Nairobi’s little tribal villages: Why low-income urban dwellers define themselves by ethnicity

Korogocho slums in Nairobi. The area is sub-divided into nine zones, each of which is dominated by people from a specific community

Korogocho slums in Nairobi. The area is sub-divided into nine zones, each of which is dominated by people from a specific community

When Jackson Anyore’s uncle invited him to Nairobi in 1995 to come and look for a job, the young man, who had just completed primary school, was apprehensive.

However, on arrival in Kawangware from Vihiga, his fears quickly melted away, as life in the shanty-town was like an extension of the village.

Apart from his relatives, the place was mostly populated by fellow Luhyas, so he mostly communicated in Luhya, ate traditional Luhya foods and attended Sunday services at the nearby Pentecostal Assemblies of God Church.

Anyore is among the millions of Kenyans living in low-income areas, whose lives in the cosmopolitan capital city closely resemble that in their villages. Indeed, many low-income areas in Nairobi are carved out into tribal villages.


Remarkably, this trend is evident not just locally, but even abroad. In the United States, for instance, the Abagusii, have a huge presence in cities like Houston, Atlanta, Dallas and Cleveland.

Meanwhile, Kikuyus predominate in Massachusetts. So it is not surprising that there was some unease when former prime minister Raila Odinga attended a service at St Stephens Church in Lowell, Massachusetts, during his two-month visit to the US earlier this year.

Mr Muthui Mwangi, a member of the church, said: “When I saw the post on Facebook [that Raila would be attending the Sunday service], I doubted. Agwambo at St Stephens? That, to me, was not real.”

Anthropologists say that this tendency is not uniquely Kenyan. Besides, it is not restricted to tribe. It is common in other countries and does not necessarily have tribal undertones, as happens in Kenya.

In the United Kingdom, for example, it is largely racial. Thus some areas are predominantly black, says Dr Olungah, director of the Institute of Anthropology and Gender Studies at the University of Nairobi. Dr Olungah has studied urban ethnicity for several years.

He adds that in the United States, there are China towns based on “some degree of Chinese solidarity”. In such areas, there is high emphasis on commerce and business, and commodity prices are slightly lower. So, the poor, most of whom are black, also find refuge there, more because of their social class than their racial background.

This settlement pattern in urban areas can be explained by the fact humans are social, and therefore, ill-equipped to live on their own. So tribalism and ethnocentrism help keep individuals committed to the group, even if personal relations are not that cordial.

In Kenya, specific tribes occupy particular geographical areas, where they speak their language and follow their culture, but it is not until they move from their rural homes that ethnicity becomes more significant.

Most urban settlement patterns in Kenya, and particularly among the poor, respond to tribal identity. Anthropologists say the practice is grounded on certain concepts.


However, Dr Olungah insists that it is important to understand that negative ethnicity only occurs in urban areas, not rural ones, which are homogenous. As a result, the place where a person settles in an urban area depends, first on solidarity, where solidarity means who else lives there.

In Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s book,Coming to Birth, when the protagonist, Paulina, first comes to Nairobi from Kisumu, it is at the invitation of a relative living in Makongeni Estate. This is not accidental. Makongeni was — and still remains — highly welcoming for a newly arrived Luo in the city.

Dr Olungah notes that on landing in an urban area, a person will first struggle with the bright-light theory. Such a person, the theory says, will most likely prefer a place where he or she is socially accepted and can integrate easily.

“That integration can only be in a place where you have people who, first of all, identify you as one of their own and give you the comfort and orientation of urban life,” Dr Olungah says, adding that before you get a foothold in the new environment, you can comfortably be around those you are familiar with.

“You require a situation in which you feel safe, where you have safety in numbers. And those numbers, unfortunately, are in terms of tribal conglomeration,” he explains.

For Paulina, Makongeni, with its predominantly Luo residents , must have been safe haven. Here, she could feel safe and thus easily integrate.

In other words, Paulina was going to “communicate with other individuals effectively”, says Mr Shilabukha Khamati, a research fellow at the Institute of Anthropology and Gender Studies, at the University of Nairobi.

Meanwhile, Bahati Estate is predominantly Kikuyu. Its residents, besides speaking their mother tongue, also speak a version of sheng that borrows from the language. Some of the pubs bear Kikuyu names, and a tour of the estate reveals that some of the older folk farm just the way they would in their rural homes.

In Kawangware, the constellation of Luhya sub-tribes predominate, so it is not unusual to hear stereotypes of how the Abasamia are proud, or the Maragoli are self-centred.

