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January 22, 2019

Ethnic politics dims our light in E. Africa

LOST GLORY: An aerial view of Nairobi city a top KICC.
LOST GLORY: An aerial view of Nairobi city a top KICC.

Tribal discord comes at a steep price as we lose stature and

business to our neighbours


Kenya is famous for picturesque landscapes, a dizzying diversity of wildlife, the world’s fastest runners. Kenya is birthplace of the ancestors of the leader of the free world.

When our neighbours were embroiled in conflict, former President Moi crowed about Kenya as an “island of peace”. We built schools and educated our sons and daughters as our neighbours sent theirs to war. When Idi Amin expelled Asians, we relied on Indians to lay the foundation for a vibrant private sector, a middle class.

But Kenya’s recent political and social history is depressing. Unabashed ethnic rivalry and greed define and often turn political competition into an orgy of intercommunity violence. Reckless politics and ethnic discord comes at a steep price.

For example, Uganda’s decision to route its oil pipeline through Tanzania rather than Kenya reflects its practical and strategic concerns. Foremost are Kenya’s recent history of politically instigated ethnic violence and the complex politics over land in the Coast and the Rift Valley. With this deal, Tanzania has stamped its seriousness a regional economic player of immense significance.

The ghosts of political recklessness and catastrophic blood letting of the 2007-08 post-election violence still haunt us. Ethnic vitriol is alive and well. Mobilising for electoral competition through opportunistic and fleeting ethnic coalitions diminishes hope for genuine social cohesion.

There is an old fable of the Luo community. It is a myth about a fierce warrior. Folklore has it that Luanda Magere possessed supernatural powers. Luanda was invincible in battle. Spears and arrows fashioned against him by Nandi warriors were bent out of shape by his rock-solid torso.

The Nandi learned — at the steep cost of treasure and blood — that they would never vanquish Luanda in combat. According to this Luo myth, the Nandi chose to make peace and offered a young beautiful woman to marry Luanda. But her solemn mission was to find the source of Luanda’s invincibility in battle. She discovered that it was his shadow that bled. He was killed in the next battle when a Nandi warrior speared his shadow. Luanda turned into a rock.

The East African Institute with partners from University of Alberta, Moi University and young artists from Kisumu county is working on an initiative to take old stories and tell them for a new generation. This initiative, Old Stories in New Ways, seeks to carve out of the solid rock of the Luanda myth a grain of hope, peace and cohesion between the Nandi and Luo communities.

In the new story, the beautiful Nandi spy wife becomes pregnant and gives birth to Luanda’s only child. In her agonising dirge she says the rock is a monument of hatred between the Nandi and the Luo. The baby symbolises a new beginning, a future of kinship and peace.

A survey of Kenyan youth conducted by the East Institute revealed that only five per cent of Kenyan youth identify by their ethnicity. A future of social cohesion and intercommunity understanding is possible. We can compete for political power as fellow citizens not as enemies. We can redeem our image among our neighbours because our youth are Kenyans first.

Dr Awiti is the director of the East African Institute at the Aga Khan University.


‘Old Stories in New Ways’ seeks to retell the Luanda Magere myth to bring cohesion and peace between the Nandi and Luo

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