The Flattops Wilderness area outside of Oak Creek,CO


The Situation in Kenya by Rodger Billings

My long time friend and RPCV who I got to know while we both served in Ghana wrote this piece at my request to explain the history of why there is such turmoil in Kenya. In large part what is presented by our media does not begin to tell the whole story as Mr. Rodger does here.

We have been surprised, shocked and dismayed by recent violent events in Kenya; previously perceived as a peaceful nation making good economic progress since independence. Comparisons with Rwanda, Darfur and Biafra have been made; even Iraq, India, Kosovo...and indeed there is a common thread;it is TRIBALISM. Many refuse to acknowledge this and look for other causes only to be caught by surprise when it rears it's ugly head (one often hears on the News ' one could have anticipated this happening...'). It is deplorable but it won't be wished away. Much of the world is chronically enveloped in tribal strife, though fortunately not always so overtly physical. Also it should be said great progress has been made in many places, So. Africa, No. Ireland, the USA.

I am a retired Electrical Engineer who spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching Math and Science in a rural high school in Kenya in the mid '60s, returning to Kenya again for a few months in '72 and '79. I was with the Meru people, one of the three tribes (Kikuyu and Embu being the others) which participated in the Mau Mau insurrection against British colonialism in the early '50s up till independence in late '63. I met many former Mau Mau fighters and heard their stories. As I'm neither Historian,Sociologist nor Anthropologist and each tribal-strife situation world wide is different, I'll confine my remarks to what I know of Kenya. To understand the larger picture some history is in order.

There are two large tribes in Kenya, the Kikuyu and the Luo (interestingly,Barack Obama's father is a Luo), and many smaller tribes. Some of the smaller tribes are related ethnically the larger two, some aren't. In a recent BBC News segment it was suggested that tribes were artificially demarcated; part of a divide and conquer colonial strategy by the British.This is partially true, for example the Merus, while regarding themselves as distinct, are ethnically and linguistically quite close to the Kikuyus but the Luos are not. However defined, the Kikuyu are the majority living largely around Mt. Kenya; the Luo are from the west by Lake Victoria and are ethnically and linguistically different.

As the British moved upcountry from the coast on their way to securing the colony and building a railway to Uganda, the Kikuyu were among the first encountered . They took to 'western ways' more readily than many of the other tribes (e.g. the Coastal peoples and the Masai). Nairobi, became the capital in the early 1900s, it being at the edge of the Rift Valley which runs the length of the continent and was, at the beginning of the last century, set up as a construction site before building the railway down the rift on the way to Uganda. It was not a traditionally important place before colonial times as some believe (the name Nairobi means 'cold swamp' in Masai). No one lived there. Nyanza province, home of the Luo, lay to the west of the Rift. As Nairobi grew, so did the need for labor, mostly of the menial kind. Typist was the highest level 'desk job' available to Africans at the time. Nairobi jobs were taken largely by Kikuyus.

Jomo Kenyatta (born Johnstone Kamau) was a telephone operator in Nairobi.Through a fund started by the Kikuyu elders (KCA, Kikuyu Central Association) he was sent to Britain in '30s to plead for Kikuyu land taken for white settlement (He wrote a book in 1938, 'Facing Mount Kenya', which details traditional Kikuyu life). Kenya, like So. Africa, was a racially segregated society. Many Kenyans served with the British Army during WWII.When they came back home and were treated once again as second class citizens, many rebelled. The Mau Mau started in the early '50s and Kenyatta was considered by the British to be its leader(he had returned to Kenya in'47). He was arrested in '52. Kikuyus in Nairobi were basically kicked out and their jobs given to Luos (the infamous 'Operation Anvil' finally'cleansed' Nairobi of Kikuyus in 1954). When independence was achieved on12/12/63 many of the Kikuyus felt, with considerable justification, thatTHEY had liberated Kenya and many (especially the emerging upper classes)felt that THEY were the rightful successors to British rule. The system wouldn't change but the masters would. Three political parties, KANU (Kenya African National Union, Kenyattas party), KPU (Kenya Peoples Party led by Oginga Odinga, father of Raila Odinga) and KADU (Kenya African Democratic Party, led by Daniel arap Moi, championed by the smaller tribes) had formed and campaigned largely in their respective ethnic areas in spite of the inclusive sounding names. Kenyatta was released from arrest to become 1stPresident in Dec. '62 and remained so until his death in 1978. A charismaticleader, he had been seen as a national figure. His second VP (Odinga was the first, see below) was Moi, (dissolving KADU in '66), a member of a small tribe from the Rift Valley region. Moi succeded Kenyatta for 24 years.During his tenure corruption crept in at an accelerating pace (largely favoring Kikuyus and his own people), the center of power moved west and many Kikuyus followed it, physically and economically, into the Rift Valley and Kenya amassed a large foreign debt. Odinga Sr., author of 'Not Yet Uhuru(independence)'in 1968, always had a populist (some said Socialist) as well as tribal appeal. He ultimately made a shaky peace with Kenyatta and he and a few other Luos were included in the Kenyatta government(briefly as first VP till '66). KPU was ultimately dissolved.

