Why do Kenya's other tribes resent the Kikuyu?

Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 8 2008 12:11 PM

Who Are the Kikuyu?

And why do Kenya's other tribes resent them so much?

A local official tries to calm a group of Kikuyu refugees during a distribution of clothing
Click image to expand.
A local official tries to calm a group of Kikuyu refugees during a distribution of clothing

CENTRAL PROVINCE, Kenya—On the hillsides, tea is still being picked; in the valleys, women still weed rows of beans, feet stained ocher by the soil; and in downtown Nyeri, the matatu taxi vans still honk by custom. The only immediate hint that something is amiss is to be found on the veranda of the Outspan Hotel. Despite boasting one of Africa's most stunning views—Mount Kenya stretches serenely on the far side of the plains—the Outspan is strangely quiet these days; most of its tourists have fled.

If Kenya is ablaze, it's almost possible to miss that fact in Central Province. A few hours' drive west, machete-wielding youths blockade roads, shops have been looted, and refugee camps spring up like mushrooms. At first glance, the country's most serious crisis since independence has barely dented the banal routines of daily life.

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There's a reason for this. Central Province is the home of President Mwai Kibaki—his Othaya constituency lies just south of Nyeri. While his Kikuyu kinsmen have been burned alive and lynched across the rest of Kenya, punished for his suspected rigging of the December elections, only a madman would dare lift a hand to a Kikuyu on his home turf.

But that doesn't allay a crawling sense of unease. The relationship between the Kikuyu and the rest of Kenya has been warped, residents sense, possibly beyond repair. Nyeri's inhabitants are haunted by a more immediate fear. Most of the 300,000 people displaced in the violence are Kikuyus. Even as nervous Luos cluster for protection in local police stations, hundreds of Kikuyus are returning, demanding housing, work, and school places. "At the moment people are telling those displaced to stick where they are, because there is great land scarcity here," says Muthui Mwai, a Nyeri journalist. "No one wants them back."

Land scarcity is the leitmotif of the Kikuyu, the historic source of their anguish and the motivating force behind their success story. Accounting for around 22 percent of Kenya's population of 38 million, the Kikuyu's mark on the East African nation has been far greater than the figures imply, thanks to that driving hunger.

Under Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta, another kinsman, they streamed out of Central Province, settling in the Rift Valley and on the coast. Today, they dominate the economy. Kikuyus drive most of Kenya's matatus and its taxis, run its newspapers, and constitute much of its civil service, their entrepreneurial reach extending from the glitziest of hotels to the remotest roadside duka (kiosk). They also, joke Kikuyus, account for the biggest share of the country's criminals and prison inmates.

They hail themselves as "the Jews of Kenya," envied and hated in equal measure for that entrepreneurial zeal. But there's a difference: Europe's Jews never combined economic influence with political power. The Kikuyu have done just that, providing two of Kenya's three presidents. And their current predicament can be traced to that double-fisted grip on the nation-state and the resentment it stirs among their compatriots.

The Kikuyu story, legend has it, begins on a ridge north of the town of Muranga, south of Nyeri, amid the misty valleys carved by Mount Kenya's melting snows. To the precolonial Kikuyu, Mount Kenya, known as Kirinyaga, was the seat of God, or Ngai. Ngai created Gikuyu—the first man—then pointed earthward. "Build your homestead where the fig trees grow," he said. Later, he sent Mumbi to join him, and the couple established the 10 clans that constitute "the house of Mumbi," as the Kikuyu are also known.

You can actually visit this Kikuyu version of the Garden of Eden. Behind a sky-blue gate, painted with the words Mukurwe Wa Nyagathanga—the Tree of Gathanga—lie two mud huts, one for Gikuyu and one for Mumbi. The site looks toward Kirinyaga, but the mountain, famously elusive, is usually shrouded in cloud.

The compound may be an officially designated historical monument, but it looks semineglected. The skeleton of a half-built hotel, abandoned when a shady contractor disappeared with the funds—"This, too, is part of our culture," jokes a villager—drips water nearby. In my many trips there, I've never stumbled on another visitor. "It's not our way to look backward, only forward," explains my Kikuyu driver.

The farming community that fanned out from this site had a special affinity with the soil. "There is a great desire in the heart of every Gikuyu man to own a piece of land on which he can build his home," Kenyatta wrote in Facing Mount Kenya. "A man or a woman who cannot say to his friends, come and eat, drink and enjoy the fruit of my labour, is not considered as a worthy member of the tribe."

It was this affinity that brought the Kikuyu into conflict with the British Empire. Initially, Britain's 19th-century explorers showed little interest in the area that would be designated "Kenya," training their eyes instead on the Buganda kingdom across Lake Victoria. Central Province's fertile valleys were simply the place to stock their caravans with fresh food before the long trip west.

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