In late 2008 a friend told me that I reminded her of Njenga Karume in a Giorgio Armani suit and a laptop. This was after she heard of KikuyusforChange, and she did not mean it as a compliment. I also did not take it as such because I viewed Karume as part of the group that had made us form KikuyusforChange.
My first personal encounter with Hon Karume earlier that year had also not gone very well. I had been part of a group of young Kikuyu businessmen who had started the process of analyzing why the Post Election Violence of 2007-08 had happened, and what needed to be done to ensure that it never happened again. To be honest we were doing this from a very selfish perspective; anti-Kikuyu sentiments were bad for our businesses.
The existence of our group had come to the attention of the newly-revived GEMA Cultural Association (GCA) and a couple of days after the national accord was signed a few of us were invited to a discussion with the GCA leadership.
The topic was what we thought was the way forward for our community, and Hon Karume was present. The message from GCA was that our ‘rika’ (age-group) needed to join in their efforts to unite GEMA communities. One of the officials even suggested that after all GEMA-linked organisations needed to come together under GEMA so that the government could protect us.
We were not going to agree to be part of what we perceived to be an ethno-centric outfit and said as much. I also stated that insanity was doing the same thing over again and expecting different results, and circling wagons was what we had always done. I also pointedly stated that in 2007 the government was close to 100 percent in Kikuyu/GEMA hands but this had not been enough to stop the anti-Kikuyu violence.
I suggested that as a group our mandate was to figure out how else to operate, especially now that 50 percent of the government had just been transferred to the ‘enemy’ after the national accord. This was not received well by GEMA officials and we parted ways. However this engagement was what led to our small group’s identity, ‘KikuyusforChange’. We defined ourselves as under-40 year old Kikuyus who acknowledged that we did not know the exact way forward, but accepted that it would not be found in doing what had always been done before 2007. We were going to try new things.
Two years later we ate humble pie and went looking for Njenga Karume. At the time we were involved in a series of community-based group discussions on tribalism across the country. These involved interacting with opinion leaders from other Kenyan communities on why ethnicity was such a challenge to Kenyan nationalism. In the process we had been confronted with strong anti-Kikuyu sentiments in most of the meetings we had held. We had also learnt that Njenga Karume seemed to be one of the few Kikuyus other communities respected and believed could do something about bridging this divide.
Despite our first meeting Karume convened a group of close to 40 of his peers for us to present our experiences to. He also facilitated a meeting with another 40 Kikuyu Elders in the Rift Valley. In each meeting we ended by challenging the elders present to do something about the existing isolation of Kikuyus by other communities. We also pointed out that if this was not done before the next election, our community could very well find itself fighting another ’41 versus 1’ mantra.
A few days after our presentation Karume led other GEMA leaders to meet Prime Minister Raila Odinga for what was most probably the first meeting between them since the 2007 PEV. A few months later we learnt that Karume was actively involved in organising meetings between elders from different communities in the Rift Valley. As much as we are very careful not to take full credit for this, we are sure that our presentation to him helped these processes along.
The younger Njenga Karume might have been an ethnic chauvinist, but the latter day Karume showed that SiasaMpya is possible as he leveraged his wealth and political influence to build inter-ethnic bridges. By listening to a group of young people who were grappling in the dark on issues of inter-ethnic cohesion, he then went out and urged Kenyans to to concentrate and invest in those things that brought us together as Kenyans, rather than focus on the negatives that divided us into tribes, gender, age, etc.
Njenga Karume taught me to wear my ethnic identity proudly and openly, but in a way that I act as a bridge to inter-ethnic respect and understanding with other communities, rather than as a threat to them. Today am honoured to be associated with Njenga Karume and to follow in his footsteps. KikuyusforChange also dedicates the on-going ‘Engaging Ethnic Stereotypes’ initiative to his memory.