On Tribalism in Kenya; Correct Diagnosis, Wrong Therapy

Despite all the efforts Kenya has placed on ending Tribalism, it doesn't seem to be a monster we can face.

by Laura Otieno

For many centuries, Kenya, a sovereign state has been grappling with this vice. It is not at all a new phenomenon; it has been in existence since the colonial era when the colonialists used it as a tactic. You are familiar with divide and rule. The colonialists successfully managed to divide their subjects along ethnic lines by generating suspicion. They convinced the “fish-eating” Luos, to be wary of the “scheming and untrustworthy” counterparts from Central Kenya.

Tribalism, much as it can be traced back to the old days, is arguably a new phenomenon because history has it that the nowadays considered major opposites, the Westerners (Luos, Luhyas ) barely had any interaction with the GEMA (Gikuyu, Embu, Meru) given their geographical inclination. This goes to show that tribalism is a modern-day tool generated to speed up colonization, and thereafter to help political dynasties stay in power.

That said, 53 years after independence, the tool, tribalism, is still here and is as alive as it was during the colonial and early post-independence days. One can argue that it is in fact, more vibrant today that it was in the past. We have even, as a nation, become so comfortable with the vice of tribalism, that we have even adjusted our institutions accordingly. How you may ask.


Every time we are close to holding elections we see people rush back to their tribal cocoons. This is, one would say, the opportune time to see people’s true colours. Even the middle class segments itself into various sections, each endorsing their tribesmen for various electoral posts.

Some common argument we always hear: We must vote for a native, a son of the soil. No one cares to assess the worthiness of whoever is running or whether they have better opponents. He or she is part of the community, and that’s all that matters. Trust kicks in. And the fallacy that is spread at this point is “better the devil you know than the angel you don’t”. Well since this fallacy is based on religion, here are my two cents: Never has the devil been better than an Angel.

Politicians use elections to divide us. We lose lives, we hate on each other and fight amongst ourselves, while they call each other at night and laugh over the sentiments they made during the day. The same sentiments we the poor would be fighting over.

But thumbs up to the liberals who preach voting based on manifestos and not tribal inclination. And to the minister who decided having a National School in every county will at least help in integration. Shout out to the national and integration commission for their efforts.

But the tribalism virus continues to thrive. Now that we have self-diagnosed, how about we start therapy on the tiny affected unit

Institutions of Higher Learning:

Key to the completion of the failed 8-4-4 system of learning, is attending an institution of higher learning – any tertiary institution. But these higher learning institutions do not produce liberalized youth. They have, instead, become tribal hubs.

Students group themselves in associations based on their ‘home’ counties. National and official languages do not apply in these settings. And for the years’ students are in these institutions, instead of appreciating diversity and improving and accepting the beauty in being different, young, and promising minds are brainwashed and filled with tribal stereotypes. We therefore at the end of it all have graduates who strongly affirm to thoughts imposed to us by the colonialists and the politicians who want to rule forever.

Then you wonder why every generation continues to have leaders strongly rooted in tribalism.


We are all familiar with Mbugua, the Faiba guy and Wafula, the guy that eats ugali and is so mean to Koimet who merely wants to sit down with a friend to ‘tisgus’ (discuss). We all love these characters. They make us laugh. But what are we teaching our children, that Wafulas are mean and love food, that Mbuguas will do whatever to minimize losses including not using fuel when driving downhill when the guy tells one of his drivers to “teremka na gravity”. And our kids grow up with these stereotyped images and consequently join the rest of the country in the tribal path.

This is how we have adjusted ourselves to tribalism, focusing on the humor side of stereotypes, which is a mask that covers the ugly face of tribalism.


Our news will still give airtime to the tribal councils of elders when they name their preferred presidential candidate. This silently triggers tribalism because all other ethnic groups will feel the need to pick a candidate. No one wants to miss out. No one wants their tribe to be left out.

Recently Francis Atwoli commissioned students from the University of Nairobi to find the most popular Luhya to become the community’s spokesperson. Whether this is a person who will be representing the community’s ideas or whether this will be another outfit in the name of unity meant to propel selfish political motives, we are yet to know.


I will not ask you to vote policies and not tribes, I feel like it is too cliché. We know what hurts us. We know how it hurts us. And we know the consequences. Are we ready for the same rhetoric this year. Or will we stand for better?

The recent move on Twitter under #tribelessYouth is a step towards the right direction – tapping the most energetic group and using their vibrancy to rally a good course. We need to tackle tribalism from the root. As long as we continue to allow the airing of charged and tribal political opinions from fake pundits and ethnic councils, as long as we continue to condone the idea of community spokespeople who only serve selfish motives, and as long as we continue to give a warm reception to stereotyped advertisements, the fight against tribalism will never be won and we will be merely spinning our wheels forever.

Laura Otieno is a Media Science Student. She loves Broadcast Journalism and has a keen interest on stories that directly affect human dignity.



  1. My opinion is that, we won’t break away from this unless everyone makes up their minds to it. Stereotypical jokes make us laugh, even when they aren’t funny, ask a foreigner who has attended churchil if they found the show funny or not. we need to let go of this. we are a lost generation for sure for we have followed what our parents follow and so got lost even further. but there is hope for our children. it all starts with us who believe in cohesion to preach this to our friends and family and make our children believe it too. every successful nation has it’s troubles but managed to by-pass this. take the US, racism was once dominant but now only a minute fragment exists here and there. my point is that, politicians can’t change our thinking but we can change by ourselves by starting with our homes and going all the way to the ballot with an open liberal mind. but it’s a long difficult way to go, but hey, we must start somewhere

  2. shocking but true, I have experienced this vice almost everywhere I go. In highschool, there were form one-guardian scheme where a form3 would be a school guardian to a form 1. I happen to be from central kenya and was given one from Nyanza, now he had a strong accent and people made fun of him and nicknamed him ODM. it was worsened by the fact that it was really close to elections and someone told him that “nyinyi hamwezi tushinda subiri uone” I felt so bad that a highschooler who should be liberal had such a mindset. then we became really good friends and during a visiting day I met his folks and he explained how I had “protected” him then one of his older sister said, “so kuna wakikuyu wazuri.. ” I really felt it and wondered how someone would make such a comment even in my presence. its just too sad!

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