There was silent indignation when in an anguished attempt to explain to his Central Kenya backyard why he had thrown his deputy William Ruto under the bus, President Uhuru Kenyatta unwittingly disparaged the Kalenjin community as poor managers of the economy.
President Kenyatta’s comment at Sagana III was not the first one. He just said what others say in low tones behind walls mostly about those who don’t talk, look and eat what others eat; part of the prevalent mendacious cancel culture.
Aside from erroneously referring to all of us as Nandis from Bomet and Kericho and Eldoret, there are numerous other misconceptions thrown around about the Kalenjin that invariably feeds into the deluge of “negative campaigning” and the patronizing tone of commentary from the Chattering Classes.
“Kalenjinland,” wrote Sunday Nation columnist Makau Mutua, “may have a deeper relationship with the State than any other Kenyan nation. They have never truly been completely out of power, even in the colonial period.” Sadly, this feeds into the widespread misconception that has scandalised Kalenjins as brittle, self-absorbed and intolerant.
Anthropologists explain that through socialisation, the Kalenjins as generous, hardworking, driven, fiercely loyal, self-assured and stoic in the face of adversity. Inwardly, they are calculating and perceptive. The world over, Kenya is famed for its world-conquering athletes most of them from the community: from the Rift Valley to the world. They don’t pretend. Even when they “shrub” in those dreadful Press conferences, they don’t care much.
Perhaps because they have “been there, done that”, most Kalenjin are less acquiescing and frown at the craven admiration of elites. “Maabel koretnyu” – I haven’t burnt my house- is how they fight off sentimentality and allure of privilege and big office and disappointment. Whereas others might proffer exaggerated respect and blind devotion to a tribal demagogue, the Kalenjins often seem less concerned and won’t hesitate to take a leader down a peg or two if they overstep the mark as happened in 2007.
In truth, the 2007 election re-awoke self-confidence and self-belief among the Kalenjins after the “mishandling” of 2003 when Narc took over government. Not just because some of them were humiliated out of office by dint of a surname. The whole community had endured a long spell of unfair mudslinging. Is it true that Kalenjins got disproportionately favoured in former President Moi’s 24-year rule? Well, few of them did. Most importantly, if any of them stole or abused their office and privilege, they didn’t do it for community.
I tell you what, patronage is a zero-sum game. It is enslaving and offers pretense of favouritism. It is the chaff thrown up to disguise the invidious pork-barrel politics.
“Kenya’s history is largely one of patron-client politics” says historian Charles Hornsby in Kenya:A History Since Independence. Hornsby adds that “in patron-client politics… everyone knows that who gets what is crucially important.” Communities front people whom they believe will “hunt and gather” for the rest. In reality, they don’t.
The clamour for multi-party politics and the “Moi-must-go” crusade was hinged on this fallacy. As Hornsby and David Throup put in an earlier book: Multi-Party Politics in Kenya; “Many in the larger communities saw multi-party politics primarily as a means to seize control of the State and the funding it controlled, while President Moi and his Kalenjin ethnic group were determined to defend their gains.”
It was not true then (as it is now) that on its own, having a tribe’s mate at State House offers anyone an undue advantage to get ahead and stay ahead as those from Gatundu and Othaya (and Baringo) will testify.
In truth, most people in these places are poor, at times frequently poorer than the average poor Kenyan. Why do the inferred ghosts of favouritism of the Nyayo Era linger on? The scale of public shaming- to be dismissed as neér-do-wells, incapable of acquitting themselves as professionals, to be condemned unheard is suffocating.
What to do? First, we need to deal with the widespread grievance culture perfected by the political class to explain away their inadequacies; the notion that someone ate your lunch. It is not true.
And I am not a revisionist. But to move forward as a peaceful, united country will also mean we uncover the blanket of stereotypes not on just the Kalenjins but on all other groups. It pulls us all back and has become the perfect excuse when leaders underperform or panic they will lose the next election.