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Sitawa Namwalie’s Etiquette for a Tribalised Nation* for Kenyans


My Friend, Sitawa Namwalie, has the uncanny ability to say things that are uncomfortable sometimes in the Kenyan context – and yet, usually, they need saying. That is why, you should watch her show, Cut of My Tongue and buy the book, if you know what is good for you. If you don’t, meet me at the field at break time and I will pound sense into you.

Meanwhile, read the below. And read it again. And Share.

Etiquette for a Tribalised Nation

Sitawa Namwalie
Sitawa Namwalie, Author of Cut of My Tongue

We all agree tribal feelings and divisions have never run so deep in this country Kenya.  Many of my friends are walking around on tip toes, not sure what they are feeling.  Not sure what to say to their ester while bosom buddies who happen to be from different ethnic groups.  The ethnic gap between us bristles with suspicion, mistrust, stereotypes, fear, anger, disappointment, hubris, all the way to all out hatred.  And yet we must live together. Some of us are in interethnic marriages whilst others are in long term friendships.  We have known each other for 5, 30, 40, 50 years.  Now we are estranged.  Living and loving so close, to each other, in the presence of your new enemy tribe and in a state of acute estrangement is challenging to say the least.

So we need new rules, new tribal etiquette, so to speak, if we are to survive this long period of ethnic poisoning. We need new ways of interacting if we are to bring down the ethnic temperatures and extinguish new found hatreds.  So here are my ten rules of etiquette for a tribalised nation.
  1. Be sensitive: Remember there are 43 plus tribes in Kenya, each one has its own legitimate narrative about itself, who they are, how great they are and the source of that greatness.  Some believe they are of superior intelligence, others see themselves as consummate business people, others have a distinguished culture, great cuisine, others are great lovers, whilst there are those who believe they have the most beautiful women and so on.
  2. Explore and accommodate other Election Narratives: Each person, each tribe has their own narrative about the last General Election and what the results meant for them.  Did they win? Did they lose?  Or did nothing change?  There are many meanings out there, find them, explore them, accommodate them.  Your meaning is not the meaning.
  3. Listen! Kenya has many experiences: Related to the two points above; make it a practice to listen to other people and their perspectives.  What is it be Kenyan?  As a people we have so much in common and so many differences.  Being Kenyan will never be the one, experience, yours.  Many factors distinguish the Kenyan experience.  What is your ethnicity, what is your class, what is your gender, what is your age, where do you live, what is your education level, are you able-bodied or not? Listen to other Kenyans.  Really listen.
  4. Return to diversity:  Kenya is more than Kalenjin, Luo and Kikuyu experiences and perspectives.  If I am not from any of these communities; regardless of how I voted, I do not have to align myself to either the Kikuyu/Kalenjin or to the Luo.  I do not have to agree with you.  Furthermore, if I do not agree with you it does not mean that I am on the other side.  I could well be non-aligned.
  5. Make no assumptions:  Your tribal bogeyman or bogeywoman is not automatically mine.  If you can see horns and fire coming out of your bogeyman’s head, I cannot.  So do not express your tribal fears and expect that I have the same tribal fears.  I have a wholly different tribal bogeyman.  And just imagine, maybe you are mine!
  6. Deal with extreme emotion:  Some of you are angry that you “lost” others are angry because your “victory” is being scrutinised.  And then some of you are crowing proudly.  Acknowledge your pride, anger, your pain, your fear, your feeling of helplessness, despair etc.  Start to make sense of your emotions by sharing your feelings with someone you trust.  Or go to a mental health professional.  Do not take your feelings out on your neighbour or your friends, or on the total strangers you encounter.  And for heaven sake do not go near a panga or other sharp or pointed implement in this time of anger. (Small hint; if you are one of those crowingly proud, be sensitive, don’t crow randomly in public places.)
  7. Do not become a human rights violator:  If you provide a service do not deny services to people from your perceived enemy tribe.  That is a stranger who has done nothing to you.  And you, if you use the services of others, do not avoid those offered by people from your perceived enemy tribe.  That is a stranger who has done nothing to you.
  8.  Avoid victimhood:  If someone insults or offends you using your tribe as the basis, do not retaliate in anger or with violence.  Just like your mother said, take the higher ground.  Stand your ground, face your tormentor and firmly assert yourrights, your perspective, your right to live and thrive in your country Kenya.  You would never allow such violation if the racist was white, why are you accepting it when the racist is black?
  9. Heal the rift:  Go out of your way to heal the rifts that have developed between the people around you.  Engage in random acts of generosity and kindness specifically targeting people from other ethnic groups.  They will become your ambassadors.
  10. Equalise, avoid ethnic balkanisation:  This is the hardest part.  Make room for “the other”.  If your tribe dominates in numbers; in a committee, at work, in church, in schools, in public places, take conscious steps to include “the other”.  Avoid ethnic balkanisation like a bad disease.  This is challenging because many people do not see the benefits they receive when a member of their tribe is in a national leadership position, or is a leader in their church, or at their place of work.  Why then do we fight for these positions with such violent tenacity? Because there are many advantages.  This rule will require giving away some of that advantage and creating space for “the other”.  You will lose a little; someone else will gain a little; and we as a country will gain a whole lot more.
What are your tribal etiquette rules?

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