Every time I watch Citizen TV’s Sunday Live’s ‘Who Owns Kenya’, I always remember a comment that was made to me during a Coast inter-ethnic discussion forum. An old man from the Digo community went to great lengths to explain to me the difference between ‘Walala Hoi, ‘Walal Hai’ and ‘Walala Heri’. This mzee was trying to make the point that post-election violence would be a thing of the past if Kenyans operated not as cultural ‘tribes’ as we understand them, but as economic ‘tribes’ as defined by their living standards.
My mzee friend said that Kenya has three general economic ‘tribes’.
The ‘Walala Hoi’ are the Kenyans who are so poor that even the ordinary poor people call them poor. These are the people who are not guaranteed a meal once every two days, or whose children cannot afford to go to school despite the fact that public primary schools are free, because it costs to maintain a child in a state such that they can understand what they are taught in class. They are the ones who are locked up in public hospitals because they could not pay a bill to save a life.
The mzee called this ‘tribe’ the ‘consumables’ of Kenyan society. They are the ones who are considered as statistics/numbers during shootouts with police, or road accidents. They are also the ones who are at the frontlines of political violence, after which they are either jailed or shot dead, while the ‘lucky’ ones go back to eking a living in the same circumstances, whatever government gets into office.
The second group is the ‘Walala Heri’ (heri wao). These are the middle-class Kenyans who have met their basic needs, and are now struggling to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. These group are able to put food on the table three times a day for their family; take their children to a private school; access credit for a house and a car or two; and usually have a DStv satellite dish on the roof of their gated-community residence in a sub-urban area. (The latest fad is a small dog, or two). Oh, and this is the tribe that pays government salaries, because they pay the most taxes of all three ‘tribes’.
Unfortunately this second group is so caught up in the economic ‘rat race’ that they have no time for anything else. As they compare themselves with their neighbors and/or those celebrities they see on television, they have no time to engage in what is happening outside their gates. They are therefore the ones most shocked when things like the 2008 post-election violence happen. They are also the ones you hear with the wildest political commentaries, usually shared over a beer at a bar.
Despite the amount of influence this second ‘tribe’ have over society (all the Walala Hoi masses listen to them because they are accessible/are their employers, while the Walala Heri depend on them to run their businesses), they have chosen to be spectators in their own country. What they do not realise is that they face the most disruptions whenever the country goes wrong, as their lifestyles are the most fluid. They are also the ones with cars that use bad roads, who buy luxuries heavily taxed to off-set government corruption, and who live in neighborhoods that require security from government because private security is unreliable.
Finally we have the ‘Walala Hai’; wealthy Kenyans who not only meet their needs and wants, but who are wealthy in whatever part of the world they find themselves. This Kenyans operate in the international scene; above partisan politics. In fact they invest similar amounts in all viable political options, and will work with whoever wins. Those in political power also work with them, knowing very well that their loyalties are not to them, but to the office they occupy. Incidentally nearly every senior key politician belongs to this ‘tribe’.
Those within each of the three economic tribes above share certain general commonalities; they have common socio-economic ambitions; live within similar basic living standards; classify ‘basic’ services at a similar level and have common access to them, etc. They also have common fears and expectations of whoever is in political power.
Within each of the three economic ‘tribes’ we find people drawn from all the over 42 cultural tribes of Kenya.
So how ironic is it that in such a clear context, rather than work within the three general tribes that dictate so much about how we and our loved ones live, we make the crucial decisions of who rules us and plots our nation’s political destiny based on our cultural tribes! How do we elect politicians based on circumcision, cultural elders, geography, etc? How does that put bread on the table?
Imagine what kind of circus we would have seen during the recent presidential campaigns if Americans were as overt as we are on their in-born differences? Wonder why they are the most powerful nation in the world? Congratulations Barack Obama.
(Wambugu is the Founder and Director of the Change Associates Trust).