Kenyans do love their sports. In fact, little appears to weld them together more tightly than shared support for a team or an athlete. In August 2008, barely 6 months after the inter-communal slaughter that followed disputed elections claimed over 1300 lives and brought the country to the brink of civil war, Kenyans were united in cheering the country’s athletes at the Olympic games in China. Today, most weekends echo with war cries as the various soccer tribes meet up to do battle online and at homes and bars countrywide. It is at such times, one can catch a fleeting glimpse of what Kenya truly is.
Last weekend we had another chance to see it. As politicians did their best to polarize and divide the people, the historic win in Singapore by the national rugby sevens team was achieving the opposite. These two events did not cancel out each other. The people were not any less divided over local politics or any less fervent in their support for Shujaa - as the sevens team is sometimes called (mistakenly according to Wikipedia). Just as 8 years ago there was apparently little contradiction in people cheering runners from communities they were at war with half a year before.
In his recent columns, economist Dr David Ndii has suggested that our national and ethnic identities are locked in an epic, existential conflict, and that “tribe has eaten the nation”. He has portrayed Kenya as a marriage of tribes, each trying to outdo the others. A Kenyan identity, he seems to say, is to be articulated as an antidote to this infighting, failing which, a divorce would be inevitable.
The reality is, however, considerably different. Within what it means to be a Kenyan, there appears to be a seamless integration of polarizing tribal politics with celebrations of national achievement. Being Kenyan appears to demand the ability to inhabit seemingly contradictory spaces and identities almost simultaneously. We can be in both Afraha and Singapore, in Beijing and Kiambaa. We can be the most virulent tribalists while dressed up in national colours.
A Kenyan identity hangs rather more comfortably alongside a tribal one than Dr Ndii suggests and people seem to move in and out of them depending on whichever one they prefer to express at a particular moment, in much the same way they navigate their choice of dress.
Like clothing, the identities we wear are allow us to run with particular crowds. But Dr Ndii is partially mistaken when he posits that identity is "about belonging and believing, as opposed to having or not having." The “belonging” is, in fact, a passport to the “having”. The identity is actually a means to access physical and psychological resources.
Thus we are most Kenyan when we seek the resources that identity offers – be they collective security after a terror attack or to be part of the winning team in a sporting event. We are also most tribal when we seek the resources offered by that identity – most often when demanding our “share of the national cake” or “our turn to eat”.
In truth, our closets are full of multiple, and at times contradictory, identities which we put on and take off depending on who we want to be or seem. The real threat to the national identity thus is not that people have an ethnic one, but that the “Kenyan” costume has been eaten up by moths and offers diminished returns. The fact is our ravenous elites have hollowed out the promise of Kenya and few want to put on its tattered uniform.
Our sportsmen and women have always shown us the way to fix this. We must build up the Kenya brand, not by a vacuous “positivity” as government-types would have us believe, but by actually working towards a Kenya that delivers real victories for its people in their everyday struggles. We must also resist the attempt by elites to disguise both the problem and their own culpability for it by hyping ethnicity to foil accountability.