The recurring tribal vote. But what is a tribe in modernising Kenya?

The clouds clinging to the highlands near the town of Murang’a, northeast of the capital Nairobi, obscure the view of the sacred mountains.

In the beginning, when mankind began to populate the earth, God called men from wandering tribes to his place of residence, Mount Kenya. He chose one of them, a Kikuyu, for his obedience and gave him all the fertile land below, with the ravines, the rivers, the forests, the wild animals and everything else.

God pointed to a place full of fig trees in the middle of the land and ordered the Kikuyu to settle there. There he met his wife, Moombi. “All Kikuyu have their origin in this House of Moombi. The Kikuyu are the blessed tribe of Kenya”, explains the guide, Kamau Kibe.

“The tyranny of numbers,” is what analysts in Kenya call the recurring tribal vote in elections. Ethnic groups have become constructs for political mobilization and the outcome can be predicted from their numerical strength. The politician’s tribal constituency passionately conducts electoral competition, which is why the fear of violence looms with every election. But what exactly is a tribe in modernizing Africa?

Kamau put on a hat of sheep’s wool for the tour. In one hand rests a ceremonial stick, in the other a fly whisk. He points in all directions to sacred mountains of the Kikuyu: Mount Kenya, the Aberdares, the Ngong Mountains and the Kilimambogo. I brought my cousin Nick Mwaatha and two other young Kikuyu who are frantically taking notes on their cell phones. “It’s a shame that we Kikuyu like to forget our culture and adopt someone else’s,” says Nick.

The House of Moombi is not a place of pilgrimage; most Kikuyu have never been there. More than the other 42 tribes of Kenya, the Kikuyu exchanged their tribal customs for Christianity. But some chauvinism is no stranger to the Kikuyu either, because they have been dominant in Kenyan politics and economics for a long time.

This advance started at the beginning of the last century, when the current capital Nairobi was still a white enclave. Only the Kikuyu wanted to provide services to the settlers. They became their shit-carriers and emptied the toilet buckets for them, and from this they derived the right to stay with the bosses on their compounds.

Their accommodation allowed Kikuyu politicians to smoothly follow in the footsteps of the departing settlers after independence in 1963. Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, gave priority to his Kikuyu and established a bourgeoisie mainly composed of members of his own group.

Divine Preference

Each tribe claims divine preference. Preferring the Masai for his obedience, the God living on Mount Kilimanjaro sent from heaven down a leather thong hundreds of cattle, making the herdsmen the owner of all the cows on earth. “It’s a territorial imagination, all those sacred Kikuyu mountains,” grumbles a friend, Lenomboi Lepere of the Maasai-affiliated Samburu, when I mentioned the visit to Moombi’s house. “For our rituals, we build houses whose entrances overlook the Ng’iro or Mount Kenya, mountains in which our God shows His form.” The Ngong Mountains served as the parliament of the Maasai until a century and a half ago; their elders and prophets gathered there to deliberate over drought and pestilence, or they proclaimed war.

The Maasai is committed to its ancient traditions and, like many Kenyans, he glorifies his tribal language, eating habits, music and storytellers. This tribal affiliation determines his culture and thus his identity. In principle, there is nothing wrong with the tribal affiliation and the rich culture that goes with it. The word “tribe” does not refer to primitiveness but to pride, it is not a word to detest but a banner to follow.

Although the word “tribe” is widely and shamelessly spoken about Kenyan tongues, it is a fuzzy concept. Many of the 42 ‘tribes’ in Kenya turn out to be fabrications invented by the settlers. As they took the increasingly scarce farmland, they drove the Africans to these so-called “tribal reserves”. As part of their divide-and-rule policy, the settlers emphasized an ethnic division of the population and “founded” tribes. The “Kalenjin” tribe did not previously exist as a unit, but included several tribal groups. The British colonials merged them and together introduced the concept of pure and strictly defined tribal areas, although in reality Africans lived a much more mixed life. Tribes intermarried and traded with each other. Masai went to live with Kikuyu, Kikuyu with Kamba and Kalenjin and Luo with Baluhya.

Inconvenient truth

But there are indeed fierce rivalries and differences in language and culture between the tribes. In Ethiopia they call it ethnic nationalism, in Kenya it’s called tribalism, in the politically correct world they talk about ethnicity.

Whatever name you give it, this tribal nationalism is an “inconvenient truth,” as Kenyan poet Sitawa Namwalie wrote in her poem “Language of tribe.” Because ethnic nationalism is divisive and an existential threat to virtually every African nation.

