Tribalism, Clannism and Politics

Once upon a time there was a wedding in the skies and birds of all kinds were invited. The Tortoise was invited too. Before they took off, they made a covenant to guide them throughout their journey and during the wedding ceremony. Sharing everything equally was the main pillar in the deal. They chose Tortoise to be their leader and every bird agreed to donate a feather to enable him to fly. The Tortoise and the birds flew to the skies for the wedding. Upon reaching there, they were welcomed by the host. Each guest was asked to introduce him/herself. But when it came to the turn of the tortoise he shrewdly introduced himself as “ALL OF YOU (NINYI NYOTE)”.
When food was brought for the guests, the server announced: “It’s for all of you.” Everything that was served — food, gifts, milk, fruits, wine, etc. — was for “all of you”.

The Tortoise feasted on all the food and drinks that were served. The birds were left with nothing to neither eat nor drink since the Tortoise had intentionally broken the covenant.
The birds got angry and decided that “enough is enough”. Nearly every bird plucked off his/her feather from the tortoise, leaving him with just a few from his closest friends, which were not enough to enable him to fly back home.

The Tortoise sent a friendly bird with a message to his wife back on earth, asking her to prepare for him a mattress to land on. However, the bird changed the message and instead of preparing a mattress as requested, she laid on the ground sharp stones, broken glasses and sharp metals. The Tortoise was told all was well and could now jump down. The landing was horrible and he broke into pieces.

Situational analysis The challenges tearing Kenya apart include the tendency to manipulate ethnic identities for what can be termed as “private political” interests. According to A. Tarimo, for us to appreciate the root causes of the prevailing ethno-political competition, discrimination and violence, we need to ask the following questions. How is ethnic identity related to the conflict of loyalties and interests? How have the dynamics of ethnic identities fashioned the existing understanding of the common good and political life? Have Christian churches and other religions managed to stand above ethnocentrism and the tension it generates?

In search for long-term solutions to these questions, the Church in this week of Lent is asking the people of good will, and in particular Catholic Christians, to focus on how issues of negative ethnicity tend to substitute equal citizenship among citizens in favour of the model of exclusion founded upon ethnic affiliation. At the same time, the Catholic Church is fully aware that the challenge of integrating cultural identities in the processes of political integration and democratisation is closely related to the problematic concepts of the nation-state, citizenship and the common good.

Like in the above story of the Tortoise and the many birds, Kenya is a multi-ethnic society, and various communities have lived in harmony for years. This has been possible because each and every community with its culture adds to what can be described as the Kenyan nation. However, we have not been able to transit from being a country to a nation – a tightly-knit group of people who share a common national identity. It is the construction of a shared sense of identity and common destiny to overcome ethnic and/or religious differences and counter alternative allegiances. This goes beyond just sharing borders or identity cards and passports, but to embrace national values as espoused in Article 10 (2) of the Constitution of Kenya 2010. These include:-

  • Patriotism, national unity, sharing and devolution of power, the rule of law, democracy and participation of the people;
  • Human dignity, equity, social justice, inclusiveness, equality, human rights, non-discrimination and protection of the marginalised;
  • Good governance, integrity, transparency and accountability; and
  • Sustainable development.

Therefore, we need to be wary of ethnic mobilisations, which unscrupulous leaders can organise and exploit for narrow political interests, such as control of the state. Such mobilisations tend to pursue personal and narrow ethnic interests. How then do we address this problem of negative ethnicity, tribalism and politicisation of ethnicity in Kenya? The challenge is not how to overcome ethnic identities, but how to integrate them into social relationships and political processes.

Efforts to promote democracy cannot succeed without taking into account the challenge of appropriating ethnic identities into the structure of nationstate. Any project, be it political, economic or religious, which involves the mobilisation of people must consider the cultural contexts in which individuals live, rather than those in which someone may think they ought to be living. The process of building democratic institutions will succeed insofar as it starts with what people are and from where they are.
We must celebrate our ethnicity by accepting others and knowing that everybody in the world belongs to an ethnic group. We must shun negative ethnicity and ethnocentrism. We must embrace meritocracy where we shall look at an individual’s contribution rather than what ethnic group or political divide one comes from.

Readings Genesis 9:8-15 1

Peter 3:18- 22

Mark 1:12-15

Today’s readings remind us that God has made a covenant with us. Our country is the new Ark where God has promised to remove us from all evil. He did this by sending His Son who made us sons and daughters of God. The call today is to repent the many times we have used our ethnicity to discriminate others instead of enjoying our diversity and the unity we have been called to. We must resist the temptation of thinking that we are better than others.
What practical ways can we apply Christ’s teaching to fight negative ethnicity?


  1. In which ways and forms do we experience tribalism in our communities today?
  2. How does devolution contribute to negative ethnicity?
  3. What measures do we put in place to allow other communities find space in our ethnic groupings?
  4. As Christians, how are we called to change to minimise tribalism in the light of the word of God and the theme at this Lenten period?

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