News 2008


Kenya’s War of Words


February 12, 2008

Nairobi, Kenya

WHEN you find yourself at a wedding discussing how more than 800 people have been killed and more than 250,000 kicked out of their homes for having certain ethnic origins, you know there is something terribly wrong with your country. Living in Nairobi the past few months has been like living in a relatively comfortable glass cave in the middle of hell.

What began in late December as protests against election irregularities has spiraled into killings based on which tribe your identity card and speech indicate you belong to. English and Swahili, the languages that were supposed to unite us, have now been rendered useless. In these times, when belonging or not belonging to a particular tribe can be the difference between not being dead or being seriously dead, what chance does a person like me have? I was born to a Luhya father and a Taita mother, but I speak the Kikuyu language of Kiambu, where I was raised.

The politicians no longer have the ability to stop the violence, despite their posturing that they could do so at the snap of their fingers. We see Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations, posing with the rival contenders, President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, in photo sessions where the two antagonists shake hands and smile and call for peace. But the political rhetoric seems a joke; we know that revenge and counter-revenge are what the various ethnic groups really seek — to “do to what they did to our tribe mates.”

Daily life is a constant kaleidoscope of languages for those of us who are of mixed ethnic heritage. We must gauge what sort of street or village we are in and, like a chameleon, speak the “correct” tongue.

My sister Rozi, a health worker, was recently taking a patient to a hospital in western Kenya when their ambulance was forced to stop by youths who demanded to know what tribe she came from. The youths were hunting members of Mr. Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe. When they saw that her ID card showed a mixed Taita-Luhya name, they asked her to speak in Luhya to prove she wasn’t a Kikuyu.

“I really can’t speak it because my mother is a Taita!” she pleaded, explaining that our father had never taught us his language. In desperation, staring at the freshly chopped corpses around her, she showed them a photocopy of my mother’s national identity card, which she had had the foresight to put in her purse. This apparently convinced them, and she was let go.

Never before has it been important in our family to know which tribe we should belong to. My sisters and brothers have names from both of our parents’ communities. I know no tribe. I know only languages.

Supposedly cosmopolitan Nairobi has now been Balkanized, with whole neighborhoods turned into exclusive reserves of certain tribes. Some have imported murderous thugs from rural areas to protect their own — the Mungiki street gang for the Kikuyus; the Chingororo for the Gusii tribe; and groups taking the names Baghdad Boys and Taliban for the Luo people.

Where can those of us of mixed heritage, who do not know their tribes’ war cries, find refuge? My Luhya name is problematic in itself: The Kikuyus, who support Mr. Kibaki, are hunting Luhyas, whom they claim voted for Mr. Odinga, a Luo. And the Luos are hunting Luhyas as well, claiming they voted for President Kibaki. Such is my fate for having a father belonging to a tribe that apparently voted 50-50!

Virtually all the major police stations and church compounds in Central, Rift Valley, Western, Nyanza and Nairobi Provinces have been turned into camps for internal refugees. These people’s laments are all the same: We were born here; we don’t even know any relatives in our so-called ancestral lands; we are Kenyans, not people of whatever tribe you want to pin on us. Yet the government now says that it will relocate them to their ancestral homes. For many, this means ethnic cleansing and death.

Many of my friends have now resorted to taking crash courses in the dialects of the tribes indicated on their identity cards, “just in case it comes in handy.” We sit in groups and laugh morbidly at the e-mail messages from our former classmates who are now abroad asking us if we are safe. After we graduated from high school, many of our friends faked bank-account statements to get student visas and fled to the United States, to wash toilets between university courses. Not me: I proudly swore to them that I was sticking here because I am an Africanist, a believer in the African dream. Now my faith in my countrymen has faded faster than the newness of the New Year.

In this climate, inter-tribal marriages have become so rare that they are the subject of TV news reports. This is greatly upsetting to those of us who — thinking about our parents marrying all those years ago — never felt that living a life outside your clan was a significant matter. We love Kenya, without thinking of our neighbors’ lineage. It is from us that Kenya will rise afresh.

Simiyu Barasa is filmmaker and writer.