It is often considered taboo in intellectual circles. Pan-Africanists slide in their chairs, cough into their fists or look at their cell phones when the subject comes up. With a hint of smug indignation, they say Kenyans have no problem with each other; it is politicians who caused hatred. This was demonstrated by the election violence in 2007 and 2008, which degenerated into tribal conflicts. The Kenyan media then decided no longer to name the tribal origins of rioting young people, but to write about “certain ethnic groups”. But tribal rivalry cannot be eliminated by not reporting on it.

Red clay sticks to our shoes as the guide of the House of Moombi leads us through the thick forest past a sacrificial site and the homes of the nine Kikuyu daughters, from whom the nine Kikuyu clans each take their name. He praises my wife’s clan for its beauty. My cousin Nick Maatha is still hanging on his every word. “It saddens me that I didn’t know where I came from,” he says. “Visiting this sacred place makes me proud to be a Kikuyu. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?”

This article was first published in NRC Handelsblad on 12-8-2022

Pictures Nick Mwaatha

Kenyans vote while the cartels rule

Peter Kamau (30) squats in the muddy roadside near the village of Kaharati and searches for an errand, for an opportunity to unload bunches of bananas from a truck, carry grass or grit, or a traveler’s luggage. He is a hustler, one of hundreds of thousands of unemployed among Kenya’s aspiring youth whose vote politicians are vying for in the election on the 9th of August.

Today he hopes for a titbit from one of the candidates who throw with banknotes. “There hasn’t been a party here to hand out money yet, so I don’t know who I’m voting for yet,” he laughs. His friend N’gang’a nudges him and says: “Come on man, William Ruto should be president, he used to sell chickens on the road. He was a hustler like us, and he does not belong to one of Kenya’s ruling families, like his rival Raila Odinga.”

In a grim social climate, Kenya, a nation of 55 million people, is going to the polls. It has the most open society in eastern Africa but suffers from rampant corruption and deep inequality everywhere. The official unemployment rate among the 18- to 34-year-olds is nearly 40 percent and the economy does not create enough jobs to accommodate the 800,000 young people who take up employment each year. The share of young people between the ages of 18 and 34 in Kenya is a quarter, and those under the age of 15 make up 43 percent of the total population. A time bomb. In such circumstances, Ruto’s populist narrative – aimed at poor young people and against the dynasties – does well, although he belongs to the very wealthy.

The fertile highlands around Kaharati, home of the Kikuyu people, are among the most developed agricultural areas in Kenya with the large market of the capital Nairobi nearby. The first white missionaries had established their schools here at the beginning of the last century, the inhabitants had quickly given up their old habits and taken off their traditional clothes; in the misty green hills young women walk with colored hair, the elderly are dressed in long English tweeds up to the ankles and with flowery headscarves, young men wear rasta hair and the elderly old-fashioned felt hats.

The area although modernized is far from being rid of poverty. The economic crisis caused by corona and the war in Ukraine led to sharp price increases and despair among the poor.

In front of her food kiosk, Esther Wambui stares into the distance. “Ai ai ai”, the customers complain when they hear her prices. “They don’t buy anything anymore, even a piece of chewing gum has become unaffordable,” she grumbles. “The politicians of the dynasties always shift the effect of the crisis on us. That is why I am voting for Ruto, but above all I hope that there will be no violence after the result”.

Ancient tribal demons are reappearing once more in these elections. Wambui previously lived in Nakuru. That city was at the center of the 2007 election violence. Kenya was at that time teetering on the brink of civil war for weeks. The Kenyan elite compete for votes based on ethnicity, so that any electoral competition almost automatically degenerates into overheated passion on the part of the tribal grassroots. Vicious tribal propaganda as well as fake news is now also doing the rounds on social media.

In 2007, tribal groups such as the Luo and Kalenjin took that anger out on the Kikuyu, killing officially more than a thousand civilians. At that time, Raila Odinga, a Luo, was also running for president.

The current competition is more confused than in previous elections. Politicians unabashedly switch parties, which are not ideological platforms, but opportunistic coalitions and a source of funding for the candidates. After ten years, the term of office of the incumbent president, Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, has expired. He was scheduled to hand over the mantle to his vice president, William Rutu, a Kalenjin. But Kenyatta and Ruto got into a fight and the president opted for Raila Odinga as his successor. Ruto and Odinga however each chose a Kikuyu as their running mate, because 5 of the 22 million eligible voters are Kikuyu. The Kikuyu have provided three of four presidents since independence and the Kenyatta family, the richest in the country, seeks protection for its accumulated wealth.

