Our diversity, our strength

Masaai dancers join Tourism Cabinet Secretary at the Magical Kenya Tembo Naming Festival at Amboseli National Park. Cultural dances are often included in National and International events to celebrate unity within our diversity.

Our Diversity, Our Strength

History is replete with records of ethnic, cultural, religious and racial intolerance and negative profiling since time immemorial. Professor Mariana Tepfenhard of the Department of History at Monmouth University in the United States in her 2013 paper on “Causes of Ethnic Conflicts” avers that “Many states are made up of numerous ethnic groups, defined as groups that share common heritage, interests, beliefs, historical experience, and cultural traits.”

In its wider sense, human diversity covers all possible differences in human experience and expression based on, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, language, age or disability. Whichever reason is assigned to any form of discord among people groups, the nobler human mission, as aptly said by Mahatma Gandhi, is to summon “Our ability to reach unity in diversity (as this) will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.

The danger of disunity and suspicion among groups of people has left behind a trail of bloodletting across history. It happened when Hitler’s invaded Poland in 1939, in Nigeria’s Biafra War of the late 1960s till 1970, in Rwanda in 1994 and in Sudan between 1983 to 2005. Kenya had its own misadventure that almost imploded into an ugly faux pas in 2007. Such are reckless experiments to be avoided at all cost.

Yet, as if ingrained in the human DNA, there is always justification—however warped—for a community, race or group of persons to arrogate itself status superior to its cognates or to invoke spurious logic to demean and assail others. In any manifestation of human conflict on the basis of dissimilarity, there is a group or groups of people subjecting others to subordinate status and isolating them.

In reality, every new cultural or religious expression and encounter is a study in the intricate but enthralling nature of human diversity and indeed a cue to prompt the gleaning of authentic perspectives and divergent sensibilities that comprise the totality of humanity. Besides being a rich mosaic of traditions, heritage and viewpoints, human diversity is rich fodder for the enrichment of life and its endless lessons, options and opportunities.

When diverse cultures, and by extension new languages interact, the loaning of terminology that follows takes a natural course. English, for instance, is awash with many loanwords from across the world. Renowned lexicographer and former associate editor for the Merriam-Webster, Kory Stamper estimates that English has words derived from 350 odd cultural expressions whose total linguistic contribution to it stands at about 80 percent.

From Hungarian goulash and Kiswahili’s safari to Japanese Sodoku and Spanish siesta, the English experience is as decked as it is embellishing. Loaning of words across languages confirms just how cross-cultural influences enrich people’s worldviews. The same goes for cultures and distinct ethnic identities within a given jurisdiction, Kenya included.

According to a UNESCO document of 2021—The Infinite Reservoir: Cultural Diversity for Shaping the Future we Want“Culture, in all its diversity, is an infinite reservoir from which we gain our knowledge of the world and which we tap into to find solutions to contemporary issues. … Our cultural diversity is our greatest strength. It is the ultimate renewable resource for humankind and societies. As such, valuing diversity and protecting and promoting cultures as assets for societies is imperative.”

President Uhuru Kenyatta is assisted to try on the Somalia traditional regalia by the Somalia Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble who paid him a courtesy call at State House, Mombasa. The traditional regalia is a major part of the Kenyan people ranging from the Masaai, the Somali, the Mijikenda among other tribes in the country.

Kenya has upwards of 42 people groups, usually referred to as tribes, itself an unflattering term connoting atavism.  Pioneering anthropologists wh0 mapped Kenya’s tribal map for colonial domination purposes profiled each community and pigeonholed them into hypothetical cocoons. That profiling, which aided divide-and-rule governance mechanisms of the natives has persisted since. Prior to the advent of colonialism, Kenya’s and indeed Africa’s various communities had devised formulas of cohabiting. Yes human movement was limited due to lack of motorised transport back then but communities that neighboured each other found ways of interacting with and even benefitting from each other.

However, to avoid an uprising of clusters of communities against colonial masters, it became necessary to drive a wedge between communities through causing inter-ethnic strife. Some communities were adjudged loyal and rewarded for it while others were declared unreliable and were equally demonised for it. Unfortunately the colonial tags left behind by the colonial era were never really erased from Kenya’s national psyche in spite of efforts by successive leaderships to preach unity. The post-election cataclysm of 2007 is the clearest indicator that unifying Kenyans remains an incomplete task of nation building that should be re-embarked on with greater focus, different tack and more zest.

