As Kenya Elections Near, Some Struggle To Find Their Place In The Homeland – It’s A Story Well Told

Kenya’s first presidential debate aired on Monday February 11. Reports say it was easily the most watched local TV event of recent years in Kenya.

I guess it would not have been a genuine Kenyan debate if, as it did, it didn’t linger a little long on the question of ethnicity/tribalism. But maybe that also gave it authenticity.

The twin sisters in "In My Genes".

The twin sisters in “In My Genes”.

Ethnicity is also the staple of mainstream media, and the star of most discussions by the chattering classes on how political goods, including election fortunes, are distributed in Kenya.

To a non-Kenyan looking for a more nuanced view of the country, one of the more sophisticated alternatives to this view of a monochromatic and one-dimensional Kenya that is turned and flipped primarily by tribal passion, can be found in three other growing media – film, photography, and graffiti. They offer a competing, albeit sometimes overly complex, narrative about what kind of Kenya will go to the polls on March 4.

A couple of documentaries and films come to mind. There is Lupita Nyong’o’s, “In My Genes”, about what it means to live with albinism in Kenya. Then there are two by the Maina Kiai and Lucy Hannan human rights outfit InformAction; “Disputed Fields”, which examines the legacy of the 2008 post-election violence (PEV) in the Rift Valley and the competing ancestral cultural claims and modern-day legal rights to land in the region.

More recently they debuted “Unfinished Business – In Central Kenya” about the forgotten and “invisible” people in the region who have lost out in the last 50 years when two of the country’s presidents were Kikuyus (who, according to the tribal logic of politics, should have taken care of their own but ignored the lowly masses in the region).

A scene from "Something Necessary" (Nation Media Group photo).

A scene from “Something Necessary” (Nation Media Group photo).

Judy Kibinge has been prolific, but her 2009 documentary “Peace Wanted Alive”, which largely focussed on how the poor in Nairobi’s Kibera and Mathare slums responded to the PEV, and her latest release “Something Necessary” offer powerful social commentary. “Something Necessary” is an intimate look at a family that is part of the clashing identities in Kenya that were unleashed by the PEV in the Rift Valley. And, of course, “Nairobi Half Life”, Tosh Gitonga’s gritty tale of urban crime, angst, and the political time bomb lurking beneath Nairobi’s wealthy surface.

In the last two years, Boniface Mwangi has thrown his photography in the fray, and more famously became godfather of Kenya’s socially conscious graffiti movement.

There is of course the Kenyan blogosphere and Kenyans on Twitter and Facebook. But here one sometimes sees a fringe and extreme Kenya that is too frightening to behold. Happily, it is too individualised to represent a mass trend.

Why do the stories told by mainstream media in Kenya – and other parts of Africa- differ so much from those that emerge from film, photography and graffiti?

Boniface Mwangi stands against his "subversive" grafitti painting he called "Vultures".

Boniface Mwangi stands against his “subversive” grafitti painting he called “Vultures”.

Actually, the mainstream has a decent excuse; the immediacy and production cycle of daily news doesn’t allow us enough time for reflection. Also, by its nature it attracts spin-doctors and too many hacks that want to score quick political points as commentators on TV and columnists in newspapers.

The other problem is structural. The best news media is mostly local, often appealing to core constituencies that are vested in a certain (often narrow) view of a country.

Films take longer, allowing many quiet moments of deep thought, and involve far more people than the most complex story newspaper or TV news will ever do.

While news is local, few films or documentaries can expect to be successful by showing only at home. They need to show in other parts of Africa, and enter many film festivals in Europe and North America for them to be a success and make a modest return on the investment that goes into them – and build a reputation for the directors.

That requires that the parochialism and gratuitous drama that makes local news stories a bit hit, have to be expunged. And the stereotypical narrative that might unnerve liberal global audiences has to be tempered. In addition, a good film or documentary must find a sub-theme in a local story that has universal resonance. Done well, by the end of it is a far better product than you will find in any TV news or newspaper.

On the face of it, most of the documentaries and films listed here have nothing in common. What, you might ask, does a documentary on land and cultural feuds in rural Rift Valley (Disputed Fields), have with an edgy crime drama in Nairobi (Nairobi Half Life), or graffiti on Koinange Street, which is famous for its night prostitutes?

Maina Kiai - a "troublemaker" who loves the uncomfortable and alternative about Kenya.

Maina Kiai – a “troublemaker” who loves the uncomfortable and alternative about Kenya.

However, they all do one thing in common;  speak to the question of what citizenship means in Kenya. If you are a Kiisi woman, married to a Luo man, and have a son, he is a Luo-Kiisi, born into a tribe that doesn’t exist in Kenya. The most unambiguous way for him to make a claim is through citizenship, not as a member of a tribe.

If you are a Kikuyu who fled the Rift Valley in the election violence of 1992 and have been living in an IDP camp in Central Kenya (a theme in “Unfinished Business”), you have spent the last 10 years of it under a government by a president from the region who has not taken you out of the camp. You can no longer appeal to your Kikuyuness, it doesn’t help much to play the tribal card.

With the ethnic card closed to you, your only way to restitution is by asserting your right as a Kenyan citizen.

And if you are a person with albinism, no matter your tribe, as “In My Genes” revealed, you very likely face discrimination – no matter your tribe. Without the ethnic and other covers, the only way you can claim to belong in Kenya is via the route of a citizen.

When Mwangi does his graffiti, it is an in-your-face art. You can choose to buy a newspaper or watch a TV channel. But graffiti is along the street where you pass on the way to work every day and thus unavoidable. Therefore it has to rise to a higher standard. It must tell a story that Kenyans from all ethnic groups – and the “aliens” who live in Nairobi (that is what my Kenya government-issued foreigner ID calls folks like me) who pass in front of it accept as valid – or else it will be caricature, and be defaced quickly.

For all these reasons, and more, these mediums tell the Kenyan story better.

The most important lesson I have learnt from having taken the time to watch all these art and media forms is that the rich and powerful don’t desperately need to leverage citizenship. They are doing just fine with or without it. Citizenship, it seems, is the final resort of the weak, the excluded, and the persecuted. The people, who benefit from our countries, are the ones who most need them to survive as united nations.

That revelation just blew my brains away.


 A slightly shorter version of this article has been published in Daily Nation Feb. 14, 2013, as “As Elections Approach, Some Kenyans Struggle To Find Their Place In The Land” (


3 comments on “As Kenya Elections Near, Some Struggle To Find Their Place In The Homeland – It’s A Story Well Told

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