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Line Kuppens

Arnim Langer

May 3rd, 2023

De-legitimizing ethnic favouritism in Kenyan classrooms

1 comment | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Line Kuppens

Arnim Langer

May 3rd, 2023

De-legitimizing ethnic favouritism in Kenyan classrooms

1 comment | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Kenya has become trapped in a vicious cycle of perception and action in which ethnic favouritism has become self-sustaining. Line Kuppens and Arnim Langer argue that schools, and teachers in particular, can sustain or break this cycle.

Ethnicity has historically been an important factor in Kenyan politics and everyday life. This can be seen in ethnic voting patterns and political clientelist practices. Ethnic favouritism in the provision of public goods has been particularly nefarious in the education sector, where unfair advantages have led to significant differences between ethnic groups. This in turn has implications for individuals’ future socio-economic opportunities and status in society.

Although clientelism has decreased at the national level since the reintroduction of multiparty politics in the early 1990s, at local levels personalised and informal political practices remain common. As a result, both young and old Kenyans are convinced that being from the ‘right tribe’ matters in politics and society even if their ethnic identity is not important to them. These perceptions harm institutional and inter-ethnic trust and, in extremis, raise electoral stakes. Fearing political exclusion, some Kenyans believe it remains in their best interest to elect a strong co-ethnic leader to get a share of the national cake.

Why teachers matter

Education can exacerbate, mitigate, or counteract a country’s political culture of ethnicisation and ethnic favouritism. Besides teaching essential knowledge and skills, schools and teachers impart societal norms and values. Therefore, teachers who give undue benefits to a pupil belonging to their own ethnic group risk conveying the message that ethnic favouritism is normal and socially acceptable within, but by extension outside, the school context.

Conversely, teachers who refrain from providing favours to their coethnic students delegitimise such practices. They can also speak out against unfair treatment on the basis of ethnicity, emphasising fairness and merit instead and instill these lessons in children from a young age.

Ethnic favouritism in the classroom

About a quarter of teachers extend favours to ethnic kin. This applies across genders and age profiles. In Kenyan classrooms, ethnic identification does matter. Teachers who identify more with their ethnic group than with the Kenyan nationality are more likely to have extended favours to coethnic students. Similarly, a quarter also prefers teaching students from their own ethnic group.

In contrast to office-seeking politicians who aim to mobilise votes, teachers who hand out benefits along ethnic lines do not get anything tangible in return (if we disregard corrupt practices, such as grades for money). Teachers, like politicians, may nonetheless derive self-esteem and pride from seeing their group do well compared to others.

Through ‘ethnically motivated teaching’ teachers could affirm their status as ‘good’ members of their ethnic group. This is reminiscent of Kenya’s traditional ‘moral ethnicity’, in which ethnic kin are expected to act generously towards and maintain links with one’s group to gain social status.

In the words of one teacher: ‘When you help your own, you have done something good’. Often, these favours tend to be rather small in nature. For example, they may consist of providing social support in the mother tongue or small material benefits, such as bus fare. But these offers are not extended to the class as a whole and introduce the idea that this sort of stratification is a normal thing within Kenyan society.

Avoiding unintended consequences

Irrespective of teachers’ intentions, showing favouristism to coethnic pupils can harm students from other ethnic groups and inter-ethnic relations more generally. These experiences can contribute to the normalisation and acceptance of ethnic favouritism within and beyond the school context. Most teachers agree that those who hand out favours to show ethnic solidarity act on a ‘wrong belief’, and largely dismiss ‘ethnically motivated teaching’, yet the practice continues either consciously or unconsciously.

One teacher said: ‘we can teach them (cf. pupils) how to choose leaders, and to teach people not just to choose people because they come from their tribe, but because they can work.’ Schools as the ideal place to combat ethnic favouritism.

Positive outlook

The socialisation experiences of children and adolescents in school, and the role of teachers in this, can contribute to the normalisation and acceptance of ethnic favouritism. Teachers who give undue benefits to students from their own ethnic group shape their students’ perceptions and experiences with ethnicity and clientelist practices, and, in the longer term, may impact their susceptibility to ethnic politics.

It is positive in this respect that many teachers are aware of the role they can play in exacerbating the politicisation of ethnicity and therefore try to put ethnic considerations aside in school.


Photo credit: Global Partnership for Education used with permission CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

About the author

Line Kuppens is Assistant Professor Conflict Studies at the University of Amsterdam

Line Kuppens

Line Kuppens is Assistant Professor Conflict Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Her research focuses on the role of education as a peace-building tool in divided and post-conflict societies.

Arnim Langer is Director of the Centre for Research on Peace and Development

Arnim Langer

Arnim Langer is Director of the Centre for Research on Peace and Development (CRPD), Chair Holder of the UNESCO Chair in Sustainable Peacebuilding and Professor of International Politics at KU Leuven.

Posted In: Education

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