In the Kenyan Cauldron

Uhuru Kenyatta
Uhuru Kenyatta; drawing by James Ferguson

One morning in mid-March, at the beginning of the Kenyan rainy season, I drove to Kiambu, the ancestral homeland of Uhuru Kenyatta, the country’s newly elected president. Thirty minutes northeast of Nairobi I turned off a new six-lane highway and followed a country road across a fertile plateau. Coffee bushes glistened after a morning rainfall. Banana trees and plots of maize climbed the slopes of ravines. Mile after mile of new streetlamps bordered the road. “It is rare to see these lights in rural Kenya,” my companion, a reporter named Dominic Wabala, told me, attributing the local improvements in part to Kenyatta’s huge fortune.

Soon we came to Ichaweri, near the birthplace of Kenyatta’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, the rebel leader and first president of Kenya, who died in 1978. The thirty-one-acre farm is one of many valuable properties that Kenyatta accumulated during his fourteen-year presidency. A driveway led to the guarded front gate, which was flanked by traditional Kenyan shields—black, red, and white ovals crossed by two spears—mounted on stone pillars. A fig tree, or mugomo, considered sacred by the Kikuyus—the Kenyattas’ tribe, which led the Mau-Mau uprising against Britain in the 1950s and which makes up about 22 percent of Kenya’s population—towered over the entrance. The Kenyatta family’s farmhouse, topped by an orange-tile roof, stood half-hidden behind a thick hedge. “It is best not to stop here,” Wabala told me, as I slowed down for a longer look. Wabala was worried that we might be detained and interrogated by the Kenyattas’ round-the-clock guards.

Just up the road in Gatundu, I spoke with Francis Maina, a journalist and an ardent Kenyatta supporter. He said that Kenyatta, the member of Parliament from the area, often dipped into his own pocket to help needy constituents. Once, Maina said, he flew a dying girl and her mother to India so that the girl could have heart surgery. “He piped water to the villages, built health centers, got poor families scholarships,” using both his own money and a discretionary fund provided to all members of Parliament, he told me. During the election campaign, Kenyatta’s opponents attacked him for holding an inequitable share of the country’s wealth. In a country plagued by a hunger for land, the Kenyatta family’s holdings are said to be the equivalent of Nyanza Province, a 6,200-square-mile region around Lake Victoria in western Kenya. Maina said that the allegation was “garbage…. People have been duped into believing that.”

Since independence in 1963, Kenya’s politics has been largely based on competition as well as alliances among the country’s four dozen tribes. Besides the biggest, the Kikuyu, they include the Luhya, who comprise about 14 percent of the total population; the Kalenjin, 13 percent; and the Luo, 10 percent. The tribes speak their own languages among themselves and have their own hierarchies of leadership, but they also participate in national politics. It has been customary for…

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