Tribalism: The different Cultures of Kenya

Tribalism: The different Cultures of Kenya

Marloes Elbertsen | Kenya has 42 different official tribes. Imagine your country with 42 different religions and cultures. Everything has to do with it. No decision is made without having tribalism on the back of your head. Not the small ones like “Where do I buy my vegetables?” and not the bigger ones like “Who should I vote for to become president?”. Tribalism is highly underestimated by the Western world. Tribalism is running Africa.

Once, the guard of the compound where I was staying was having serious health issues. Now, his employer (the landlord of the compound) was an English man and didn’t consider any tribalism issues before arranging healthcare solutions for his employees. It turned out that the one person that could get my guard to see a doctor, was from a whole different tribe as my guard. Even worse, their tribes have been competing for much longer then history could describe. There was no way on earth that this lady was helping my guard to see a doctor. He was too proud to have it mentioned and for days onwards he tried to do his job while suffering an immense stomach pain. Only when the people from the compound started to complain with the landlord that he should do something to help out the poor guy, the lady had nowhere to go (unless she wanted to actually leave the job as well). Two days later, my guard was a new man.

The current president of Kenya, those who you hire to be your guard, who you get married to, where you go to school, where you will work, what you will eat, what picture is on your wall, what the history teacher is telling you. All has to do with tribalism. Every detail of life.

And don’t get me wrong. Walk your walk through the streets of Nairobi. Talk to the Kenyan you cross on the streets. You will see them all joining the day to day life together. There is no hatred – usually. People enjoy spending time with each other, no matter from which tribe they are. But there are some very solid rules. A red line nobody will cross. If you do, consequences will be around the corner.

Falling in love is a natural thing? Not when you’re restricted to tribes. You believe history books are written by an objective Professor? Not when there is tribalism. Just forgot to put on your seatbelt. Well, that just happens, you won’t go to jail for that right? Depends on the cops background. Anyways.. It’s big!

But what is a tribe? And can you just randomly pick your own?

A tribe is actually a social or cultural group. Meaning that the assembly of people has their own social foundation, often based on traditional practices. Strong ethnic identities separate them from other people and thereby also other tribes. This could be clothing, language, religion, traditions and so on. However, tribes are not a closed unit where language and culture often overlap. Families do consist of members from different tribes and in case of intermarriage, the one where you will be born into will be your father’s tribe. Tribes collaborate, celebrate together and build families and economies hand in hand. However, some ethnics are so different from each other. Very known examples are the Hutu’s and Tutsi’s in Rwanda, which led to a deep hate and eventually a genocide.

Tribalism in 2018 hasn’t changed much from the traditional tribalism. But the difference is more and more clear. The Masai are still living a remote and basic lifestyle, independent from any economical interference. The Kikuyu’s (22% of all Kenyans) are dominating politics and the countries private and public sector.

If you will be given the opportunity to once travel to this alluring country, which is divided and one at the same time, don’t hesitate and spit out your curiosity. As with any country, the best thing is to shy away a bit from politics, but furthermore, Kenyans are very warm and welcoming when it comes to tribe-storytelling. I’m sure they will give you something to think about.