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An Issue of Belonging

Desiree Cooper

Angela Kim

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(Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)
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Dana Hughes: Everyone that I spoke to about Barack Obama was really excited about the prospect of him being president. Barack Obama's father is Kenyan -- he's actually from the Luo tribe. They view him as being one of them.

Desiree Cooper: So how has the view of Barack Obama changed since the elections in Kenya in December?

The events that have occurred have really shown that there is quite a tribalistic undertone to Kenya. When I say tribalistic, it's also tied to class -- it's not simply tribe -- but I found that that has spilled over to what some people say about Barack Obama. Barack Obama's father was a prominent Luo, and Raila Odinga, who's the opposition leader, is also a Luo. When you start talking to an older generation, particularly those of the Kikuyu tribe, which is President Mwai Kibaki's tribe, I've actually found people who said they want Hillary Clinton to be president. And you ask them why do they support Hillary Clinton, you get sheepish answers. You get answers like, "Well, I just don't think a black man can ever be president" or "not a black man like that."

Take me back and give me a little background about the tensions between the different tribal factions in Kenya.

Basically, what a lot of this comes down to is colonialism and the way that the British distributed land and who they favored and who they decided not to favor. And then right after colonialism, you have two presidents that in many ways continued on with those policies.

Would you compare this to Rwanda?

No. In Rwanda, you really had two tribes. You had the Tutsis and the Hutus, but in Kenya there are 42 tribes, and there are four or five major tribes. What's happened in Kenya is that each president and then many of the president's people, the president's men that he surrounds himself with, have manipulated tribal tensions for their own gain.

Describe for me, what are the differences between some of the major tribes in Kenya in terms of their culture - what are they known for?

They each have their own music and their own dance. Maasais are known because they have the outfits, and when you see pictures of Kenya, it's usually the Maasai that you see. They each have their own languages, actually. And that has been one of the ways in which the ethnic violence, and lately the reprisal attacks, have occurred with Kikuyus asking people do you speak with Kikuyu gangs? And if you can't speak Kikuyu back, then they pull you out.

You are an African-American, but you are not of Kenyan descent. How do you feel walking about the country?

Now, I get mistaken for Kikuyu all the time. Because for here, people consider me to be fairly light-skinned. So in covering the story, it's added an element of care that I've had to have with my reporting. One of the times I was in Kibera, the audio technician with us started laughing as we were leaving and I said, "What's so funny?" And he said all those guys were saying she's just an ordinary Kikuyu girl with a fake accent - she's trying to sound American. And I thought it was funny, but my next thought was, "Hmm, perhaps I shouldn't be relying on my accent for security."

Well Dana, thank you for joining us.

Thank you. I really appreciate it.


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