It is important and timely to re-imagine possible solutions to the unity challenge in Kenya. For starters we can borrow a leaf from our next-door neighbour, Tanzania. Tanzania has over 120 ethnic groups and tribes yet the dilemma of disunity on account of ethnic and tribal identity is minimal compared to the situation in Kenya. Perhaps adopting Kiswahili (notwithstanding its downsides in practice) as a dignifying language and deliberately embracing a humane manner of gelling across the breadth and width of the land at the turn of Tanzania’s independence helped in building a deeper sense of homogeneity and tolerance.

Chapter 10 of Kenya’s 2010 Constitution features a raft of national values and principles of governance that offer a starting point of negotiating where good examples should start. If public officers inspired confidence among the rest of Kenyans by observing the following, perhaps the journey of curing disaffection, which may cause suspicion, and by extension, strife will begin;

National values and principles of governance

(1)      The national values and principles of governance in this Article bind all State organs, State officers, public officers and all persons whenever               any of them;
(a)     applies or interprets this Constitution;
(b)     enacts, applies or interprets any law; or
(c)      makes or implements public policy decisions.

(2)     The national values and principles of governance include;
(a)      patriotism, national unity, sharing and devolution of power, the rule of law, democracy and participation of the people;
(b)     human dignity, equity, social justice, inclusiveness, equality, human rights, non-discrimination and protection of the marginalised;
(c)      good governance, integrity, transparency and accountability; and
(d)     sustainable development.

In the long run, it might be necessary to change tack in our efforts to debunk caustic myths that cast aspects of certain community’s belief systems, penchants and mores in diabolical light. The falsehoods and hyperboles on supposed weird traits of various Kenyan communities spewed willy-nilly feed into inter-ethnic intolerance, needless suspicions and strained relationships. A systematic and wholesome approach to mending this downside should be treated as a matter of priority. Perhaps it is time to consider how school curricula in favour of enhanced integration of Kenya’s communities can bolster much-needed cohesiveness. Perhaps we need to rethink our legislation on matters ethnic profiling and fanning tribal-bound dissension. This is a conversation that needs to be pursued and guided until a consensus is achieved.

On the same score, it is important to address the question of disunity on account of class and status. This is critical because a ‘we-versus-them’ stance pitting those who are perceived to have against those who do not have is a sure recipe for constant social tensions and possible dissent. Constantly working citizens’ emotions to frenzies in order to foment such a view for political expediency is uncivil and narcissistic. The same goes for religious, disability, racial or gender intolerance. For social cohesion to bear fruit, there is need to exercise temperance, restraint and level-headedness among leaders across cadres in order to show the way.

Kenyans are a resilient people. Indeed, our ability to bounce back after crises is laudable. This became evident during the 1998 terrorist bombing of the American Embassy and adjacent buildings in Nairobi in the city centre. The same spirit was visible during the Westgate Mall terrorist attack of 2013 and several times before and after. Clearly there is an underlying camaraderie and esprit de corps worth harnessing as capital for building bridges and solidifying national unity.

We celebrate wildly when our world-class athletes bag medals in far-flung lands and laud our sports teams—especially rugby, volleyball and sometime back cricket—what make a mark at the global arena. During such moments our ethnic identities evaporate and our common bond fuses into spontaneous jubilation until some loose-tongue reminds Kenyans about the foibles of this or the other ethnic group.

Perhaps we need to celebrate the very traits that we often lampoon about communities other than our own. For instance, why should we recognize and appreciate the supposed flamboyance of the lakeside folk as we laud their counterparts from Central Kenya for their propensity for entrepreneurship?  We should also consider the athletic prowess of our brothers and sisters from the Rift as we celebrate the Maa community for claiming what we may loosely call the Kenyan identity particularly to the outside world because of their preferred mode of dress. If we look keenly, there are strands of beautiful cultural gems in each of our 40 plus communities that we should repackage and rebrand ourselves afresh with.

If we deal with the various manifestations of ethnic jaundice we suffer as a nation and purpose to sift through our cultural, linguistic, values and beliefs we can build a rich blend and formidable brand of a people defined by colour and substance. The capital for such a brand is our diversity. As aptly noted in the UNESCO’s document quoted elsewhere in this chapter, there is the need, especially in the intangible cultural heritage, to focus on the significance of traditional knowledge in the consolidation of communities and the wellness of the general society. As we acknowledge so, we should not forget forms of diversity mentioned earlier in the chapter, other than cultural, that weaken our common bond as a people.

Unity in diversity and enhanced inclusivity away from ethnic slurs can only make us stronger and more cohesive.






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