"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


when counting isn't just counting

Kenya's census is finally underway, but that doesn't mean that anyone outside of the National Bureau of Statistics is happy about it. What could possibly be contentious about counting the population, you wonder? After all, Kenya doesn't have a certifiably insane politician like Michelle Bachmann arguing that people shouldn't answer census questions for some concocted yahoo reason I can't begin to explain. Nor a bunch of Republicans who are (correctly) afraid that getting an accurate count of our country's poor citizens will cause them to lose Congressional seats in Tejas and California such that they oppose the use of statistical sampling.

We've got plenty of crazy to go around, gang.

What's upsetting many Kenyans is not the simple, straightforward, entirely rational task of actually counting all the country's citizens. Rather, it's the fact that the census asks for the ethnicity of each citizen.

Last year's post-election violence still reverberates with Kenya's citizens, especially in the middle class, which before late 2007 had at long last begun to grow and to see the country as a modern place that had passed beyond the ethnic rivalries that plague many of its neighbors. Watching the country divide along purely ethnic lines - and then watching Kenyans slaughter one another - was almost incomprehensible. And to have that question asked as part of the census seems to many to be a way of ripping open these still very fresh wounds.

Why is it so important to count people according to their ethnic affiliation? I suppose that theoretically it could be used to show that some groups are relatively disadvantaged, much in the same way that asking for a respondent's race in the United States is one of the ways we are able to show that people of color are disproportionately poor in our country.

But given Kenya's recent history, and given its politicians' abiding willingness to blatantly use ethnicity as the ultimate wedge issue, I think fears that the census data could be misused are well-founded, at least to some extent. The point that this issue is far too sensitive to push at the moment is also important.

On the other hand, that data will be very necessary for aid groups that want to target their work among the most-neglected regions and people of the country. And like it or not, outside of Nairobi, Kenyan territory today is more divided along ethnic lines than it has been since the pre-colonial period.

When I lived in Kenya in 1998, the professors whom I spent most of my time were extraordinarily proud that their country had never fallen into a civil war. Sure, there had been some government-orchestrated ethnic clashes in the 1992 and 1997 electoral periods, but it had never spread throughout the country and evolved into full-scale war. Kenya was not like Somalia or Uganda or Rwanda.

At the time, these friends also spent quite a bit of time pondering how to get their fellow citizens to move beyond making a "tribal" identity their primary identity. "How," they would wonder aloud, "do we get people to say, 'I'm Kenyan' before they say, 'I'm Gikuyu' or 'I'm Luo'?" What has to happen to cause a major identity shift, one that each one believed was necessary if the country were ever to progress politically?

Ironically, it may have taken teetering to the brink of civil war to bring about that shift. The BBC reports that some Kenyans intend to reply "I am a Kenyan" when asked their ethnicity. In the long run, that's the best thing that could happen for Kenya and her people.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The census guy was here yesterday. "Kenyan" was one of the options on the official form.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009 5:28:00 AM

Blogger Tauratinzwe said...

If it makes people say (and think) "I am Kenyan," it'll be a great census.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009 6:23:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Ben, thanks for the heads-up!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009 8:06:00 AM

Anonymous Ranil Dissanayake said...

This is really interesting. Ethnicity data is of great importance, especially if the 'Kenyan' option exists, because its one way we can look at changes in the way identity is held or primarily held.

Division between factions is one of the themes of my latest post, about state building and its importance to development, although I mention Nigeria rather than Kenya.

Thursday, August 27, 2009 6:06:00 AM

Blogger Andrea Bohnstedt said...

Kenya is intensely tribal, if anything even more so after the elections - and politics will continue to be based on meticulous tribal arithmetics (and shifting alliances according to who brings along the numbers from his or her tribe). Leaving out tribe from the census would not change that.

Having said that, of course the results have the potential for additional tensions. Charles Onyango Obbo warned that the Kikuyu had been deliberately been undercounted in the last census, so if their number turn out higher than expected, there will be suspicions that they have been inflated.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009 9:56:00 AM


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