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Simon Parke: Manipulating the latent tribal fears

30 January 2008

IT WAS in a holy place that we learned that Satan can often be a label.

In a small church on the outskirts of Eldoret, 30 Kenyans died (News, 4 January). And, four weeks later, little appears resolved. The victims had been locked in, and the building set on fire. Elsewhere in the country, entire villages were razed to the ground, as neighbour turned on neighbour. A man who escaped from one attack returned to find his blind father dismembered and disembowelled. He knew the names of all those who had done this, so presumably his father knew, too.

So, once again, we wander through the smouldering debris, and reflect on the anatomy of atrocity.

Kenya is a land of more than 40 tribes, and every Kenyan knows his or her own. Tribal affiliations do not always sit comfortably with the democratic process, but, for the poor at least, they meet a practical need. Living on the edge, co-operation with others is a prerequisite for survival. To the poor, tribal allegiance is as natural as the African sun.

The current President, Mwai Kibaki, is a member of the largest tribe, the Kikuyu, numbering 20 per cent of the country’s population. Raila Odinga, his main rival, belongs to the third largest tribe, the Luo, numbering 13 per cent. His running-mate, however, is from the Luyah tribe, the second largest, representing 14 per cent of Kenyans. And it was just minutes after Mr Kibaki was sworn in as President that something snapped — and three tribes went to war.

Tribes are more social networks than armies, but recent history shows that they are vulnerable to exploitation by politicians. Young Kenyans did not start manning road blocks without some serious manipulation of feelings. We have witnessed such exploitation before, of course. In 1994, a small power bloc in the ruling Hutu party exploited tribal affiliation in Rwanda to effect the mass murder of the Tutsis.

It is not just about tribe, however. There is also a strong economic strand in the recent killings. It is no coincidence that those who commit tribal violence are generally unemployed young men. Light the fuse of dormant prejudice, promise better times ahead, and stand back.

Labels help people to feel they belong. Kikuyu? Luo? Protestant? Gay? White? Arsenal? Conservative? Labels gather a group around shared assumptions. If given the opportunity, they then narrow down the parameters of reflective thought among adherents, and, in time, baptise negativity. “This is who we like; this who we don’t like.” Belonging then becomes a dull experience of hostility and judgement.

And this is why Satan is very often a label.


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