We were enjoying a few Pilsner beers at one of our favorite clubs in downtown Nairobi when the discussion turned to politics. Interspersing very colorful language, our friend Sally, a leader in her community and tireless worker for development and education in Mathare, one of Kenya’s most notorious slums, was articulating for me that a Luo could never be fit to lead her country because he was not circumcised. The absence of this experience from his teenage years meant that he had not gone through a coming-of-age ceremony that, to nearly every other tribe, is seen as crucial to attaining manhood.

As she was ranting, she began to smile, probably because she saw the shock and disbelief on my face at the straightforwardness by which she was asserting an opinion that I had observed many times through the subtle use of certain adjectives to describe Raila Odinga, a Luo running for president of Kenya.

A little over seven weeks ago, the people of Kenya were preparing for what should have been the most democratic election that Kenya has held.

It was supposed to be the next step in the process toward democratization, illustrating why Kenya has become a model country and an economic hub for its East African neighbors.

Instead, the election was rigged and Kenya was sent spiraling into a state of ethnic violence and segregation.

This most recent election was also significant because of the tribal dynamic that it showcased – as evidenced by the exchange described above. The incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, was a member of Kenya’s largest and most politically and economically dominant tribal group, the Kikuyus. Opposing him was Raila Odinga, who belongs to Kenya’s third -largest tribal group, the Luos.

Despite being a major player in Kenya’s independence and governance since then, the Luo people feel as though they have not been treated fairly. Roads leading to Western Kenya, the traditionally Luo region of the country, are dilapidated and ridden with potholes, while those leading east are far more accessible. Prominent Luo politicians such as Tom Mboya and Doctor Robert Ouko, both of whom had legitimate chances of becoming the president of the country and enjoyed strong support from Western nations, were assassinated in 1969 and 1990, respectively.

Now there have certainly been other tribes – such as the Kalenjin, whose son served as Kenya’s president for 24 years during which he dismantled Kenya’s multi-party system – that have played serious roles in Kenyan national politics. While it would be remiss to ignore these other politically significant tribal groups, the tension between Luos and Kikuyus have occupied a unique place in Kenya’s political, economic and social system and are important to any understanding of what has been happening in Kenya recently.

Many emphasize that the pent-up frustration in regards to the distribution of land following Kenya’s independence or the anger at the economic inequity that unfortunately defines Kenya’s cities are the central roots of this most recent violence. But I would assert that these issues are byproducts of and inextricably linked to perhaps the true root of this problem – tribalism.

Killings have been committed on almost exclusively tribal lines, and those individuals who have fled from their homes have done so from an area heavily occupied by another tribal group to one populated by people of their own tribe.

These events, coupled with Kenya’s tribally divisive history and the myriad of social and political institutions that are governed by tribal nepotism, seem to demand a serious consideration of tribalism as the source of this violence.

Unfortunately, most editorials in the New York Times and other major papers are not giving this due attention. I have read stories of Kikuyus forcibly circumcising Luo men in the streets and then killing them in public and, yet, none make reference to why this is being done.

It is not just one more psychosexual act that springs up in times of unrest and violence. As Sally very clearly explained, it is a blatant expression of why many in Kenyans feel that Odinga is not capable of leading his country.

Thankfully, the situation is calming down. Former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan has been in Nairobi for weeks now trying to broker a power-sharing agreement between the competing candidates, and it seems as though he has succeeded, at least in theory.

The next few days are crucial, and hopefully a workable agreement that includes a place for a legitimate prime minister will be completed.

But it seems to me that, in order to achieve a real sense of peace and understanding, Kenyans need to do more than simply repair this election – they need to create an environment of tribal equality and acceptance.

Elkin is a member of the class of 2008.



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