Kenyan author on lessons Africa needs to learn from past ethnic tragedies

Muli wa Kyendo, a Kenyan author and lecturer earlier this year published a book “Fundamental Theories of Ethnic Conflict: Explaining the root causes of ethnic and racial hate.”

In the book, the author examines the causes of ethnic and racial conflict from various perspectives with the hope of spurring fresh approaches to this devastating human problem.

Inspired by 2008 post-election violence in Kenya, the book has a wider message for Africa as the author recognises that all African countries suffer from ethnic conflicts, often derailing development for years.

The book seeks explanations for ethnic hate, examining things like evolution, biology, religion, communication, mythology and even psychology.

His work also talks about the possibility of reconstruction, giving Rwanda as a good example 25 years on after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.

Sunday Times’ Hudson Kuteesa interacted with Kyendo about the book, its message and what the author thinks about Africa learning its lessons from past ethnic conflicts.


Who is Muli wa Kyendo?

I am a journalist, author and folklorist passionate about the power of stories to influence our thoughts, character and actions. Early in my life, I began to notice the similarity between my perception of life and the stories that I loved as a child.

I now know that we truly become the stories that we hear and the stories that we tell. It’s the thing I want to tell people. If you hear and tell peaceful stories, you become peaceful.

I read sociology at the University of Nairobi and Free University, Berlin before training as a journalist. I have worked as a journalist and occasionally as a university teacher in journalism and public speaking. All these have been opportunities for me to tell and hear stories and see how they impact our lives.

I am the founder and Director of the Syokimau Cultural Centre which promotes African thought through writing and inter-cultural dialogue.

What are some of your previous works?

Apart from my recent book, Fundamental Theories of Ethnic Conflict: Explaining Causes of Ethnic and Racial Hate which I edited and in which I contributed a chapter titled “Myth Values: An Approach to Understanding Ethnic Conflict”, I have published scholarly works including a chapter titled “A Movement for Social Change with Folktales” in the book, Strategies for Peace.

My earlier works include The Surface Beneath which is based in Germany and deals with race relations. My recent books include The Crows Will Tell (a collection of Akamba fables and parables) and a folktale-based children’s story on inter-ethnic peace titled Kioko and the Legend of the Plains.

I have published several other books and plays some of which have been performed at the Kenya National Theatre in Nairobi.

Your book was inspired by the 2008 atrocities in Kenya, what was your experience like during that period?

For years, I had read about wars in other countries including the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. At Daystar University in Kenya, I taught Rwandan refugee students who narrated to me firsthand their gruesome experiences and how they escaped the genocide.

It was horrifying, but I never expected Kenya would be the next country where such terrifying deaths would occur. Then in 2008, after a disputed election that had heavy tribal undertones, Kenya was turned into an ethnic battle field.

Through the media, I saw the horrifying pictures of children --innocent children, desperate, caught up in ferocious flames of fire. And it was in Kenya, my country! It was traumatic.

Shocked Kenyans called for “profound, radical transformation” of our nation. This book, Fundamental Theories of Ethnic Conflict: Explaining Causes of Ethnic and Racial Hate is my answer to that call.

The theories in it provide a framework for creating lasting inter-ethnic peace -- framework to create profound, radical transformation that can bring about lasting ethnic cohesion and peace.

What is the main message of your book?

The message of the book to readers, especially those promoting peace, is that there is need to start to look at the fundamental causes of ethnic conflicts in the search for solutions.  My belief is that to solve a problem, you must know its root cause.

In the book, scholars and thinkers discuss the root causes of ethnic conflicts from the points of view of their special fields. The book has theories from many fields that include evolution, biology, religion, communication, mythology and psychology.

From the point of view of mythologies -- which is my special area—my message is that we need to understand the origin and messages of the mythologies currently being promoted nationally and appreciate the need to develop positive and inclusive national narratives.

Myths, legends and folktales have the power to affect human values and attitudes and subtly influence whether communities in a nation live in peace or war.

Rwanda is one of the countries you talk about. Have you been to Rwanda? What was your experience like finding out about the genocide?

I have not been to Rwanda although it plays a major role in my perceptions of ethnic relations in Africa.  In my sociology class, Rwanda featured prominently as a case of race conflicts that are not based on color. It will certainly feature largely in my next book tentatively titled Myth Values: The DNA of the health of a nation in which I elaborate on my theory of myth values. The book will take a deeper historical look and wider collection of case studies. Rwanda will be a key case study.

The truth is that there is no African who doesn’t know about the genocide in Rwanda.  As a scholar, I am aware of the destructive underlying theories about Rwanda that influence the stories that are being told. And I am disheartened by the fact that we, as Africans, bow to malicious propaganda which has put African countries in a vicious cycle of ethnic conflicts and wars.

What lessons can the world learn from these atrocities?

The world has learned the dangers of what is generally referred to as “negative ethnicity” – a product of hate stories. When you see the havoc negative ethnicity has created in Africa, you can’t help but shudder.

All over the world, countries have instituted laws to criminalize ethnic and racial hate speeches. But laws are not effective deterrents. In Kenya, where we have such laws, the prisons would be teeming with politicians and leaders guilty of making hate speeches. The world needs to go beyond laws and start removing the conditions that bring about the need for ethnic and racial hate. We need to look at the messages of the mythologies we propagate.

Do you feel that authors around the world have written honestly and sufficiently about African ethnic woes?

I have read a lot of stories and books based on falsified or malicious assumptions and theories.

Some of these theories and stories were developed by Whites who either didn’t understand Africa or wanted to enslave and colonize the African.  My feeling is that these false narratives have become the standard guides to reporting and analyzing Africa.

They guide what we look for, what we see and what we write about whether it’s a newspaper report or a book.  Unfortunately some of these spiteful theories and stories have been included in school textbooks in Africa.  It is what we are teaching our children.

What are some other case studies from elsewhere you covered in your book?

In building their theories, the authors have illustrated their arguments with examples from many countries around the world. There was no restriction. So you will find mentions of African countries, Asian countries and even European countries. And, of course, Rwanda gets mentioned quite often.

You cannot talk of ethnic conflicts and not mention Rwanda.  My contribution is somewhat different however. As I have mentioned before, it is entitled “Myth Values: An Approach to Understanding Ethnic Conflict”.

The effort is to show how values and attitudes carried in community myths affect ethnic relations. The case studies are Kenyan communities, specifically the Luo, the Kikuyu, the Kalenjin and the Kamba.

Do you think that Africa and the world, in general, have learned enough about the dangers of divisionism?

No. In Africa in particular, the situation is getting worse. Even the so called stable countries are living in states of truce.  We have not freed ourselves from our tribal cocoons. We see the national government as a place in which we represent our tribes. It is the expectation we have created in people.

If we take the case of Kenya, I can say for sure, no one who is living outside their community areas feels safe. In major cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa, residents have one leg in the city and the other in their ethnic rural homes because you don’t know when you need to flee to the safety of your rural home.

My belief is that we need to embrace new ways of thinking in which every individual and community feel they are a part of the nation.

Governments must start to develop policies that promote and propagate inclusive narratives.