Ruto’s hustler’s narrative is a hit with the poor, but less so with the wealthy. Njogu Kimando who is from the regional capital Muranga and works for the Ministry of Energy Affairs, traditionally a department where it is good to steal. “Ruto started naming his accomplices at the ministry years ago, he is considered one of the most corrupt politicians. If he wins, we Kikuyu lose everything,” he warns. He acknowledges that Odinga was effectively portrayed as a devil by rivals in the Kikuyu homeland in previous elections. “But we must make do with him now that we don’t have a Kikuyu candidate ourselves. Odinga will look after our interests. You enjoy a lot of privileges when your man is at the top.”

Twenty years ago, Kenyans massively voted down President Moi’s dictatorship. It seemed like a historic new beginning then, with hopes for reforms and an end to the ethnic politics practiced by the elite. “But these elections will not recreate the Kenyan political landscape, these are not transformative elections” predicts Willy Mutunga, civil activist and former chief justice, in the capital Nairobi. More than ever, corruption is a destructive part of Kenyan competitive politics. Not one senior Kenyan leader has ever been imprisoned for corruption, they get away with looting and murder. Even their criminal behavior during election violence in 2007/8 went unpunished.

Kenyan first leader Jomo Kenyatta, the father of the current president, had set the tone. When a critical member of parliament complained to him about corruption, the irritated president replied: “You are only jealous because you have not been able to fill your pockets yourself”. Moi made history with the so-called Goldenberg scandal, in which the state was defrauded of an estimated $1 billion. The infamous scandal under his successor Mwai Kibaki was called Anglo Leasing, in which the state lost 750 million dollars due to scams with fake contracts. And under Kibaki’s successor, Uhuru Kenyatta, corruption was more rampant than ever. He recently revealed that an estimated $16 million had “disappeared” every day during his reign for the past ten years.

“Young people live on promises and Ruto’s bottom-up resonates well with the youth,” sneers Benson Kimani who works at the University of Muranga. “But it’s a competition of lies.” He fears even more economic malaise, because when the winners are on the plush, they will have to recoup their campaign costs. “That means even more corruption after the elections.”

But the hopes of 2002 are not lost. Fighting for democracy is simply easier than practicing it. “We are still ruled by tribal and corrupt kingpins,” says Kimani, “But after maybe ten years, Kenyans will see who is defending their real interests. Then democracy will flourish.”

This article was first published in NRC on 8-8-2022

Photo by Nick Mwatha

The era of the cow has come to an end

He was the toughest of the toughest. Yet the around thirty years old Lkipseina Lenawuosho has stopped living the harsh nomadic life, he has been defeated by the worst drought in forty years, by lack of space, by violence. “Since I was five years old, I wanted nothing more than to travel around with cows, the life of a shepherd was beautiful,” he says in his native region of Ngupuruti, the savannah region of northern Kenya. There are only tracks here, no roads. There are no stone houses but low build structures, a kind of igloos of mud and cow dung. “At the time I thought my agemates who gave up their freedom and went to school were stupid. Now I accept my loss, the era of the cow has come to an end.”

The inhabitants in the kraal of Lkipseina are weak, they have been eating too little, for months now they have not been able to eat until satiated. When the world still had its green beauty and grass made the cattle fat, the traditional knowledge passed down for generations of the Samburu people, to which Lkipseina belongs, was sufficient for a good life in these savanna regions.

But now the land looks gray, whirling winds push the dust of the bone-dry earth into the air. The bushes no longer bear any leaves and only the desert rose still gives off bright colours. Towards evening, his young wife squats behind a goat, and a thin trickle of milk from the parched udders shoots into the gourd. Everyone is tired and goes to bed early. There is no singing of young warriors, since the last shower two years ago they have moved elsewhere with the remaining cows, very far away, a four days’ walk. “There is no happiness in our lives anymore,” says Lkipseina.

He once tended two hundred cows, less than a quarter of them remain. In his kraal enclosed by thorny bushes, he sadly inspects a handful of meager goats, their fat gone, as well as the hope that the last animals will survive. Goats and sheep will usually withstand drought much longer than cows, with their small snouts they can still find something to eat in crevices and under stones. But even that is not possible anymore, so now they are fed with the fruits from the top of the acacia trees, the very last resort against starvation.

