Sunday, July 5, 2009

Nothing wrong with 'tribe' in census, except in Kenya

By Lukoye Atwoli
(Edited Version Published in Sunday Nation, 5 July 2009, Page 36)

Our national bogeyman, tribe, is once again threatening to wreck an important exercise- the national population census planned for August this year. The arguments for and against including this item are so passionate that the donor community and NGOs are reported to be strongly against it for fear of further polarizing the country.
Censuses are carried out in order to provide information for policy development and planning, and as long as this remains the aim of such an exercise in Kenya, it would be important to collect any and all bits of information necessary to help in this. Indeed it would be better to collect excess information than is needed, for it is easier to discard what is superfluous than to go back and collect missing information.
For instance, it may be useful to know which communities may be considered minorities in order to look out for them as far as education, health facilities and infrastructure is concerned. This approach is premised on the fact that in a representative ‘democracy’ such as the one we purport to have, the larger population groups can and will speak for themselves whenever there is a problem with the provision of these services.
Knowing the ethnic composition of a population may also aid planners to identify discriminatory practices in different areas. If one community contributes a significant proportion of the population and yet is scantily represented in any or all sectors of the economy, alarm bells would sound in the planning circles and a responsible government would rush to discover the source of the discrepancy in order to redress it.
Even in healthcare delivery, there are certain illnesses that are more common among individuals from certain races, and presumably this effect may be demonstrated among the various ethnic communities in this country. Knowing the ethnic composition of the population would therefore prepare the health care system to offer the necessary services to those at risk.
The few reasons enumerated above are as good as any required to compel anyone purporting to carry out a national census to include the question on the ethnic extraction of the respondents. However, in this country, everything is given an ethno-political interpretation, and as soon as the results of such a census are out, the entire country will be sorely exercised trying to find out what proportion of the population their respective communities contribute.
Some would immediately get out their calculators to find out which tribe or constellation of tribes makes up the majority, and then get onto rooftops to trumpet their ‘victory’ if their group ‘wins’, or to lament about manipulation of statistics if their group ‘loses’!
Indeed we got a sneak preview of this kind of thinking a few months ago when the government released poverty statistics comparing the various constituencies. As soon as the ranking was released many of our MPs were out screaming about one perceived injustice or other. Those that were ranked richest disputed this, calling it a ploy to ensure reduced allocation of devolved funds, while those that were ranked poor cried foul about their implied misuse of the same funds.
Such is the vacuous nature of our social interactions that the concern by donors and NGOs should be taken as a commentary on the poor state of our collective mind as Kenyans. Instead of expressing reservations about including ‘Tribe’ in the census, those of us who are concerned about the primacy ethnicity has taken in our national discourse should be coming up with solutions that will deal with the problem once and for all.
The problem as perceived by the neutral observer is that we tend to use tribe to reach conclusions about an individual we know nothing about. Thus we only need to know one’s surname to figure out what political party (read ethno-political warlord) they support. This extends even to what football team they support, what television station they watch, what newspaper they read, and even what sort of friends they prefer!
Our preoccupation with tribe continues to rob us of priceless opportunities to learn from each other and to engage ‘strangers’ who may have something useful to offer.
A possible solution to this conundrum would be to include the question on tribe or ethnicity in the census, but leave it open so that an individual may choose whether or not to dignify it with an answer. A related option would be to allow respondents to indicate that their tribe is ‘Kenya’. The census would thus be usefully transformed into a referendum on the primacy of ethnic identity as opposed to the notion of Kenyanness, and the findings would have far-reaching implications on our governance landscape.

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