You are here
Home > Africa > Identity and Ethnicity in Kenya

Identity and Ethnicity in Kenya

By Dr. Vincent O. Ongore

Dr. Vincent Ongore
Dr. Vincent Ongore

Dear Kenyans.

Today, I revisit the question of identity, and its implications for nationhood. As teachers, we often get to feel the pulse of the nation through our pupils who are drawn from across the ethnical, political, geographical, and ‘class’ landscapes of Kenya.

It’s instructive to appreciate that the teacher-pupil relationship within an academic context is pure. It’s in this context that we teachers can be said to understand the heartbeat of the nation long before it’s adulterated by the politics of the day. And it’s from this pedestal that I wish to convey to fellow Kenyans an emerging trend in national identity.

One may be tempted to ask what is in a name that makes it so important as to attract a teacher’s pen. Well, an identity represented by a name is so important in Kenya to an extent that it confers a sense of belonging or not. It often defines the scope of interaction at some echelons or strata of our society. A name could be the only thing that stands between a candidate and a job.

It could explain why a candidate got a job despite being less qualified than the next person on the interview list who missed it.

Sometimes the most crucial qualification to win a tender is one’s family name. The list is long. I am sure some of you who are reading this piece have been beneficiaries, victims or affected in one way or another by this phenomenon.

I therefore, need not belabor this issue of identity in Kenya. Rather, I want to address myself to one innovative or creative way in which young Kenyans are trying to mitigate the adverse effects of ‘wrong’ names on their career ambitions.

Many of you must have noticed a growing trend in Kenya where some young people who feel alienated by virtue of their family or ethnic names are now beginning to de-emphasize such names, or drop them altogether.

It’s not uncommon to find young people in this category who work in social places displaying their Christian, English or neutral name tags.

Patrons in such social places are often perplexed that they have to refer to their own brothers and sisters in Kenya by such foreign names as James, John, Joshua, Joan, Jennifer, and Jacinter, instead of Kanini, Kikwete, Kiprono, K’Omollo, Kitili, Kokubo. And of course, teachers are inquisitive.

So I ask why our people are adopting this strange behavior. The answers are as diverse as there are responses. Sample some of them. “We do this to create national cohesion”. “We adopt foreign names because we are becoming increasingly westernized”. “The names are convenient or user friendly for patrons and social friends”, and so on, and so forth.

These responses are largely for convenience, to avoid a conversation or controverted arguments. But they do not really address the underlying causes of the race to drop “offensive names”.

Many young people in Kenya find themselves cornered on account of their origin or ethnicity as reflected in their family names, and are silently trying to jump out of their skin in order to gain acceptability among peers.

Some hard working young Kenyans with perceived favoured names equally want to drop their offending family tags so that they are known for what they actually are, devoid of stereotypes, and be able to maintain their earned respectability.

It’s a real social dragon that the ‘Kenyan Project’ must confront head-on, and decisively slay. It is difficult to fathom how a people who are not comfortable with their identity can possibly be entrusted to protect the sovereignty and pride of a nation. Pride must begin with oneself before it can be extended to other spheres of life.

Adopting foreign names ostensibly to facilitate social interactions does not make much sense as some of the adopted names are obviously more cumbersome than the ‘offending’ African names.

Sample a few of the so called user – friendly Western names: Wolfgang, Fitzgerald, Skumpeter, Deosdedit, among others. With all the due respect to the cultural origins of these names and their bearers, I wish to observe that they are real tongue twisters, and for our people who are far removed from the origins and contexts of these names to claim that they are more facilitative of social interaction than African names such as Mutai, Kones, Wafula or Katana is to extend a bad joke too far.

Likewise, to argue that foreign names create national cohesion does not at all cut in view of the toxic vitriol and verbiage that Kenyans exchange through social and other media, largely driven by ethnicity and politics.

The demographics of purveyors of ethnic bigotry in Kenya defy any known theory or global trends in this area. They include University students, professors, Bishops, politicians and western-educated University graduates, many of them bearing European names, but evidently lacking in sophistication.

We have a real elephant in the living room! As a society, we have a responsibility to carry out an honest introspection of our value system, and begin a conversation around ethnicity and identity.

There is an African saying that one cannot run away from his or her mother, however ugly she is. She remains your mother.

The Kenyan society is currently deeply sucked in peripheral issues, instead of making deliberate resolve and steps to address this matter of identity and national development.

It’s apparent that the issue has either been wrongly diagnosed or given wrong prescription. Negative ethnicity is a product of a misdirected prolific mind.

When a people cannot collectively confront the issue of resource generation, distribution and use, then all other efforts ,however noble they may be, are in vain. People observe the key drivers of decision making processes in the public sector, and make their own judgement.

There is no amount of public education that can effectively compensate for lost opportunities due to identity. It’s a fact that there is no society anywhere in the world that has achieved perfect cohesion.

But experience has shown that the more cohesive a society is the more inclusive and peaceful. Such societies embrace and celebrate their diversity, and in fact, use the attendant synergistic benefits to their advantage.

We all need tranquility to go about our business without having to look over our shoulders just in case there is an ethnically motivated attack.

As a country, we need to invest in creating a nation. The many constitutional commissions that came into being upon the promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 should spearhead this noble effort of nation building.

The country direly needs young people who are confident enough to introduce themselves as Kariuki, Wafula, Katana, Katoo, Kitili or Otieno without any sense of guilt at all.

We cannot afford to engender inferiority complex among our youth who are supposed to be the proud custodians of our national heritage and sovereignty.

They cannot proudly defend their country’s national interests using intellectual, military and other resources if they are not proud of who they are.

As Kenya embarks on the onerous responsibility of revising the school curriculum, policy makers should pay meticulous attention to this important issue of identity, and cleanly articulate its place in deepening national pride and sovereignty.

Our politicians, policy makers and leadership at all levels have a responsibility to light a fire inside our bellies, to inspire pride and confidence in Kenya.

We need to create a nation called Kenya instead of spending too much negative energy on things that divide us. Our collective genius as a people is no less than that which has catapulted other countries to higher levels of development and industrialization in our life time.

We need to harness all the available intellectual and other resources to make our country a better place to live in, and to reignite pride in the brand Kenya. Back to policy makers and politicians.

The writer is a Lecturer at the Technical University of Kenya

Similar Articles

Leave a Reply