Letter from Gikuyu
By Binyavanga Wainaina
For the first time in my life, to be Gikuyu was a public event. You were tagged and measured, and then people let you in. There was a national conversation taking place and this conversation was happening in Gikuyu, for Gikuyu and of Gikuyu.
The rest of Kenya became The Tribes. Or Beasts from the West. This sort of thing was being peddled even among the middle classes. The direct target of this was the Luo, personified by Raila Odinga, then leader of the Orange Democratic Movement and now Prime Minister in the coalition government, who became the devil in hundreds of text messages and websites. For decades, the public face of Kenya’s struggle for identity has been symbolized by towering Gikuyu politicians fighting towering Luo politicians. In our vague, unthinking way, we Gikuyus have come to see the Luo as meaning the coming of communism, emotionalism and the collapse of order.
To be Gikuyu, it is now being said every day in nearly every forum where Gikuyus gather, is to be reasonable. We are the invisible middle-class objectivity of Kenya. For others to belong among us, they have to behave like us. We do not need to examine ourselves.
We need to tame the tribes.
Years ago an old man I respect told me that Kenya would work wonderfully if we had an overt policy to develop people according to their tribal abilities. Positive tribalism, he called it. The Luhya are strong, and make good labourers; they also speak English very well. The Luo are very artistic and creative. They are good tailors. The Kamba make good soldiers, because they are loyal. So the man went around the pizza that is Kenya, naming every slice and according it grace. It completely escaped him that every skill coincided near-perfectly with the first acts of labour division introduced by the British; that he was, in fact, affirming exactly how we were defined and given roles to play in colonial Kenya. These identities were, to him, our permanent tribal personality. I asked him, So what will the Gikuyu do in this utopian Kenya? He was surprised, and frowned. It had not occurred to him. The Gikuyu just were, and everybody else was an ethnic.
Something slipped into his generation’s view of a possible Kenya. Those early Gikuyu technocrats under Kenyatta inherited almost exactly the British idea about who does what: who runs things, who can, who can’t and why not. The tribes were primeval and could not escape their fate. This impartial and objective view is always presented as the conclusion of a long and thorough analysis that, by complete coincidence, comes up with the finding that we are the best people to allow the tribes to develop.
Over the past four years, many Kenyans complained that nice middle-class Gikuyus were meeting in office corridors and speaking in their language. It was a strangely disturbed place to be: many Kenyans assumed I was not Gikuyu and would share their concerns with me. An equal and opposite paranoia about the Gikuyu was starting to spread around Kenya. By the December general election of 2007, Gikuyu had become cockroaches and weeds. Many Gikuyus spoke of their newly discovered contempt for everybody else. The mood was triumphant. We are back! And now Kenyatta is on the face of the Kenya shilling again!
It is clear that this sort of ethnic chauvinism has been growing all over Kenya, with all tribes, and the terrible post-election violence of earlier this year was the inevitable culmination of this new reality. The most visible Gikuyus in Kenya said nothing about the rising sense of a Gikuyu establishment. Our new cardinal took, exclusively, his tribe’s position in the political debates last year.
Of the older generation, hardly anybody credible was speaking to the idea that we were better than the political rhetoric. Nobody was prepared to admit that their own tribe had anything to account for. To publicly criticize ourselves was to give the enemy a weapon to use against ‘us’. We had all gone mad. It was left for us to assume that the elders had closed ranks to make sure a Luo was not elected president in the December general election. For it has come to be, now, that part of what it means to be a Gikuyu is not to be a Luo.
~ Binyavanga Wainaina, In Gikuyu, for Gikuyu, of Gikuyu.