At independence a large education system was instituted. Missionary schools were brought into the Ministry of Education system. People felt this was the key to upward mobility for their children. However the economy didn't grow proportionally. With few jobs in sight, many youngsters having only a few years education (thus loath to do menial tasks), have in recent years joined gangs. Many feel that rich Kenyans (most often Kikuyus) have succeeded through corrupt means (often true). During these two reigns the Luos more or less 'cooled it'. Moi decided not to run in 2002 and Mwai Kibaki (a Kikuyu, perceived as populist) was elected. The Kikuyu were back in power but frustrations among non-Kikuyus grew as massive corruption became epidemic . This last (rigged) election of '07 finally broke the camels back...

The Kikuyus have what they perceive as 'theirs' and don't aim to give it back. Luos feel they've waited long enough. Minority tribes feel the same. Here we see the major causes for the present debacle taking shape;corruption, foreign debt, gangs, Kikuyus moving to and owning property in traditionally non-Kikuyu areas, Kikuyu intransigence, Luo/populist pressure... Recent efforts of Kofi Annan (who, as I am writing this, has brokered a power sharing deal between Kibaki and Odinga) seem to send a note of some hope. If this is the place for optimistic predictions however, I'll have to say I'm not so sure......

Rodger Billings


  1. Nice synopsis. However, the writer conveniently gleams over 24 years of Kenyan history. That’s pretty a substantial period of time given Kenyans only took over power in 1962. Of course, I’m referring to the presidency of Daniel Arap Moi. Moi is a Kalenjin and was no fried of the Kikuyu. Moi was by most accounts a dictator. He continued the corrupt practices established by Kenyatta, provided Kikuyus little no voice in the government, was purportedly behind political assassinations, suppressed basic human rights, and instigated tribal violence against the Kikuyu preceding the elections in 1992 and 1997, elections that were widely seen not to be fair.

    For some reason, this is often forgotten. New York Times coverage has also included phrases such as “Kikuyus have enjoyed a privileged status since Kenya gained independence.” Excuse me? Try telling that to the Kikuyus murdered and displaced in Molo in 1992. The Kikuyu are not the Tutsi. Yes, they’ve enjoyed more power than the other tribes, but they by no means have a monopoly. Moi’s regime is an important part of Kenya’s history and tribal relations in Kenya. The point is that innocent Kenyans have been subject to corrupt rulers, period. Bad governance, election rigging, corruption and brutality happened at the hands of KENYAN rulers, not Kikuyus.

  2. I think this is true and consistent with what I wrote. I mentioned Kikuyu, Luo and Minority Tribes (Moi et al). Moi was no angel but he kept the two large tribes in abeyance for 24 years. One other constituency I failed to mention is us (Yes, the US). We supported Kenyatta, Moi, Kibaki and didn't like either of the Odingas. We are presently using Kenya as a base to attack Somolia.

    Rodger Billings

  3. Fascinating - I have no comment other than thank you for presenting things that I had not known about in this piece.

    I understand the history of Kenya at large, but the tribal pieces brought things into focus.

    And as for the US and its needs... our country is like a selfish and mean spirited older sibling, taking what it wants at any cost.