Kenya’s 42 (+) tribes

The vagueness around who is and isn’t a “tribe of Kenya” is a double-edged sword. The persistence of ethnic classification and counting can be pernicious.

Photo by Jan Canty on Unsplash

That title of this article is deliberately provocative. Kenya does not, of course, have a fixed number of tribes. Nor is the word “tribe” the best one. But the idea—both of the 42 and its multiple pluses, and of the appropriateness of the word tribe—is deeply entrenched in the Kenyan imagination. So deeply entrenched that a colleague recently reported to me that, after reading my recent article in the Journal of Eastern African Studies showing that 150 different ethnic groups had been counted in various Kenyan census over the years, a Kenyan student of his posted on the unit discussion board “I’m Kenyan, and we have 42 tribes.” So, what is going on there? And why does it matter?

There are two answers to the question about why it matters. The first is an obvious one: Kenya has been riven with ethnic politics since independence, with seeds sown during the colonial period. Most Kenyans will agree that tribalism is up there with greed and corruption as the standout problems of contemporary Kenyan politics. The second is less obvious but increasingly accepted: numerous minority and marginalized ethnic groups in Kenya value formal state recognition as a “tribe of Kenya.” Both of these are compelling (though not unproblematic) reasons for the state to keep some kind of list of Kenya’s ethnic groups: to count and determine who is dominant and where; and to foster a sense of national cohesion and inclusion. Contradictory reasons, to be sure, but powerful ones.

The idea that Kenya is made up of 42(+) tribes allows these two political uses of ethnicity to persist without blowing up. While almost every Kenyan can tell you this is the number, almost no Kenyan will tell you where the list is kept, who is on it, how it is controlled or how it is used. The number shapes people’s sense of belonging, entitlement, and right and wrong action, but in ways that tend to be more assumed than acknowledged. The imagination of the 42(+) is roughly factual and fairly normative. People intuit there must be a list somewhere but typically have no hard knowledge of where. Most have a firm conviction that those 42-ish ethnicities are rightly and proudly Kenyan, but no rigid sense of who they might be. The existence of a list, but a cultivated vagueness about its nature and content, allows for Kenyans to make sense of who is who without having to be too strict about it.

But the facts are this: the only time in official Kenyan government history that a list of 42 tribes has been curated is the 1969 census, the first after independence. Ethnicity is not recorded on voter rolls or ID cards, nor is there any list in the Kenya gazette (the official record of parliamentary proceedings). The census is the only place any such list exists. Between 1948 and 2019, eight census have been conducted and no others have used that list of 42: They have varied between about 38, up to more than 120, with precisely 150 different ethnic groups being named in one census or another. Ethnic population figures haven’t been reported at any level lower than national since 1989. Nobody really knows how one gets the Kenya Bureau of Statistics to include, exclude or change a particular ethnic category, or to move it between “main” and “sub” tribe. The whole thing is a bit of a mystery. Which is part of the reason “42” still travels in the social imagination the way it does.

Does it matter that the official census remains vague and non-transparent? Yes and no.

On the one hand, it obviously does matter. We don’t really know anything, officially, about how ethnic census data gets used. Is the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission using it to redraw electoral constituency boundaries? Are counties using it to determine distribution of development resources, either to minorities and marginalized groups or—more worryingly—to dominant ethnic groups? Is it being used by the civil service in its annual evaluation of the distribution of civil service jobs at county level or below? Without knowing the answer to these and numerous other similar questions, it’s difficult to know how democratic or otherwise the use of this data is, and therefore to develop an informed view on whether or not it’s a good idea to classify people by ethnicity in this way.

On the other hand, perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps the lack of precision is how the postcolonial state deals with the colonial legacy of ethnic politics. The codification and formal territorialization of ethnicity is a colonial construct. The first practices of ethnic classification and enumeration were directly associated with colonial projects of labor and tax extraction and control. The postcolonial state has persisted with this use of codified ethnicity. That ethnicity is vital data is treated as self-evident today as much as it was in the first colonial census. The word “tribe” was only changed to “ethnic group” in the report that came out last year on the 2019 census. Every questionnaire and report prior to that used “tribe” or the Swahili “kabila,” unquestioned. The problematic competitive and exclusionary assumptions about and uses of ethnic classifications and demographic data are deeply resonant with colonial control and extraction.

But that is not their only use. In postcolonial times, ethnicity and its codification also afford a sense of inclusion. When people get recognized and counted they feel they are part of the diverse fabric that makes up the Kenyan nation. And indeed they are.

In other words, the vagueness around who is and isn’t a “tribe of Kenya” is a double-edged sword. The persistence of ethnic classification and counting can be pernicious. Ethnic demographic dominance—whether real, imagined, claimed, or perceived—has a sordid history in Kenya. But given the impossible task of forming a nation built on codified and territorialized ethnicity, perhaps approaching ongoing codification through vagueness is not an altogether bad way of coping. Especially if, as in 2009 and 2019, the number expands further and further and it becomes more and more accepted that who is Kenyan is ever-shifting terrain.

Further Reading