Tribal fighting frightens Kenya's 'mixed' couples

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 12, 2008 

Josphat Karanja and Everlyn Adoyo's marriage remains strong.


KINOO, Kenya — In the six weeks that intertribal fighting has ripped through Kenya, Josphat Karanja hasn't once called his father, not even after clashes erupted near the family home in the turbulent Rift Valley.

"I know what he's going to say," said Karanja, a 30-year-old computer systems manager. "I can't hear that right now."

Karanja is a Kikuyu, the dominant tribe in Kenya. Three years ago, against his father's wishes, he married a woman from the smaller Luo community, Everlyn Adoyo, whom he'd courted by showing up at her home unannounced almost every day for several months until she agreed to go out with him.

Today the couple is the picture of wedded bliss: she a bubbly salesclerk, he a straight-faced techie with a wry sense of humor. But to the chagrin of Karanja's father, their tribes are on opposite sides of Kenya's bloody post-election divide, which has pit supporters of President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, against those who back the Luo opposition leader, Raila Odinga.

Mixed couples such as Karanja and Adoyo are a symbol of modern, cosmopolitan Kenya, which until recently was an island of stability in East Africa. But the violence that's killed more than 1,000 people since December has proved that for all of the country's progress, tribe still matters in Kenya.

The controversial election, which independent observers say Kibaki stole, has reopened generations-old rivalries among Kenya's 42 ethnic groups. Perhaps none is more fierce than that between Kikuyus, who've dominated business and politics since the country won its independence in 1963, and Luos, who wear their long exclusion from power like a giant chip on the shoulder.

In recent years, with Kenyans from all over the country flocking to the capital, Nairobi, tribal identities have blurred and mixed marriages no longer are uncommon. In a national survey last year by the Steadman polling firm, 3 out of 4 Kenyans said they'd consider marrying outside their tribes.

But in a reflection of the deep mistrust between their communities, Kikuyus and Luos were the least likely of the major tribes to want to intermarry.

"I feel proud that I've married outside my tribe. It's something exotic," said Karanja, sipping coffee at an outdoor cafe with Adoyo, 25, smiling back at him. "But now I feel that people will think twice about marrying someone from another group."

In their concrete block of comfortable apartments in Kinoo (pronounced "kin-OH"), a bedroom community 20 minutes outside Nairobi, the couple lives among middle-class Kenyans of many different groups, bonding in the evenings over shared interests such as English Premier League soccer.

Before the election, politics was merely a diversion. Despite the fact that they supported rival presidential candidates, Karanja — who voted for Kibaki — brought home Odinga posters as a gesture of domestic bipartisanship.

Now they fear for their multi-ethnic oasis.

One recent evening, in a shantytown a few hundred yards from their building, a group of young Kikuyu men torched a line of tin shacks belonging to Luos. Soon after that, a mixed couple in a neighboring apartment moved out because the man — a Kalenjin, another tribe that's fought Kikuyus — worried that the mobs would come for him next.

The mood among their neighbors has darkened. "There is a lot of careless talking," Adoyo said. Once they dropped in on a Kikuyu neighbor upstairs and the conversation turned to a recent spate of attacks on Luos in the western town of Nakuru.

"Let those Luos be killed," Adoyo recalled the neighbor saying, as she sat in his living room stone-faced. "Let them be disciplined."

Adoyo was raised in Nairobi, and her family didn't have a problem with her marrying a non-Luo man. One close cousin married a Kalenjin, another a European. "As long as he doesn't beat you, and you are happy," Adoyo's father said to her when she and Karanja were married.

It was his parents, who live in a village near Nakuru, who were wary. "The first thing they asked me was, 'Why do you marry a Luo?' " Karanja recalled. "My only answer was, 'Why not?' I like the person."

His father never came to terms with the union, and it's badly strained their relationship. These days, when he wants news from home, Karanja calls his brother to make sure their parents are OK.

In Nairobi, they said, communities seemed to mix easily enough. Adoyo works for a Kikuyu who owns several cell-phone outlets, and at nights she attends college classes in human resources management. When the new semester started a few weeks ago, however, she was disturbed when she introduced herself by her nickname, Eva, and classmates shot back: "Eva what?" They wanted to know her family name — the easiest indicator of one's tribe.

"That never happened before," she said. "But now I always hear people saying, 'Kabila gani?' " — Swahili for "Which tribe?"

So they've reluctantly begun looking for a new home in a safe section of Nairobi, where Adoyo's sister lives. Karanja is due to complete his master's degree in information technology in April, and he plans to apply to Ph.D. programs overseas.

"I always thought I would do that at some point," he said. "Now seems to be the time. I don't think there's a bright future in Kenya."

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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