The increasingly frequent and protracted droughts and rapid population growth over the past half century – there are too many people and too many livestock – has disrupted the livestock economy. As a result, the cattle lose more and more value.

Lkipseina: „I have no memory of any major droughts in my childhood. Then the cows stayed around our kraal almost all year round. When we moved away, it was only for a few months, looking for pastures. The first time I went far away was to the Ethiopian border, ten years ago. The journey, with two hundred cows, took nine days and we stayed there for six months”. Lkipseina slept with his fellow herders among the cows in the bush, wrapping himself in a loincloth and using a neck chair as a pillow. They fed by mixing milk with cow’s blood. “It could happen that I did not eat for four days. Then it creaks and hurts all over your body, your eyes sink in, you can no longer see well and you tremble on your legs”.

Only if you adapt to the lifestyle of a cow, you are suitable as a herder. Lkipseina got used to the spartan nomadic life. The absence of luxury was not the hardest thing he had to endure. “Oi, joi, joi,” he says, “it happened so often that other nomads tried to steal our cows. Sometimes we had to fight off a hundred attackers. Of course there were deaths on these occasions, once we killed thirteen warriors of the Boran people in an attack. A nomad nowadays cannot do without a gun”.

In another drought year, he marched with the warriors in yet another direction, west to Baringo. There he got into a fight with the Pokot, another nomadic people. “The Pokot were always trying to rob us, sometimes twice a week. We each had at least three hundred bullets tied around our waists. As a child I never imagined that a shepherd’s life would be like that, that you would be at odds with so many other hostile peoples.”

The herders also increasingly clashed with owners of large cattle ranches. “You do everything for your cows. So I cut the barbed wire and secretly let my animals graze on those farms at night. That was dangerous, because the rich landowners call in the army for help and the soldiers can shoot at you, or worse, they can confiscate your cows.”

Last year when nearly all the grass had disappeared his cows started to die. That’s when he decided to get rid of most of his herd and he drove the animals to the town of Nyahururu. “It was my own decision, although I had of course -out of respect- informed the elderly. They thought I was stupid.” He bought a motorbike for three cows. “The only cows that have benefited me in my life are those that bought me my wife, my rifle and now my motor,” says Lkipseina bitterly.

Despite the deadly drought, the cow remains central to the culture of Lkipseina’s Samburu people. She is needed as a dowry to marry, to dispel a curse, to pay a fine. Lkipseina still feels the urge to go out with cattle, the sweet smell of cow dung hangs around his soul. “With your animals you never feel alone. Ai, jai, jai, but how lonely I am when I drop someone off with my motor in a town where among all those people I don’t understand anyone. I communicated with cows. I sang to them, I knew when they were dissatisfied”.

Young Samburu admired Lkipseina for his perseverance but go to school instead of choosing for a nomadic life. They don’t want to make the long treks he made all his life. “They already come back stressed from a one day walk with the goats. And they take, hidden under their loincloths, a schoolbook so as not to get bored,” snarls Lkipseina. “I don’t take dangerous journeys anymore, I don’t want to die and leave my family alone. I am the last of my family to have had such a hard life, my parents never had to go that far for grazing land. I was mad, if only I had sold all my cows much earlier.” Lkipseina is still an exception, but many young people praise his break with nomadism and say that they will also sell their livestock if drought keep on coming back with such a vengeance.

Lkioseina now uses his purchased motor as a taxi to earn some money. He zigzags through the dry riverbeds and across the savannah with a few passengers on the back. “I have started a new life, as a responsible man for my family. Of course I still have a few cows on hand. You never know”.




A drought of unprecedented proportions affects millions of people in the Horn of Africa – the eastern tip of Africa’s mainland, which includes Somalia and Ethiopia. Relief operations are difficult due to lack of funds. Less than a quarter of the millions of dollars needed have been pledged.

Seven million people in Somalia are in an emergency, according to the UN. That is more than half of the population. There are 10 million people in need in Ethiopia, 14 million in Sudan and 4 million in Kenya. Millions of cattle are already dead and some 210,000 Somalis are at risk of starvation in the coming months. In Somalia, a weak central government is fighting against terrorist group Al-Shabaab. This makes it difficult for aid organizations to reach the population.

The war in Ukraine caused a worldwide shortage of sunflower oil and wheat, and led to inflation. Two years ago in East Africa, huge swarms of locusts ate anything green. Then the drought started.

This article was first published in NRC on 16-7-2022

Photo’s by Koert Lindijer