I’m a mutt among my peers—a touch of German, a little Scottish, some Native American—but my heritage is basically irrelevant when I mingle with a mix of people from other backgrounds. But in many parts of the world, ethnic and tribal lines are still being drawn, and they’re taking entire countries down as a result.
Michela Wrong’s book, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower, is as much about tribalism as it is on calling out the corrupt. In fact, it’s due to the deep-seeded tribal feuds that corruption in the Kenyan government even exists. Kenya has always been the home of many tribes, but it wasn’t until the time of British colonialism and the decision to partition the land up into 24 native reserves—each named for the tribe that was placed there—that tribal lines were literally drawn. Once placed in competition with each other, Kenyans viewed their land as mini-nations and the British reinforced these communities by turning “negotiable ethnicity into competitive tribalism.”
John Githongo, in the position of anti-corruption czar for Mwai Kibaki (who was sworn into lead the country in January 2003), was a symbol for a country that longed to rid itself of a form of corruption that gave favor to particular tribes as they came into power. Githongo, a member of the Kikuyu tribe, which was in power during the time of Kibaki, was honest about his desire to change the direction the country had been going. Soon after taking office, Kibaki was incapacitated, and Githongo was pressured to give in to corruption in order to allow his tribe its “turn to eat” at the proverbial trough. Caught in the “Anglo Leasing” scandal, Githongo attempted to share his concerns with the president, but in turn discovered that even those at the very top of the party lines—regardless of what they’ve told the masses–are also guilty in perpetuating the pervasive corruption problem in Kenya.
Wrong does an excellent job in weaving the history of tribalism with Githongo’s background, which helps guide readers through this complicated political web. Her anecdotes incorporate stories of political favoritism and information about how players on the international stage helped perpetuate a national problem.
She also offers staggering statistics that are alarming considering how poor most of the people in the nation really are. For example, “petty” corruption accounts for 31.4% of a household’s income in Kenya, which shouldn’t come as any surprise considering at one point in time government officials had spent $12 million on luxury cars. This money could have provided 147,000 HIV-positive Kenyans with anti-retroviral treatment for a year. Or, consider the illegitimate contracts that passed through the hands of the government in 2003-2004, which would have paid for enough anti-retrovirals for every HIV-positive Kenyan for the next 10 years. Love your fellow countryman, I think not.
I like how Wrong paints a picture of Kenyans’ ability to break out of the ethnic boundaries that had been forced upon them through the blurred lines in the country’s largest slums, namely Kibera, which contains 42 different tribes. The youngsters in the country have even unified through a shared new language called Sheng. But when the older members of the nation make decisions that trickle through society on a tribal basis, it’s hard for neighbor not to harbor hard feelings against neighbor when there’s no seemingly good reason beyond ethnicity when the two are treated differently from each other.
The book opens up the heart of corruption in Kenya, but Wrong is also quick to point a finger at aid organizations (particularly those in Great Britain) who have chosen to look the other direction in an attempt to “fix” the problems plaguing East Africa. She points out that the decision makers at the World Bank and similar organizations are not like those who have grown up in Kibera. Rather, they perpetuate the status quo by viewing the Kenyan politicians and central bank governors—the very people who incite corruption–as their social equals. I was shocked to learn that, at one point in time, the World Bank representative in Kenya was renting his house from the Kibakis. If that’s not a conflict of interest, I don’t know what is.
While not directly related to travel, I found this book to be helpful in explaining the complexities of tribalism, corruption and political struggles in Kenya. This book has been banned in Kenya; that alone tells me there’s something worth learning from it.