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The roots of Kikuyu’s strong political and economic clout

By Babere Chacha | August 31st 2021
Mama Ngina and Jomo Kenyatta arrive at JKIA in January 1973 [File]

Why is Kikuyuland increasingly becoming a hotbed of political activity and a baseline for electoral calculations? Why is this region becoming a centre for predatory political hunting?

How did the Kikuyu manage to forge such strong unity and identity that they make political decisions and speak as a community?    

In this article, I provide thoughts on some recent political trajectories of this community and how this may influence the 2022 General Election. In doing this, I use historical and anthropological arguments to unfold the background character and identity of this controversial ethnic group.  

In 1977, a Cambridge Historian John Lonsdale published a review titled “When did the Abagusii become a ‘Tribe’?” Taking Lonsdale’s question as a point of inspiration, this week’s article provides a critical rethinking of the making of a “tribe”, ethnicity and identity politics that continue to dominate Kenyan public sphere by examining the Kikuyu cosmology and recent political scavenging on the community. 

Ethnic identity

Though seemingly incongruous and stubbornly stuck together as a community, throughout the years the Kikuyu have acquired certain level of legitimacy and a claim to it so that their political space has become most significant in politico-metric configurations in Kenya.

It’s argued that histories of ethnic identity in Kenya remain trapped in constructivist logic, elevating the “patriachs” at the expense of the plural and dissenting voices. For this reason, we see ethnic luminaries that have for years captured the political imagination of Kenyans through continued use of the idiom of the “tribe”.

How did this happen? We all now know that colonisation was not just about power and military force. It was also about forms, images and imaginations that came to shape issues of empire, nation, ethnicity, migration, human subjectivity, race and language. The concept of ‘kikuyu’ therefore is a notion born out of these settings so that we can actually see how the connection between colonial production of knowledge and how power can work through language, literature, culture and the institutions which regulate people’s daily lives.

They account for around 22 per cent of Kenya’s population. It’s a fact, that the Kikuyu dominate the economic and political sphere of Kenya. They largely control the matatu industry and constitute much of the Kenya’s civil service. Their entrepreneurial reach extends from the glitziest of hotels to roadside kiosks in remote areas.

They jokingly hail themselves as “the Jews of Kenya.” They are envied and hated in equal measure for their entrepreneurial zeal. They have provided three of Kenya’s four presidents. As such their current political quagmire can be traced to that grip or monopolisation of the nation-state.

The Kikuyu story, begins from an arduous journey from the Congo forest to the ridges north of the Murang’a to south of Nyeri, amid the valleys carved by Mount Kenya’s melting snows. Mythically Mount Kenya, or Kirinyaga, was the seat of God and Ngai created Gikuyu—the first man and Mumbi the woman and the couple established the 10 clans that constitute “the house of Mumbi,” as the Kikuyu are also known. At Mukurwe Wa Nyagathanga lie two symbolic and metaphysical huts, one for Gikuyu and one for Mumbi. This has recently become a site for political and religious tensions and contestation. 

As early as 1900, one colonial letter describes the Kikuyu as a people “quickly discovering the value of the rupee”. In 1907, after traveling in Kenya, Winston Churchill –a man with spurious reputation - wrote that he liked “these light-hearted, tractable if brutish children… [they] are capable of being instructed and raised from their present degradation.”  

But he later called the Kikuyu ‘naked savages’. British Captain Richard Meinertzhagen who had shot Koitalel arap Samoei claimed that “the Kikuyus are the most intelligent of the African tribes that I have met…they will be the most progressive under European guidance and will be the most susceptible to subversive activities”.

In 1914, British administrator John Boyes described himself as ‘the King of the Kikuyus’ signifying the importance of this ethnic community during the colonial rule.

Better educated 

Forced proximity with the colonial administration and the proliferation of missionary schools in Central Province meant the Kikuyu were better educated than other Kenyans and best placed to benefit from independence and enjoyed Kenyatta’s patronage who once said, “My people have the milk in the morning, your tribes the milk in the afternoon.”

Thus colonialism created the Kikuyus, Kenyatta shaped their consciousness, Daniel arap Moi consolidated their unity, Mwai Kibaki reaffirmed their strength while Uhuru Kenyatta provoked their existence.

What follows is only a speculation on how new identities will emerge in this community in 2022. Should they embrace William Ruto and maintain a promise or accept Raila Odinga stop the ethnic rivalry that holds Kenya hostage for years? Time will tell.

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