Once upon a time, this thing called ‘tribe’ mattered a great deal. When all our livelihoods were dependent on soils, rivers and pastures, your tribe helped you secure those vital resources for ‘your’ people. Your tribe kept you safe and kept you fed, so you were right to feel loyal.
Once we started to urbanize and develop income streams away from the forces of nature, the hold of tribe started to weaken. Now, skills and knowledge began to matter more than prowess with spears or shears. But still, tribe remained a powerful adhesive: urban-dwellers stuck together in tribal groupings even in the big city. Businessfolk trusted their own tribesfolk more, and tended to trade amongst them. Political leaders fed jobs and contracts to their own people.
And of course, the fact that the city slicker’s true home was still back in the rural abode, in the bosom of the tribe, meant that the hold of kinship and clanship stayed strong.
That was then. Today, Kenya has been catapulted into the 21st century. If you haven’t noticed, this is a world in which pretty much everyone on the planet interacts with pretty much everyone else, cheaply and pretty much continuously.
In this mind-blowing cacophony of relentless communication, how does one stand out, be distinctive, have influence, earn a better living than the rest of the crowd?
It is not, I suggest, by being a Kikuyu or a Kalenjin or a Kenyan Asian, period. The world of 24-7 commerce does not know those categorizations, and does not care about them. It only cares about who is adding value.
Despite this new reality, one of the most depressing aspects of a Kenyan general election is the confirmation that we remain entrenched in our tribalism, fossilized in our ethnic ghettoes and stuck in the dreams of our distant mountains and lakes. And it doesn’t take us forward, not one inch.
If you are a young Kenyan with an eye on making a future for yourself, please rethink this premise. Let me put to you that the hills of your ancestors and wedding rituals of your forbears are the least relevant ingredient in your future success. What will matter will be to stand out in your chosen field, in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
Your tribe will find it very difficult to give you skills and knowledge, or preferred status in contracts, or even employment. Slowly but surely, the hold of ethnicity on economy is fading, and new forms of identity are emerging.
Groupings are still important. We can’t just be a faceless part of the teeming billions. But the nature of the groupings matters, as writer Seth Godin has argued with eloquence. It is way more important, for example, for you to be a member of the global tribe of software developers than to be associated with a river. In the former tribe, you will gain access to the shared knowledge and experiences that will forge your career success.
Don’t misunderstand: culture and kinship never go away. It is very important for people to have shared language, history, songs, literature and cuisine. These are elemental forces that carry huge emotion. I relish my culture, and I hope you revel in yours. But it is very important for us to not confuse heritage with competitive advantage. Your economic future will be swung on an altogether different set of identities, around skills, occupations, passions and pastimes.
In Kenya we have some way to go before this sinks in. The forces of closed-kraal thinking retain a withering hold on the Kenyan mind, even the highly educated one. But the enlightened young Kenyan would do well to understand: your tribe provides your roots, but you must flower widely. Your place of birth is a beginning, not an ending. We can all live bigger lives by living broader ones.