I believe the exploitation of tribalism for political gain overshadows the presence of a more positive reality: that each tribe in Kenya possesses strengths and skills unique to them, which collectively will create the wellbeing of our nation
My country, Kenya, is in an election year and tensions are rising. During the vote in 2007, tribal rivalries spilled over into violence: around 1,200 people died and thousands were displaced or orphaned during the fighting. As we get closer to the August polling day, many people fear something similar will happen again.
This fear is rooted in a political system that often works to aggravate these tribal divides, rather than heal them. There are 42 tribes in Kenya, but since Independence the country's President has emerged only from the two largest: the Kalenjin (my own tribe) and the Kikuyu. They uphold their position in part through policies that favour their own tribes people, and they incite fear that any candidate from a minority tribe might do the same.
Most people therefore cast their vote along tribal lines, rather than based on the integrity of the candidate. At a government level this creates a status quo of sorts, but at a community level it can create powerlessness, fuel division, erode faith in the political process, and make peace fragile.
I believe the exploitation of tribalism for political gain overshadows the presence of a more positive reality: that each tribe in Kenya possesses strengths and skills unique to them, and which collectively help create the health and wellbeing of our nation. For example, the Kikuyu are known for their entrepreneurial spirit, the Kalenjin for their cash crops, the Luos for their fishing and mechanics, the Maasai for their cattle, goats and herbal medicine, the Gusii for their farming of bananas, avocados and sugarcane, and the Luhya for their poultry and hospitality. Urbanisation and trade is bringing these different tribes together, and in the process, our interdependence becomes more apparent and more important. But this truth gets drowned out in Kenya, let alone internationally.
Beyond tribes, I see interdependence all around me in the natural world, and between humans and the natural world, as we work towards improving conservation efforts in the Maasai and elsewhere.
For Kenya to thrive, we need to encourage the message of interdependence and peace between our tribes. We must address the entrenched tribal division and stifled community voice that corrupt political tactics have brought about. I believe that the development sector can play a key role in making this change happen, and I think that my involvement with a local health and wellbeing network gives some clues as to how we might do this.
In this network, people come together voluntarily from across their community to form what we call a ‘cluster', because they want to see sustainable, community-led change. A cluster begins by celebrating the different strengths and resources that we have. We then identify a vision for our community, and we use our own strengths and resources to sustainably pursue this vision. We access training and support from outside of our community if we need to, but it is from within the community that we identify solutions, and work to unlock them.
My cluster is in the Kenyan highland town of Kericho, west of the Rift Valley. Here, the trade in tealeaves has brought many different tribes together, and our cluster reflects this tribal mix. With this mix comes a diverse set of skills. Some members are from the creative arts: poets, painters, photographers and actors. Others are from caring professions: youth work, healthcare and social work. Together, we make documentaries, we host community events, and we create art and capture stories to counter harmful and divisive narratives. We also map local skills and resources, so we can link people and organisations to appropriate services, as well as identify particular gaps in community services. As we build relationships across our differences, we can speak on behalf of the whole community to the people who make decisions that impact us
Whilst a glance at Kenya's political system suggests our tribal differences are only a problem, my experience is that these differences can in fact provide a solution, to help achieve the peace and sustainable development that we all want. But for peace to thrive we need the community to speak louder. If the development sector and others do more to amplify this voice, it can be a big help.
I have learnt that mobilising local collaborative networks can generate great social impact by giving space for connections, by strengthening community voice, and by identifying and harnessing the strengths and differences we all have. It is my hope that if more influential people took this on board then social impact will grow, and perhaps translate into the systemic change we need at the political level too, which ultimately, I believe would encourage peace and understanding in my country and elsewhere.
Debora Langat is a photographer, videographer and blogger based in Kericho, Kenya. Her passion is storytelling, and she is available for freelance work