By DANNISH ODONGO
I was appointed to do a presentation on behalf of a team that I was part of. The idea was simple; come up with a concept that can raise money then present it before a panel and an audience. While representing my team on the floor, I could hear a voice from the crowd shouting my tribe’s name. As a speaker keen on delivering my message, I ignored the heckler. But the more I went on, the more the shouting continued even louder. The voice, with a condescending tone, kept shouting this word,’jaluo…!’ And that’s the problem that many of us usually ignore, yet from it, emanates negative prejudices that births negative ethnicity.
If you expect someone to behave in a certain way because of where they come from, you are tribal. If you have judged someone before you hear them out because of where they come from, you are tribal. If you have chosen a spouse primarily because of their tribe, then you are tribal. If you utter words like, nini mbaya na hawa wakikuyu, waluyha, wajaluo, wakamba etc…, then you are tribal. Admit it, you might be all suited up, learned, driving a good car, living in an apartment and working for a leading company but if you still choose to look at other people with the lens of ethnicity, you are the reason why this nation is in problems.
When I glanced at that part of the room where the heckling was emanating from, I almost got a heart attack because of the shock that hit me. A young lady who by every definition is worthy of the title ‘middle class’, was shouting ethnically prejudiced words with a mockery and disgust on her face. It was clear that her judgment of my presentation was not based on the content of what I was presenting but by where I come from. One doesn’t need to hire a scientist to prove that this lady harbors hate against the community.
Thank God she wasn’t in the judging panel.
While her case is isolated and doesn’t represent the entire middle class, after the encounter, I was hit by a reality that indeed; money, education, exposure etc cannot change a mind that is not willing. Because, in the urban, inclusive, learned, exposed group that boasts of having influence in many areas, I was encountering first-hand what should be a preserve for retrogressive villagers who have never interacted with the outside world. In a place where the average age is 30 and majority are urban, class A/B, a melting pot of cultures and a true definition of an urban upper-middle-class group, here was a person who still had the audacity to shamelessly verbalize her prejudice.
It’s sad that she said those words, but it’s even sadder that there was no one bold enough to shut her down.
The majority of Kenyans are generally tribal. But the middle class are the most exposed, active and learned group that can change the narrative of negative ethnicity in this nation. But we choose to let apathy rule instead of us being actively involved in fighting the vice.
While we shout from rooftops how liberated and tolerant we are, the true test of whether we believe in those words comes out when we interact with others. However urban we are, the true test of how renewed our minds are come out when we want to marry and during elections time. We shouted our support for Peter Kenneth but when the rubber met the road, our ethnic instinct overtook reason and yet again, we succumbed to voting based on ethnicity. We confess that we have no problem with a specific tribe but when the time to marry comes, we find reasons to marry from ‘friendly’ tribes.
I’ve always placed my bet on the middle class as the people who will wrestle the alligator of negative ethnicity and deliver a third and last liberation for the great republic of Kenya. But I’m worried because this group seems to have mastered the same politics of negative ethnicity coupled with a passivity that has derailed this nation. Our time to eat and rule mentality is crippling even the best minds. Sadly, there seems to be an entrenched hopelessness against this demon of ethnicity. Many believe that we will not win this war during our time so there is no need to fight a losing battle. That our children are the ones who will eventually enjoy the fruits of our sacrifice. But how will they enjoy the fruits of tolerance if we still plant the same seeds of prejudice that were passed to us?
The majority of us have been conditioned with rigid ideas about other communities. Most of the fears we have are actually quite unfounded. The sad reality is this, the middle class who have had the privilege to study, live and work with the most culturally diverse groups after our fathers, are the ones who are still holding on to negative prejudices that were passed on to us. It seems that while some went to school, others went through it. It’s painful to see a learned fool in action.
But the reality in Kenya is that negative ethnicity is so entrenched in this nation that every discussion that is held must take an ethnic angle. Everyday, especially on social media, we see discussions that are leaning towards our ethnic persuasions and the truth is swiftly slaughtered at the altar of negative ethnicity. When appointments are done, we are quick to look at the last name of the appointees never minding their qualifications. When we introduce ourselves to people, they ask us our full names not so that they can address us using them but so that they can adjust their perceptions accordingly.
On Sundays and Fridays, our churches and mosques respectively are full to the brim. We are a holy nation that lifts up its hands to a holy God who created everyone equally yet when we step out, we put on our ethnic robes as we preach messages of intolerance through our words and actions. Our religious books are now reserved only to be quoted but not lived.
The great hope
There is nothing wrong with diversity. Actually, as a Christian, I believe that God designed the world in such a diverse manner to reflect his glory. He wanted to show how an intricate master designer he is. He wanted his glory to be shown through different cultures of the world. Looking at the animal and plant kingdoms, the same diversity is shown. Fellow Kenyans, we cannot afford to accommodate expensive stereotypes in our minds. This is the reservoir that feeds the fiend of negative ethnicity. We must urgently decide whether we are going to be united or divided. We must urgently calculate the cost of division. There is no way we can accept our minds to contain a deadly virus that is slowly eating us to our graves.
I’m hopeful that I will see a united Kenya during my lifetime. I believe that a hero will emerge who will unite this nation under the banner of peace, love and unity. I’m still hopeful that during my lifetime, we will elect leaders based on the content of their character rather than their last name or the party they belong to. Yes, it will take a miracle to achieve that but the thought of it excites me and gives me hope. That there is nothing impossible under the sun. We shall overcome.
“Pit race against race, religion against religion, prejudice against prejudice. Divide and conquer! We must not let that happen here.” Eleanor Roosevelt
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