The joke is told of a Kenyan runner who was asked how he almost always managed to win his races by effortlessly cruising past the finish line, to which he replied that racing had always been his passion. He should have kept quiet after that remark but in the euphoria of the moment he added; in embarrassingly poor English, that he’s not the only “race-ist” in his family. His father was a racist, his mother was a racist and to as if to hammer the point home he concluded that ALL his grandparents were racists. The interviewer chuckled under his breath but I’m sure that deep down he found he was laughing out loud.

I’m hoping this humorous anecdote will serve as a buffer for the contentious statements I’m about to make on the topic of race. By race here I mean it in the sense in which it is used in expressions such as, “the human race” or the “African race” and not in the equivocal and comical sense just mentioned. I would like to revisit it in the context of the just concluded Presidential elections in Kenya which revealed, wittingly or unwittingly, that despite all our education and sophistication, we all have an indelible racist streak in us.

There are 42 tribes in Kenya, ranging from the populous Kikuyu on the slopes of Mt. Kenya to the almost extinct El-molo tribe bordering the Lake Turkana region. These tribes can be super-divided into three broad groups – the Bantus, the Nilotes and the Cushites. Apart from the little-known Hottentot tribes of Southern Africa who seem to defy classification, these three broad races seem to encapsulate the great variety of the peoples of Africa so much so that I would go as far as saying that Kenya is Africa in miniature. Ours is a patchwork heritage, a testimony to the richness of diversity.

Blatant statements such as “Kenya is Africa in miniature” and “we all have an indelibly racist streak in us” strike us as insensitive and politically incorrect. We fear that if we say them out loud, we will be labelled biased, discriminatory and or racist. In our desire to appear objective, we forget the dynamics of human subjectivity and the real possibility of diversity co-existing with unity. In public we declare that all men are equal but in secret we will confess that our men are the strongest and our women the fairest. This subjective view of reality is encoded in European sayings such as; “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”, as well as the equivalent African proverb that states that “There is always a winner even in a monkey’s beauty contest”.

In order not to sink into the shifting sands of relativism, this might be a good moment to define or to describe briefly our terms. What do the terms tribalism, nationalism, racism, and “ethnicism” mean? Do all these self-aggrandising isms have to do with unfair discrimination or is there something positive about them?  Perhaps what many derisively call racism is nothing other than the perfectly understandable need for preserving one’s own community which in effect is a natural corollary of the instinct for self-preservation.

The term tribe is related to the English term tribute. In Roman times it was a fiscal concept derived from the (natural) divisions created among the colonized for tax collecting purposes. Paying taxes to the colonial government was a way of paying tribute to the supreme authority of the land. Nation is from the Latin natus, which has to do with birth and coming to be. From the word natus, we get the English words nature and natural. Ethnic is from the Greek ethnos which is simply the Greek equivalent for tribe or nation. Finally, the term race is a group of people who share similar features which is why we can speak of groupings such as the Bantu race and the Nilotic race.

Let us now revert to the just mentioned Kenyan presidential elections. The candidate who won the race – Uhuru Kenyatta (the son of the first president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta) – is from the most populous tribe in Kenya – the Kikuyu. In Kenya, “party” inexorably means tribe and majority of voters invariably support tribal leaders. In a tribally heterogeneous setting such as is ours, the sense that democracy is inadequate cannot but haunt anyone who reflects. To make matters worse, after the chaos that rocked the country following the 2007 presidential elections, the fear that every tribe would demand its tribute in blood loomed large in the horizon.

Considering therefore that tribe and nation are synonymous terms, we can say that Kenya is not only a 42-tribe state; it is a “multi-nation-al” state. Tribalism, given its divisive tendancies, is one of the greatest socio-political problems we have to contend with in Kenya and in Africa at large. Tribalism however is not limited to Africa. It might help to point out here that the dynamics played out in the fratricidal wars in Africa are not really all that different from those played out in the European context of the Jewish holocaust or the ethnic cleansing exercises of the former Czechoslovakia and of the Serbs and Croats in the Balkans. With slight nuances, what we call tribalism in Kenya is not that much different from the nationalism displayed in the desire of the Basque country to secede from the rest of Spain. Ethnicity is not an African problem – it is a problem of the human race. The envy among brothers that degenerates into bloody wars is as old as the story of Cain and Abel and as modern as the homo homini lupus of Thomas Hobbes.

One of the most simplistic solutions to the problem of ethnicity is that of levelling down differences to a faceless and mediocre muddle. It is said that given the great variety of peoples in Africa, the best way to get rid of the conflicts arising from difference is to get rid of the ethnic groups themselves. How this is done ranges from ignoring “the other”, banning the speaking of mother tongue languages to the physical elimination of entire ethnic groups, also known as genocide.

Since when has a garden with a rich blend of flowers been a problem for a good gardener and not a source of pride and delight? The solution to ethnicity is to celebrate diversity. There is such a thing as positive ethnicity. It consists in respecting the other as the other. It takes the form of brotherhood if cultivated by a wise ‘gardener’ and fostered by a leader who cuts a father-figure image. A rope of 42 strands of whatever fibre is strong not because of the number of strands, but because each strand is twisted and forced to rely on the others for overall strength. Is this not the Spirit of Harambee? Harambee as understood by Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, the founding father of Kenya is a summons to work together by pulling together in the same direction.

I was pleasantly surprised to find this spirit of celebrating diversity expressed in the following words on a simple t-shirt design: (parenthesis added for purposes of explanation)


Jump like a Maasai

Run like a Kalenjin

Speak like a Luo

Bargain like a Kikuyu

Work like a Mkamba

Dance like a Giriama

Trade like a Muindi (an Asian)

Travel like a Mzungu (a European)


Live like a Kenyan


Here’s to hoping that in these years when most countries in Africa are celebrating their 50 years of independence, we may be a bold witness in the world of the great jubilation that comes from celebrating diversity.

Robert Odero is a staff member of Strathmore School in Nairobi, Kenya.