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Tribal identity shapes Kenyan views, realities

In the aftermath of Kenya's disputed election, one man's charge of discrimination mystifies another
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

They grew up in farming villages -- Teddy Chwanya in the rolling hills of western Kenya and Samuel Mathu amid the cattle and flower farms of the country's lush central region.

Both men left home to take their chances here in the capital, settling just a few crowded blocks apart in Kangeme, an enclave of one-room cinder-block homes, stick-built markets and dirt roads off a smoggy main highway.

They are in their early 30s now and making ends meet, Chwanya as a salesman for a security firm and Mathu running a busy electronics shop.

Aside from migration to the city, age and middle-class aspirations, though, the two have little in common. In the particulars of their lives, their perceptions and -- especially now in the violent aftermath of a disputed presidential election -- their politics, Chwanya and Mathu remain separated by one of the most volatile and enduring features of Kenyan society: tribalism.

"I am at a disadvantage because I'm Luo," said Chwanya, a supporter of opposition leader Raila Odinga, who is also a Luo and who has accused President Mwai Kibaki of stealing the Dec. 27 election. "We have been oppressed, and we are tired of it."

That sentiment, shared by many Luos across the country, mystifies Mathu. He is a member of the Kikuyu, the president's tribe and the nation's largest. Although the Kikuyus have dominated Kenyan politics and commerce for more than 40 years, Mathu, like many Kikuyus, has never considered that an advantage. "We are all treated equally," he said, as the TV behind him broadcast the post-election riots. "The Luos, they are angry with the Kikuyus, and I don't know why."

Success, failure attributed to tribe
Tribe in Kenya is a matter of culture and tradition, a designation -- often invisible to the casual observer -- that defines social networks and political power and at times serves as the foundation for stereotypes used by politicians to manipulate and divide the electorate. Kibaki claimed victory in the elections despite early returns showing a large lead for Odinga and his party, which won the most seats in parliamentary balloting held the same day. Although international election observers characterized the vote as deeply flawed, Kibaki was quickly sworn into office despite opposition protests, another round of which is scheduled to begin Wednesday.

Of the dozens of tribes in Kenya, the Kikuyu and to a lesser degree the Luo and the Kalenjin -- the ethnic group of former president Daniel arap Moi, who during his 24 years in office remained allied with the financially powerful Kikuyus -- have remained the primary political forces since independence. At the same time, there is a public consensus that tribalism undermines the founding idea of Kenya as one nation. Any politician hoping to appear as a statesman deplores tribalism in public, even though Kenyans tend to vote in tribal blocs. In certain circles, it is considered rude to ask someone's tribe because it is not supposed to matter.

Though the Kikuyu and Luo have different ethnic roots, they are virtually indistinguishable physically -- so much so that during recent election violence, rioting gangs often asked Kenyans for their national identity cards. It is possible to identify a person's tribe by his or her name.

But neither ethnicity nor religion, which does not divide the groups, explains the sharply divergent perceptions that Kikuyus and Luos have of their place in Kenyan society. Tribe, woven as it is into day-to-day life, is the way many members of each group explain their successes and failures in a country that until the recent elections was considered the most stable in East Africa.

In Mathu's case, tribe is so ubiquitous he hardly notices it.

For Chwanya, who came home from work early last Thursday after arguing with a colleague about the elections, it has become the raging undercurrent of a frustrated life.

"Kikuyus and Luos do not read from the same page," he said.

It was around 5 p.m. when he got off a bus run by a Kikuyu company and made his way through the crowded dirt paths of Kangeme. He bought vegetables at a Kikuyu-owned stand, walked to his Kikuyu-owned house on Kikuyu-owned land and washed his face with water from a Kikuyu-owned pump.

"The vehicles on the road, theirs. Vegetables in the market, theirs. Plots, theirs," he said as he arrived home. "There is only the air we are sharing."

As a boy, though, Chwanya said his Kikuyu neighbors didn't seem any better or worse off than his family. He grew up in an area of western Kenya known as Luoland and had Kikuyu neighbors who had been encouraged to settle there by Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu. Kenyatta rewarded fellow tribesmen who fought for independence from Britain by helping them acquire land.

'We have our own people to hire'
It was during his college years in Nairobi that Chwanya began to see himself as different from his Kikuyu friends, he said. He noticed that they received loans and scholarships but he never did.

