Tribalism: Stereotype Hype?

I have been spending some significant time reading the Diary of a Mad Kenyan Woman, asking myself some hard questions posed by its author, Wambui Mwangi. In the chilling post “I was near to die… I was dead,” this sentiment (among many) struck a chord with me:

I was watching CNN as opposed to Kenyan television channels because I wanted to see what the world was saying about us. The world is saying that Kenyans, who had been on the brink of one of the most astonishing democratic transitions witnessed in Africa, degenerated, very conveniently for the West’s stereotypes, to a “business as usual: chaos and anarchy right on schedule” version of the African story. These broadcasts are brimming with just barely-suppressed glee at being able to say that tribal violence is tearing the East African nation of Kenya apart, long regarded as an exemplary bastion of stability in the region. We have confirmed some cherished stereotypes and validated many racists worldwide.

For me too, a born and bred American, this media matter has been painfully obvious. I’m once again trapped within a moment in which I am embarrassed for my country’s myopic comprehension and ashamed of the national and cultural baggage that can weigh upon me like a sack of boulders. I admit that I am not always fully aware of the American ideology that forms my thoughts and, with a growing awareness, I feel as though my identity has been violated by stereotypical ideas never inherently mapped within my DNA. Still, I try to be conscious of the cultural confines of a perceived American superiority. It is a constant effort to combat my subconscious with a sense of humility and an obsessive focus on education, both scholastic and via analysis of my experience. In times of plain living is when the snake slithers up from the shadows and bites me in the ass, but today – today I am painfully aware.

I am guilty of having fallen for the media’s explanation of Kenya’s violence as tribalism. Although the following does not exonerorate my ignorance, even without fully understanding the intricate balance of tribal relations or what constitutes their cultural differences, I have suspected that I was missing much of the story. I have been on a quest to find out more for days. Until reading “KENYA: It’s the economy, stupid (not tribalism)” at IRIN Africa today, I had not seen any ambitious analytical attempts at making sense of Kenya’s situation. I highly recommend it.

While I have no way to verify that IRIN has presented a correct answer, I suspect that their detailed account of class disparity and the empty political promises addressing the economic gap is far more accurate than the now typical generalization of tribalism. There is certainly a connection between economic status and particular tribes, but the facts, as interpreted in the article, paint a vivid picture, one rife with economic and legal reasons for desperation of the impoverished when their greatest posession, their voice, has been stolen by the unjust practice of political power and wealth working hand in hand. The mysteries of tribalism have finally been addressed, and while I don’t pretend to fully understand, I am grateful for any connection of the dots.

In voicing my distaste for gross media generalizations, I do not make excuses for the violence in Kenya. I merely wish to point out that US news coverage in regard to blacks is too often complicit in hyping a stereotype. This too is uncalled for and unjust. Until we tease out the stigmas we attach to race, ethnicity and class by acknowledging the socially constructed meaning behind their existence, there is little hope for change. I urge anyone reading to examine their own knee-jerk reaction to terms such as tribalism. This word, with meaning too closely related to the historical use of savagery, is all too often based on stereotypical racial perceptions. Take part in the humanitarian effort by separating race from the real issues.

Wambui Mwangi says it most eloquently in “Kwa Kabila, mimi ni Mkenya

Limiting our possibilities to these simplistic ethnic trajectories is hardly creative, and, as a social project, it seems to me to lack, sadly and overwhelmingly, both ambition and critical edge. It really seems ineffably silly to sit around fighting over breadcrumbs, when we could be talking about how to build the bakery with our already-more-than-adequate skills. We have highly trained economists, surgeons, advertisers, farmers, internationally acclaimed writers, artists, activists, lawyers, cobblers, environmentalists, architects, nurses, fishers, scientists, plumbers, business people, contractors, computer geeks, poets and priests; and an energy and a capacity to improvise, adapt and accomplish that is unmatched. What are we waiting for? It surely cannot be the case that the clear imperative of this Kenyan promise, this energy, this undiluted global competence and fluency and savoir-faire is to be sacrificed on the altar of what? Being from or having parents from, or grandparents from?say, Machakos, as opposed to somewhere else? We need to think ourselves bigger and better than this.

Wambui, I could say the same about more than a few Americans I know.

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