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Key findings
  • More than nine out of 10 Kenyans (93%) identify at least as much with their nation as with their ethnic group. But while few Kenyans identify primarily with their ethnic Copyright ©Afrobarometer 2021 2 group, about seven in 10 (69%) consider their ethnic group an important part of their identity.
  • Eight in 10 citizens (81%) say they feel comfortable speaking their mother tongue in public, and a smaller majority (57%) say they have no problem wearing traditional or cultural dress in public.
  • One in five Kenyans (19%) say their ethnic group is “often” or “always” treated unfairly by the government, while 29% say this happens “sometimes.”
  • Similarly, almost one-fifth (18%) of respondents say other Kenyans treated them unfairly based on their ethnicity “several times” or “many times” during the previous year.
  • A large majority (82%) of Kenyans say that communities made up of different ethnic groups, races, and religions are stronger than more homogeneous communities. And almost two-thirds (64%) say there is more that unites Kenyans than divides them.
  • Most Kenyans express tolerant attitudes toward people from different ethnic groups (91%) and religious backgrounds (89%), people who support different political parties (79%), and immigrants and foreign workers (70%). But few (10%) indicate tolerance toward people of a different sexual orientation.
  • Only one in 20 Kenyans (4%) believe that “most people can be trusted”; most (96%) say that one must be very careful when dealing with others.

Identity is an important attribute of individuals and groups that influences how people see themselves and relate to others. Individuals and groups leverage many different identities as the situation demands: ethnic, linguistic, economic, national, religious, and sexual, among others.

Identification with a particular group is not necessarily a problem – can indeed be both useful and enjoyable – unless identity is used to undermine the rights of those outside the group, including the right to access goods and services. In Kenya, as in many African countries, ethnicity has at times been a determinant of individuals’ access to resources. But other identities are also used to create divisions of “us” vs. “them,” including affluent vs. poor, Christian vs. Muslim, gay vs. straight, citizen vs. immigrant.

This analysis of Afrobarometer Round 8 findings shows that most Kenyans value both their national and ethnic identities and feel comfortable speaking their mother tongue and wearing traditional dress in public. Most do not experience unfair treatment based on ethnicity, religion, or economic status, but a sizeable minority do.

Most also believe there is strength in diversity, and express tolerant attitudes toward other ethnicities, religions, political views, and nationalities – but not toward different sexual identities.

And even though a majority say there is more that unites Kenyans than divides them, very few think they can trust other people.

Winnie Mitullah

Winnie previously served as the core partner director for East Africa at Afrobarometer