By Osmund Agbo
When you find yourself in the minority, there is a tendency to seek out and develop kinship with anyone who in some ways, looks a tad like you. That was exactly what happened between Wanbui and I when we first met several years ago in the busy rotunda of Memorial Hospital. I was mentally starting to adjust to life as a unicorn in an all-white hospital when on the second day of orientation, I saw this enthralling chocolate with box braids, standing on a food line and wearing a name tag that says, Wam. Overtime as our friendship blossomed, Wam was curious to know how, just by looking I could tell she was Kenyan. I narrated the story of how during creation, her people arm-twisted God into gifting their women with a beautifully rounded, callipygian hint of lumbar lordosis. She almost died laughing.
Wam, short for Wambui, is the kind of girl whose endless supply of rib-cracking wisecracks sends you convulsing with laughter each time. But that is hardly scratching the surface about who she is. For starters, she is a polyglot who has lived all over Europe, speaks at least six languages fluently and knows at least a little about everything but most times more. When not teaching you how to cook Ugali while insisting that Swahili is the authentic language of instruction, she is handing you over her homemade recipe for making the best cocktail from “the richest organic source that money can buy,” whatever that means. My friend is also a quick study who is quite fascinated about Nigeria and wants to learn everything about the people she respects for their brilliance, even when she wished they should try not to come across as too cocky.
It’s been many months since we talked, no thanks to a pandemic that made every nurse in America peripatetic. Wam was in the state of Washington for two months; an experience she equated to living in Asia for that long. “You wouldn’t believe that many restaurants over there have their menu written in Japanese,” she said. She spoke glowingly about her Washington experience, though would rather be back in Houston, a city she described as a cultural mosaic rather than living in “tribal enclaves.” I joked about how years back my friends and I loved to frequent Chinatown in New York City, looking for bootleg versions of high-end fashion brands, something that made her reel with laughter. By the time she left, we were fully caught up with all the accumulated gist left piling for months. For the most part, however, our discussion centred on the diversity and uniqueness of America and how every part tends to be dominated by different sub-nationalities that speak different languages and observe various religious practices, yet able to coexist in relative peace and harmony, a feat that is impossible to reproduce in our native homeland.
Wam is also a foodie who often jokes about being a chef manqué. But her most endearing part to me is her mastery of African literature and politics. She loathes with a passion the tribal politics of her native Kenya. Apparently in Kenya by her own account, you have to either be an apostle of Uhuru Kenyata who is Kikuyu or a disciple of Raila Odinga, a Luo. The dichotomy is so deep and pervasive in Kenyan social life such that you may be denied a meal if you end up at the wrong table served by the other camp. I have always believed she exaggerated the division, but she insisted it was even worse than what she described. But that is Wambui for you; highly opinionated and never afraid to say her mind.
Kenyan politics like the rest of Africa has always been characterized by ethnic tensions. Since independence in 1963, there have been clashes mainly between the larger ethnic tribes, the Kikuyus, Luos and Kalenjins. But it was in 2007 that the demons of tribalism really reared its ugly head after a highly contested general elections that left more than a thousand of Kenyans dead and even a larger number internally displaced. The clashes erupted after Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, was declared the winner amidst accusations of massive rigging and other sharp practices.
Tribalism in Kenya could be traced all the way back to the colonial era when the British perfected the divide and rule tactics of governance, playing one tribe against another. In Kenya, the colonial system fostered enmity between the Kikuyus and Luos who with their big numbers were considered a threat to the British interest. It’s similar to the method employed by the crown in administering southern and northern Nigeria following the amalgamation of the eponymous protectorates in 1914.
In Kenya, the first two political parties originally formed were Kenya Africa National Union (KANU), a Kikuyu and Luo tribal alliance and KADU founded by Daniel Arap Moi, a Kalenjin and comprised of other small tribes who feared domination by the bigger tribes under KANU. Within KANU, however, exists divisions as well. The nation’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta was accused of favouring his Kikuyu people while sidelining Luos, in particular Jaramongi Odinga, father of the current opposition leader, Raila Odinga. And the politics of tribal divisions continues.
While these politicians exploit ethnicity and tribalism to achieve their goal, the fact remains that their primary motivation is personal gain. The entire political class in Kenya, Nigeria and the rest of Africa is a single tribe whose members share comparable histories of corruption, chaos, and mediocrity. As one writer summed it up beautifully, they “ethicize, tyrannize politically and steal.” They neither have a genuine intention to address poverty nor the inspiration to pursue progressive agenda.
The fact that Africa is made of many tribes of different persuasions is not the reason for its under-development. Not at all. Diverse cultural perspectives have been known to inspire creativity and drive innovation instead. Any wonder why for more than a century, America has been leading the rest of the world in cutting edge technology and science. Our problem in Africa is that everywhere you go on the continent, there exists a different “tribe” of criminally minded men, bound together by greed and whose allegiance is only to their pockets. That tribe is sustained by a system that is lacking in checks and balances and continually rewards bad behaviour.
In order to begin to solve a problem whether in Africa, Asia, Europe, or Latin America, it has to start by accurately diagnosing it. That, I believe, is the first order of business. Diversity has never been Africa’s problem.
A youth movement called Tribeless alliance was founded by a young Kenyan named Wanjiku Kihika. The group was behind TribelessyouthKE that trended on Twitter and other social media platforms in the last Presidential election. It was formed to end tribalism and its legacy in politics in that country.
Wambui believes such a movement is the future of Africa. “The only tribes we have in Africa are the rich and poor,” she said as she handed over to me, a tape containing recorded speeches of Prof. PLO Lumumba. Not long after, she zoomed off on her 2023 Mercedes convertible with the top down.
Oh! And I forgot to mention that Wam plays hard too.
Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: Eagleosmund@yahoo.com