Though he excelled in his studies and earned a marketing degree, he began looking for a job at the beginning of the Kibaki years and found that Kikuyu-managed firms tended to hire their own. He was finally hired by a British relief organization and went to work in Sudan.

When he came back to Kenya, he applied for public service jobs but was turned down so many times that he came to believe that only a Kikuyu could work for the government. Once, he said, a Kikuyu manager told him explicitly, "We have our own people to hire."

He finally managed to land a job selling office products.

"The manager was not Kikuyu," Chwanya said. "Though he was married to a Kikuyu -- so you see how these things work."

In the office, most of the employees were Kikuyu and cliquish, often speaking to one another in the Kikuyu language, Chwanya said.

"There were three guys from Luoland who worked there," he said. "We were given sales targets that were different from the others -- they were trying to get rid of us."

He was let go after a year and, with mounting anger and bitterness, gave up on Nairobi.

He headed back to Luoland, where he worked as a taxi driver. Roaming around the towns and villages there, he saw things differently than he had as a boy.

He noticed that the roads in his homeland were worse than in the Kikuyu areas where he had worked as a salesman. His parents' homes did not have running water. There were few jobs. Sugar farmers who sold to Kikuyu middlemen were barely scraping by.

When Chwanya eventually returned to Nairobi, the only job he could get was with a foreign-owned company selling security systems. "The owner is British," he said. "So it's a bit different because he's not related to anyone."

Social networking or business savvy?
As Chwanya's frustration grew over the years, Samuel Mathu was feeling increasingly optimistic about his future, especially after Kibaki became president in 2002.

It was around then that he decided to leave his small pyrethrum farm in the town of Kipipiri, in the Kikuyu heartland of central Kenya, and start a business in Nairobi. He found a handful of Kikuyu investors and set off for the city. "A lot of people from my place were here," Mathu said, explaining why he landed in Kangeme. "So they told me what to do."

He started out selling imported secondhand clothes, a business dominated by a tightly knit Kikuyu network. A neighbor from Kipipiri sold him his first supply of clothes, he said, and after a year hawking old Tommy Hilfiger merchandise in the mazelike markets of Kangeme, he turned a modest profit.

Mathu got into the more lucrative electronics business when a Kikuyu friend, also from his home town, offered him a deal to take over his small shop in the market.

He now gets all his televisions, radios, DVD players and other electronic items from his hometown buddy, the sort of arrangement that is common in Kangeme, where Kikuyus own most of the shops and houses.

Mathu attributes that fact less to social networking than to hard work and business savvy.

"A lot of people, these tribes, they do not know how to do business," Mathu said. "They rely on being employed somewhere. The Kikuyu, they know how to do business."

As he sold watch batteries and cassette tapes to a steady stream of customers, Mathu said he never considered voting for Odinga because in his view, Kibaki had done so much for Kenya. When he goes home to Kipipiri, he said, he can see the difference.

"In my place, no cars were passing on the roads before," he said. "But now, even if it's dark, you can drive -- the road is now smooth. We were taking water from the river, and now we get water from taps. Now people are coming to our town to collect potatoes and vegetables. Kibaki has done a lot."

For that reason, Mathu said, he was certain that Kibaki would win a second term.

'Multi-tribes against the Kikuyu'
At the same time, Chwanya and millions of other non-Kikuyus across Kenya believed with an almost revolutionary zeal that Odinga would win and end the decades of Kikuyu dominance.

"This was multi-tribes against the Kikuyu, because we realize these people have led Kenyans for many years," Chwanya said. "We had no other means to speak."

In the two days after the election, exit poll numbers suggested that Odinga was headed for a decisive victory. But then disputed votes began pouring in, sparking charges of rigging. When Kibaki was declared the winner, Chwanya said to himself, "This thing is going to be done over our dead bodies," he recalled.

Meanwhile, Mathu and his Kikuyu friends were taking to the muddy streets of Kangeme to celebrate. Within about 15 minutes, however, they were being stoned by rioters in the first wave of the violence that eventually swept across Kenya, leaving more than 500 people dead.

Even now, his leg gashed by a stone, Mathu said he does not fully understand why his customers and neighbors have turned against him. "All these things that came, I don't know what I can say," he said. "I don't know what I can say."