The elite in Kenya has its own highway in the sky

One thing all elites of African countries have in common: they know their way to the airport. But what if that road is always hopelessly clogged with traffic jams? The Kenyan government found a solution by building an airway. This Nairobi Expressway does not have pedestrians and bicycles, donkeys and cows, handcarts and merchandise; you float over the asphalt without holes while enjoying panoramic views of the Kenyan capital.

“This is the best infrastructure project ever accomplished in Africa,” Kenyan transport minister James Macharia praised the Expressway at its opening in May. At 17 miles, the road is the longest in the air on the continent and perhaps the most expensive at 668 million US dollar. It is a toll road and is owned by the China Road and Bridge Corporation, which will hand it over to the Kenyan government in 27 years.

Passengers used to miss their flights because it took them sometimes three hours to cover a mere thirty kilometers. Now the visitor can drive from the airport to the business center of the city or the presidential palace in less than twenty minutes. “The road attracts foreign investors,” said Minister Macharia.


The Expressway runs from the airport up the Uhuru Highway, which is the gateway to the capital and the backbone of Nairobi’s transportation system. When I arrived in Kenya half a century ago, zebras and gazelles grazed along that route to the city. Kenya then mostly had unpaved roads and only one two-lane road, the central Uhuru Highway, surrounded by pink bougainvillea, on which a few cars chugged, mostly owned by white or Indian or Arab, and rarely African drivers. The countryside was still alive in Nairobi, the greenery dominated the space, not the people and their cars. No one had heard of traffic jams yet.

Nairobi, like most African capitals, is a young city that was only founded around 1900. It was initially little more than a hamlet, with streets that turned into hip-deep mud channels in the rainy season. On the wide Sixth Avenue, now the central Kenyatta Avenue, the long bullock carts – often twelve to sixteen oxen were yoked – could turn. Now the skyscrapers of Kenyatta Avenue rise above the highway.

A little further on, rusty corrugated iron roofs at the train station can be seen. The construction in 1895 of the railway from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean to the interior heralded the beginning of the nation of Kenya. The headquarters of the railway was established where the capital was later created. Four mornings a week, at precisely 11:00 am, the steam locomotive from the coast puffed into Nairobi station. The black Kenyans had to travel on this 300-mile journey on a wooden bench in third class.

The prevailing pecking order – white, Arab, Indian and black at the bottom – also applied to Nairobi. The colonials turned it into an apartheid city. Any social contact between the different population groups was out of the question, residential areas were demarcated on the basis of ‘race’. The Kipande House is located near the station. It dates from 1913 and was for a long time the tallest building in the capital of the British colony. There every black person received his identity card, which he had to wear in a bronze pass holder around his neck like a cowbell with his name, tribal origin, boss and salary. If he was visiting the city for a short time, he had to renew his permit every three days.

Whites did not address blacks as ‘sir’ but as ‘boy’. These fourth-class citizens took shelter in so-called informal settlements, where they grouped around their government-appointed chieftains in tribal enclaves. Only in the red-light district of Majengo was there no apartheid, because prostitutes of all backgrounds worked there, including Asians and Europeans. Nairobi would always remain a city of migrants, few residents called it their “home”. The capital bore the scars of a ruthless division based on tribe and race.

A social division has replaced racial boundaries. Kenya belongs with Brazil to het countries in the world with the largest gap between rich and poor. Every inhabitant of Nairobi lives in his own social bubble, in pleasant residential areas or in raw ghettos, depending on his income.

The Expressway is a metaphor of that inequality. The criticism is that the government did not invest in an adequate transport system for everyone, but in an airway for the rich. The toll fares are high [one Expressway ride costs as much as four times a bus ticket into the city].

Car imports increased by 300 percent annually after the turn of the century, but most residents cannot afford a car. They walk. In a daily ritual just before dawn, rows of steamy job seekers walk with as much determination as red ants from the slums to the city center or industrial area. When they have work, they use the matatu, private vans that fulfill the role of public transport, but the matatus are not allowed on the Expressway. And underneath, the police chase homeless people away as soon as they put their piece of cardboard there to sleep, because it must not become a haven for the poor.

under the bridge
Under the bridge

This article was first publised in the Netherlands newspaper NRC on 26-10-2022

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