Both in Norwegian and international media, the recent crisis in Kenya has often been described as an ethnic or an tribal conflict. But is this a correct view? “There is a tendency in media in the West to portray Africa as a place where tribal rivalries inevitably and almost naturally yield conflict and violence, and that is fairly misleading", says anthropologist Angelique Haugerud in a The Real News Network radio interview:
It’s clear that ethnicity is a part of this picture, but it is only one piece of it. And the conflict in Kenya is as much due to political party competition, modern efforts at democratization, and the kinds of political dynamics we see anywhere in the world.
The kind of anger that’s boiling over now has also to do with economic inequalities:
The U.S., like the World Bank, the IMF, and European donors have over the years emphasized neoliberal economic policies—privatization, user fees for health care, and so on. That’s a set of policies that were, of course, widely implemented in Africa by these international financial institutions, as well as through bilateral aid. In Kenya, those have accentuated economic inequality and poverty.
In an article in OpenDemocracy, the anthropologist gives us an optimistic buttom-up-perspective. The way Kenyan citizens are living out and working through their country’s crisis offers insight into how boundaries of ethnicity, clan and class can be overcome, she writes:
Yet such hardening of ethnic boundaries, even four weeks into the crisis, is by no means pervasive or irreversible. 23-year-old Muthoni, for example - a Nairobi resident whose parents are from Embu district and thus again perceived as nearly Kikuyu - traveled with her church group to assist Luo people who had taken refuge at a police station in the nearby town of Limuru, whose population is predominantly Kikuyu. She comments: “we are all Kenyans…it’s a mixed brew; we can’t live without the other….it’s not logical to kill your neighbour; you were in agreement before.”
In spite of today’s newly charged ethnic identities and growing mistrust, now (as in the past) mutual assistance and other social bonds soften boundaries of ethnicity, neighborhood, clan, and class.
I wish she’d elaborated more on this issue. But several excellent round-ups over at GlobalVoices provide us with useful links.
Rebecca Wanjiku writes:
After a week of killings, looting and the political madness witnessed in Kenya after last month’s general elections, Kenyan Bloggers are at the forefront of reconciliation, urging people to reach out, regardless of their ethnic background
>> read Kenya: “Bloggers seek to heal a wounded nation” and Kenya: Moving images of unrest and hope by Juliana Rincón Parra and Kenya: Cyberactivism in the aftermath of political violence by Ndesanjo Macha
A similar perspective can be found in the analysis by media researcher George Ogola:
A week prior to the election, only Al-Jazeera had taken some trouble to tell the Kenyan story. Reuters Africa proved another notable exception. But the familiar would soon follow, vicious and unrelenting.
When protests met the announcement of the presidential results, CNN, BBC 24 and Sky News sent some of their finest to Nairobi. But the frame of reference had been pre-determined. A narrative had been established. Kenya had descended into tribal anarchy reminiscent of the Rwanda genocide. Neighbours had turned onto each other just because they belonged to different tribes. ‘Tribal violence’ became the definitive mantra and was the basis for reports across the world.
It was equally about a western anthropology that figures conflict in Africa only in tribal terms; an Africa whose existence is so basic it must not be understood beyond the discourse of the tribe. I witnessed the power of a selective morality that tends to view Africa from a paradigm of difference, a unique rationality that embraces the kind of savagery the world was witnessing.
Amid this, the obvious was deliberately being negated. Why was violence in Nairobi largely restricted to the slums of Kibera and Mathare? Was it possible that the Kenyan poor were at war with the rich and with themselves? (…) Was it really possibly that because of disputed presidential elections, Kenya would suddenly implode? Was there a historical trajectory to this conflict?
The assumption that informs the continent’s interpretation is that this is a continent whose civilisation cannot be so sophisticated as to have class wars; neither can it justifiably fight for anything remotely democratic.
See also comment by Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian: “The west’s exotic fantasy of Africa means we fail to understand the real reasons for conflict in developing countries", she writes.
UPDATE: Anthropologist Miroslava Prazak agrees: “Economic difference is truly at the heart of what is happening,” she said. “… It’s not about ethnic clashes. It’s about a political process that has gone wrong.” >> full story in the Bennington Banner (link updated)