Sylvia Kang'ara, a law professor at the University of Washington, grew up in Kenya's Rift Valley. She studied at the University of Nairobi...

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Sylvia Kang’ara, a law professor at the University of Washington, grew up in Kenya’s Rift Valley. She studied at the University of Nairobi before obtaining advanced law degrees from Harvard Law School.

Peter Kithene, a UW graduate student in health administration, founded the organization Mama Maria to provide basic healthcare to poor people in rural western Kenya.

We asked them to help shed some light on the question of how a once stable Kenya could plunge so quickly into chaos and violence.

Q: What is the ethnic makeup of Kenya?

Kang’ara: There are 42 tribes. The largest is (the) Kikuyu. The Luo and Kalenjins are among the other largest ethnic groups. (Kang’ara is a Kikuyu; Kithene is a Luo.)

Q: What is causing the conflict between tribes?

Kang’ara: Kenya was colonized by the British from 1899-1963. The British first settlements were in the Rift Valley and central Kenya, inhabited primarily by the Kikuyu. Because the British took Kikuyu land, the Kikuyu had to be moved from their homeland to other parts of Kenya. They were dispersed throughout the country.

The British system relied heavily on Kikuyu to supply labor to white communities because Kikuyus were agricultural communities. Kikuyu labor was the bloodline for the British colonial empire.

The struggle for independence was led by Kikuyu, including the Mau Mau movement. That meant the transfer of power from British mainly to Kikuyu elite. The question of Kikuyu dominance was always at the forefront of the independence negotiations. In 1963, the Kikuyu, the Luo and the Kalenjins agreed to have a unitary government as a way to keep the country together, minimize the prominence of ethnicity and build a national identity.

But the distribution of resources, especially land, occurred along very ethnic lines. Kikuyus were the agricultural community and they had been dispersed away from central Kenya. When the whites left, the Kikuyus were the first to acquire land they vacated. Kikuyus had easy access to credit which allowed them to start businesses and become more economically dominant and have access to education more than other tribes. With economic power, they began to control politics.

Kithene: I think tribalism has been in people’s minds and I think greed and selfishiness to me is the cause of all this. I’m worried about the tribal division that is taking place that didn’t have to take place. People could have disagreed on political lines. I’m really saddened and devastated.

Q: What problems happened in the election?

Kithene: What happened was for the first time in Kenyan history people came out in huge numbers to vote. Leaders promised elections are going to be fair. People were so excited: we can vote, our voices can be heard. Until that time people lived in peace.

The alleged rigging of the election and swearing in of the president by the cronies of the president’s tribe, people thought this is not right. They saw Kikuyus doing this. The leaders have enough money and protection, but they should think of the poor people who are dying senselessly, put all their differences down and call for a reelection for the sake of the country.

Kang’ara: Both sides, the government and opposition, engaged in election malpractices. I have no dog in this race because both sides are pretty disgusting in that sense. The question of fairness is a sideshow I think. What is going on is class warfare.

Kenya, like most nations in the world, has serious economic inequality. So in this class warfare you have two extremes. The government extreme holds that there should not be overt distribution of resources. The market should distribute resources, and Kikuyu have the right to own property anywhere. The other extreme is (the view that) Kikuyus are the enemy and dominate and we need a state that can distribute resources more directly rather than leaving it to the market. Because the majority of Kenyans are poor, it’s easier for them to fall on the second extreme.

Q: How serious is the threat of genocide?

Kithene: We are worried about that. A friend tells me if you walk on the streets anywhere there are groups of people who stop you and want to see your identification card. If they see you were born in a community they don’t want, they kill you on the spot.

Kang’ara: Given the history of the country, given we have had ethnic clashes before in 1992, and given what happened in Rwanda, I would rather err on the side of caution. We need to calm down the country and avert a possible genocide. Any talk about the election should include a good dose of education on the dangers of ethnicity.

Q: What impact is the conflict having throughout the region?

Kang’ara: Because Uganda, Rwanda and other landlocked countries in the region depend on Mombasa’s port, the violence could effect them. They might not get supplies. (There is) also the question of food supplies in Kenya itself. Food that gets to market in certain parts of Kenya such as Nairobi is farmed upcountry, in the communities that are targeted. When you cannot get food from up market to city, it means people in cities are going to starve.

There are farmers in Eldoret who don’t know what to do with their milk.

It risks unraveling the fabric of the economy pretty fast. Those who would like to see a check on Kikuyu dominance would rather their people produce the food and take it to market. Maybe that’s a good thing, but it’s not going to happen today or tomorrow. The fighting is not going to help.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com