Kenya: From Tribal Roots to National Identity

Kenya is alluring: warm, hospitable people; varied, fertile terrain; diverse ecosystems; and wildlife so plentiful that it dwarfs mankind. It was my first visit to Africa proper, and I enjoyed Kenya immensely. The experience was particularly fascinating as I heard, and asked, about the cultural and political changes occurring in the country.

Kenya is a democratic country that is only just celebrating 50 years of independence from Great Britain. Despite its political youth, it is a regional and economic powerhouse, but it suffers from corruption and cronyism. The landscape, however, is changing as young Kenyans who study abroad are moving back and taking part of the political culture.

Thirty-something black and white Kenyans talk about the power of social media, the ability to create movements, influence political realities and establish viable alternatives to the existing power structure. Hearing them discuss openly the problems facing the country and how the Kenyan diaspora is working from abroad to affect change was exciting.

Even traditional tribes recognize that change is inevitable. Members of the Maasai, the Samburu, the Turkana all understand the need to form part of the process. They also understand, however, that their lives are likely to change because of it. The inherent tension between the tribal councils and the younger generations are microcosms of the larger national stage – adaptation is key for the future; how to cope and implement it is another issue. The tribes are grappling with questions such as altering their nomadic tradition, education, members leaving tribal lands for work, the advancement of women and girls, the establishment of private animal and nature conservancies.

One common thread of conversation was the need to think nationally: To maintain tribal roots, but to become more overwhelmingly Kenyan. Colleagues and friends talked about the need to develop Kenyan national identity and pride to foster progress. Interestingly, post-colonial Kenya did not experience the racial divide among its people. Jomo Kenyatta, the first Kenyan president, embraced British and other citizens living in Kenya at independence. He understood that they would be needed to promote an economically strong and viable country. Tribal disputes, however, are still on-going and have recently resulted in prolonged violence resulting in 100+ deaths.

The creation of a national, pro-Kenya mentality is advancing. An Aussie ex-pat, married to Kenyan, said that social media was helping to fuel the effort. Kenyans are technology-savvy (mobile banking is a huge industry), so it is only natural that the web would play an important role in the development of a national identity.

The next elections will be held in March 2013. The unfortunate part of political cronyism is that the electorate sometimes chooses to vote with its feet. Thirty-something voters working throughout the country told us that they have no real candidate in the race; they are hopeful to have a true representative in subsequent elections. In the meantime, some of them told me that they would not participate in the process – that it wouldn’t make a difference. That feeling of disenfranchisement must change for Kenya to enhance its role as regional economic and diplomatic powerhouse.


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