic conflict. Millions of
Kenyans identify as much with what they do or where they went to
college as who their ancestors are. They have overcome ethnic
differences, dating between groups and sometimes intermarrying,
living in mixed neighborhoods, and sending their children to the
best schools they can afford, regardless of who else goes there.
The fighting that rages in the countryside, where men with
mud-smeared faces and makeshift weapons are hunting down people of
other ethnicities, seems as foreign to many of these white-collar
Kenyans as it might to people living thousands of miles away.
But the professionals are hardly retreating. Three times a week, a
group of doctors, lawyers, former politicians, writers, wildlife
experts, business consultants and professors meet in a conference
room at the Serena Hotel in Nairobi, the capital. They call
themselves Concerned Citizens for Peace, and they have taken up
projects such as raising money for displaced people, organizing
candlelight vigils and bending the ear of Secretary General Ban
Ki-moon of the United Nations, who met with business leaders
during his emergency trip to Kenya this month.
The group begins each session by standing up, holding hands and
singing the national anthem.
Mr. Mbugua spoke the other day at one of those meetings about the
importance of reconciliation in the workplace. His idea was to
keep local languages, which many Kenyans speak in addition to the
country’s official languages (English and Kiswahili), away from
the water cooler.
“We don’t want people to feel excluded when they’re at work,” he
Bethuel Kiplagat, a retired ambassador, praised the meeting’s
openness. “We must put everything down on the table,” he said,
“however painful it is.”
Many African countries are all about haves versus have-nots, with
millions of people toiling in the fields, barely surviving, while
a tiny elite holds all the wealth. Kenya is different.
James Shikwati, a Kenyan economist, estimates that of Kenya’s
population of approximately 37 million, about four million are in
the middle class, making between $2,500 and $40,000 a year. The
number of Kenyans enrolled in college has more than doubled in the
past 10 years, to more than 100,000.
“There are sizable fortunes in the hands of people of all ethnic
backgrounds,” said Richard Leakey, the noted Kenyan paleontologist.
“I think the middle class will ultimately prevail on the
government authority in one form or the other to just pull itself
together and get on with business.”
Business is hurting. Vigilante roadblocks have paralyzed the flow
of goods across the country. Vandals have ripped up miles of
railroad tracks. Tourists have bolted from the game parks faster
than the antelope in them. The estimated losses are now running
into the billions of dollars.
Fanis Anne Nyangayi just started her own marketing company in
Nairobi, and she has already had to lay off staff because nobody
wants to commit to marketing plans. “Everything’s on hold,” she
To her, the ethnic clashes that continue to flare in the Rift
Valley, less than 100 miles away, are disturbing — and hard to
understand. The disputed election, in which President Mwai Kibaki
was declared the winner despite widespread evidence of vote
rigging, uncorked decades of frustrations about land, political
power and economic inequalities. Many Kenyans tend to vote along
ethnic lines, and much of the violence since the election has
taken on an ethnic cast, with members of groups that tend to
support the opposition fighting against members of groups that
have backed the president. More than 1,000 people have been killed.
Wambua Kilonzo, a lawyer, says his practice has been hurt by the
But ethnic identity issues are more complicated in the city. Ms.
Nyangayi, 36, said she did not know she was a member of the Luhya
ethnic group until she was 10 years old. She was born in Lamu, on
the Kenyan coast, moved to Mombasa, a port town, and lived in
Nairobi and Kisumu, in the far western part of Kenya. “I can’t
even speak Luhya,” a shortcoming that is sometimes viewed as
snobby, she said.
“It’s not that I think I’m above being a Luhya,” she explained.
“I’m proud of being a Luhya. It’s just that we moved around a lot
as a kid, and I missed the bus somewhere.”
Wambua Kilonzo is a lawyer, and he broke with his ethnic group,
the Kamba, to vote for Raila Odinga, the top opposition leader who
is a Luo. Many Kambas voted for another candidate, Kalonzo Musyoka,
who is now vice president. “To me, it was more about the issues,”
Mr. Kilonzo said, pointing to Mr. Odinga’s vow to fight corruption
and restructure the government.
Mr. Kilonzo’s emerging law practice has been hurt by the election
fallout. One of his top clients is the owner of a high-priced
safari lodge that until recently had celebrities flying in on a
regular basis. The resort is now a luxurious ghost town, and Mr.
Kilonzo, 31, doesn’t feel right adding to the owner’s burdens.
“How can I take money from my client when his business is like
this?” he said.
Mumo Kituku is a 31-year-old dentist in a clinic near a slum. He
pulls teeth for the equivalent of $5 and gets a cut of the
clinic’s profits depending on how many patients he serves. But the
clinic is near Kibera, one of Nairobi’s more volatile
neighborhoods, and in the past month, some of his patients have
been afraid to venture out of their homes, reducing his workload
and his income. “It’s been rough, man,” he said.
It is issues like those that have pushed business leaders into
action. They have struggled to be heard, with the young men
sharpening machetes grabbing more headlines than the executives’
quiet efforts to wage peace.
But the white-collar profile has risen in the past few weeks.
Executives from multinational and local companies recently met
with Mr. Kibaki and Mr. Odinga to stress the economic toll that is
accruing while the top politicians continue to posture and the
fighting between their supporters rages on. Some businesses have
taken out advertisements in the local newspapers urging peace.
“Kenya,” read a message from a bank on Monday, “our unity is our
Some Kenyan journalists have complained that the middle class is
not doing enough. “They have been lulled by a false sense of
security they have enjoyed sheltered in their homes and clubs,”
wrote Tom Mshindi, a columnist for The Saturday Nation.
That said, business leaders have organized reconciliation
workshops and gone back to their companies with plans of action.
People like Mr. Mbugua do not want to see their dreams disappear.
He wants to establish a financial planning organization in Kenya.
And travel the world.
“All my life I’ve wanted to go to Hawaii,” he said. “Is there ice
there? And what about deer hunting in Alaska? What’s that like?”