A more interesting situation exists in Korogocho, which is sub-divided into nine zones, each dominated by a different community. Nyayo, Ngomongo and Kisumu Ndogo are predominantly Luo and Luhya areas; Grogon A, Grogon B, Korogocho A and B are predominantly Kikuyu; Highridge A and Highridge B are for Cushitic communities and the Luhya respectively.

Mary Wambui, 77, says she was among the first people to arrive in Korogocho in 1978. She invited her kin and friends, who gradually joined her there.

Soon, some of the Kikuyus began renting houses to Luos living in Ngomongo. Luos occupied a section of Korogocho in such large numbers that they nicknamed it Kisumu Ndogo.

The Luhya, probably due to their proximity to the Luo, both geographically and culturally, followed. Today, Kisumu Ndogo is predominantly a Luo and Luhya zone.

The second factor that determines where a person settles in an urban area is opportunity, according to Dr Olungah. A combination of solidarity and opportunity explains why these tribal grouping exist mainly among the poor.

“The nature of the jobs they do in urban centres means they have to live close to their workplaces, preferably within walking distance,” says Dr Olungah.


Then there is the issue of social class. The poor cannot afford to live in posh areas such as Karen, Muthaiga, Runda, Kahawa Sukari, Westlands, which, Dr Olungah notes, are not tribally demarcated, but inhabited by the moneyed.

“Living in Runda, Karen, Muthaiga, is not dependent on your ethnic background, but rather, on your financial status,” he offers.

The greatest concern among the rich is security, which has given rise to gated communities. Olungah says they are not bothered about ethnic solidarity because it does not offer them the comfort they find in their social class.

He says this is true even among communities seen to be permanently at loggerheads like the Luo and the Kikuyu, recalling an incident a few years ago, when former Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s son, Raila Junior, was involved in a car accident while in the company of former president Jomo Kenyatta’s grandson, Joseph Muhoho.

Moses Mutua, a psychology and sociology lecturer at Moi University, says the rich have this mentality that they can make it on their own.

“They have an ‘I’ feeling, unlike the poor’s ‘We’ feeling,” he explains, adding: “The rich have this idea that they do not need any help, so they depend more on economic rather than tribal solidarity.”

This “we feeling” among the poor comes in handy in moments of distress (bereavement, hospital bills) or celebration (marriage), mostly through their social and welfare associations.

For instance, Anyore now belongs to a chama. Members help one another whenever there’s a problem. “When a member is bereaved, other members contribute Sh550 each to facilitate transportation of the body to the deceased’s ancestral home for burial. And, should one of my children fall sick, I can always count on members to help me settle the hospital bill,” he offers.

Such associations, Mutua says, have been very instrumental, and have even helped people educate their children up to university. Some of these welfare associations have since grown into Savings and Co-operative Credit Societies (Saccos). For instance, Luhyas in Korogocho have Hodi-Hodi, and the Luo, Moyie. The Akamba have Matungulu Association.


Unfortunately, politicians have misused these tribal groupings for selfish ends by, first, dehumanising members of other communities. “The purpose is to play on the mental fears of the group and instil fear into their identity,” says Khamati.

“It is at that point that ethnicity, which is not in itself a bad thing, degenerates into tribalism, nepotism, favouritism, and the many other isms,” says Dr Olungah.

“If there is no process, particularly a political process, to make me feel a Luo, I will feel excluded from the apparatus of governance,” he adds.

“And once you feel excluded from the apparatus of governance, you become paranoid, so you create a “them-versus-us” mentality, in which you feel safe only among your own,” he explains.

And this paranoia can have far-reaching effects, as evidenced during the 2007/2008 post-election violence, when ethnic chauvinists attacked those they viewed as enemies.

Mr Khamati says that, because in our case ethnic communities have definite geographic boundaries, some people have used their position in political office to actually channel resources to certain communities while withholding such allocation to others. “So a whole group of people are impoverished just because of their ethnic identity,” he laments.

There is nothing wrong with people sticking with their own. However, such groupings become counter-productive and defeat efforts at nation building when they are used as justification to discriminate against people from other communities.

So, is it wrong to take pride in one’s ethnicity?

Dr Olungah’s sums it up thus: “I am a proud Luo. I don’t want to be anything else. It doesn’t mean that I hate anybody. That should be the starting point. But I become a victim of circumstances when I feel that my Luoness is like a cornerstone of my insubordination. I need, first of all, to feel safe in this country. I need to go to school. I need job opportunities, and I need to get every kind of opportunity, including business opportunities. I need to exercise my entrepreneurship in an environment that appreciates that entrepreneurship.

“I need an environment that appreciates the loyalty of the Kamba, the acquisitiveness of the Kikuyu, the pride of the Luo.  That cocktail of ideas will make me feel Kenyan, and will, therefore, make me feel that in terms of ethnic diversity, we are united in that diversity.”




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