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
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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.

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.

But with time, Kenya itself became the draw. Most of the land that British settlers appropriated belonged to the nomadic Masai, not the Kikuyu, but it was the Kikuyu who led an armed insurrection, Mau Mau, in the 1950s. With their fast-growing population, the Kikuyu needed room to expand. The British had removed that possibility by farming the White Highlands. British Capt. Richard Meinertzhagen claimed to have seen what was coming. "They are the most intelligent of the African tribes that I have met; therefore they will be the most progressive under European guidance and will be the most susceptible to subversive activities," he wrote.

Mau Mau has left its scars, psychological if not physical. At least 150,000 Kikuyus passed through British detention camps, and more than 20,000 Mau Mau fighters died in combat. Central Province's residents can still point out the caves where the freedom fighters hid and sketch the location of the British prisons and scaffolds where they were executed—in Nyeri's case, on what is now the golf club's parking lot.

Seeking scapegoats in that turbulent past, many older inhabitants insist today's troubles are the work of a British government that has never forgiven the Kikuyu their revolt. Now the Brits are supposedly the hidden hand behind Luo leader Raila Odinga's opposition campaign. "This is not a war between Kenyans, it's a war imported from abroad," fumes Joseph Karimi, co-author of The Kenyatta Succession. "The British were not satisfied with the rule of the Kikuyu, so they brought in this war. They never actually left Kenya and they never intend to."

If the British won the fight against Mau Mau, the Kikuyu won the peace. When Britain pulled out in 1963, it was Kenyatta, once jailed as a Mau Mau leader, who became president, his community that took pole position. Forced proximity with the colonial administration and the proliferation of missionary schools in Central Province meant the Kikuyu were better educated than other Kenyans and best placed to benefit from independence. What's more, they enjoyed the president's patronage. "My people have the milk in the morning, your tribes the milk in the afternoon," Kenyatta told non-Kikuyu ministers who complained.

The Kikuyu, outsiders feel, have been rubbing other communities' noses in their pre-eminence ever since. "We're obnoxious, we're thrusting, we're loud, and we're everywhere," acknowledges a Kikuyu banker friend. "Our problem is there aren't enough of us to dominate, yet we're too large to ignore. We are at once both obnoxious and indispensable."

Although Kenyatta's successor, Daniel arap Moi, systematically crushed Kikuyu aspirations while promoting his own Kalenjin, the community still thrived economically. Hence the conviction, voiced by snarl-toothed elders and fresh-faced undergraduates alike in Central Province, that only the Kikuyu—the community that stood up and defied the white invader—deserve to run the country.

I hear the familiar refrain in a hotel bar in Muranga, whose wall, significantly, is decorated with framed photographs of Kenyatta and Kibaki, but not of Moi. "If you did an experiment and took five Luos, five Luhyas, five Kambas, and five Kikuyus and gave them money to invest, you would see the result," boasts John Kiriamiti, who publishes a Muranga newspaper. "The Kikuyu would be far, far ahead." His business partner, Njoroge Gicheha, chimes in. "You cannot compare a fisherman in Nyanza who simply pulls a fish from the lake to a farmer who plants beans in Central Province and waits six months to harvest. The fact is, we work harder than other Kenyans."

It's this bumptious sense of entitlement that infuriates Kenya's 47 other tribes. But, with the exception of two bouts of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s, irritation was largely held in check under Moi, a topic of good-natured banter rather than abuse.

That changed with the 2002 elections that first put Kibaki in power. A consensus candidate backed by a broad tribal coalition, he swiftly reneged on promises of a new constitution devolving power to the regions. The pledge of a prime minister's post for Odinga, the man who probably won December's elections, was withdrawn. As the tribal coalition disintegrated, Kenyans noticed that key ministries were all held by members of what they dubbed "the Mount Kenya Mafia." Far from challenging Kenyatta's system of ethnic favoritism, Kibaki reinforced it.

While Western donors relished Kibaki's 6 percent to 7 percent growth rates, the mood on the ground was grim. The fact that Central Province's milk, tea, and coffee industries surged ahead while other regions remained marginalized did not go unnoticed.

Both sides helped whip low-level ethnic resentment into today's frenzied hatred.

Odinga raised the stakes by preaching majimboism. Majimboism means federalism, a system many might think well-suited to over-centralized Kenya. But to Odinga's supporters, it was a code word for something very specific: Kikuyus with plots or businesses in non-Kikuyu areas would be forced out and sent "home."

In Central Province, Kikuyu MPs seized on the majimboist threat to foster a siege mentality. Rumors of a project to slaughter 1 million Kikuyus circulated like wildfire. "The amount of fear-mongering [texts] and e-mails was stupendous," says Kwamchetsi Makokha, a columnist for the Nation newspaper. "It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you set the stage where a single community has isolated itself, what follows is a feeling of resentment by others, of 'what's so special about you?' "

There was nothing random about the violence that exploded with the announcement of a Kibaki win. Deciding that the Kikuyu intended to rule Kenya indefinitely, Luos in the Western town of Kisumu looted Kikuyu shops, while Kalenjin militias drove Kikuyus from Rift Valley farms, settling scores dating back to Kenyatta's 1970s settlement scheme.

A feared Kikuyu militia, the Mungiki, is now extracting vicious revenge. But as thugs demand ID cards at roadblocks and members of the "wrong" tribe watch homes go up in smoke, majimboism is being put into crude practice on the ground, decades of Kikuyu expansionism challenged and reversed.

Many analysts see the entrepreneurship that defines the Kikuyu experience as the only hope for peace. Holding such a huge stake in the Kenyan economy, the Kikuyu have more to lose from the spiraling anarchy than any other group.

In Nairobi, groups of young Kikuyu professionals are calling for a power-sharing deal between Kibaki and Odinga. But the only individuals capable of pushing Kibaki to cede ground at talks being mediated by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan are probably his Kikuyu businessmen buddies. While they are beginning to feel the pinch as their hotels empty and investment portfolios collapse, this elderly group remains hard-line in its instincts.

Here in Central Province, a region locked in belligerent denial and memories of its insurgent past, there is little talk of compromise and no criticism of Kibaki. Retreating ever further into the chauvinistic bunker, some argue that the Kikuyu should create a mini-state of their own. "We can form a government from the Mount Kenya area, the Luhya, and some Kalenjin," James Wanyaga, Nyeri's former mayor, told me. "We can forget about the Luos and put our security machinery into Rift Valley, just as your people did under colonialism. And we would get on very well."

On one thing, however, all agree: There must be no more Kikuyu presidencies. The price of Kikuyu hegemony has already proved greater than anyone wants to pay. "Come 2012, a Kikuyu candidate will stand no chance at all here," says Gichema. "We don't want to be any further isolated."

Michela Wrong, author of I Didn't Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation, is working on a book about Kenya.