When it emerged that the tribe was one of the key indicators in the census last year, many people protested, saying Kenyans did not wish to be identified by their tribes after the 2008 post-election violence.
Critics said the indicator was pulling Kenyans back to the ethnic cocoon when national healing was a priority, and called on the government to drop the indicator.
Planning minister Wycliffe Oparanya defended the move, saying the data was for planning and not political reasons. However when the 2009 census results were released on Tuesday, one of the most sought after figures was the ethnic statistics.
Dr Antony Kilele, the Director General of the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, said there was a rush among Kenyans to establish the size of their tribes.
“In the short text message service we had put up for Kenyans to check the report, more than half the texts wanted to find out about the tribe” said Mr Kilele.
This fixation with tribal figures debunked the myth about Kenyans not wanting to be associated with anything ethnic. It also proved cynics right that the tribe is still the single most important catalyst for loyalty among many Kenyans.
The enumerators asked Kenyans for their tribes, but respondents had a choice of only responding Kenyan. Of the population of 38,610,097 only 610,122 referred to themselves as Kenyan.
Dr Kilele says when they were preparing the questionnaires, many communities insisted that they wanted to be recognised by their names and not communal references.
“For instance, communities which could easily be described as Mijikenda insisted they be called by their tribe names however small the population. The Njemps and El Molo said ‘we know we could be 2,000 but please recognise us and mention our tribes’” said Dr Kilele.
The results prove the tribe is still a major source of identity for many. It could also explain why the Kanu government declined to release figures relating to the tribe and religion in the 1999 census.
Tribal arithmetic has always played a big part in politics, with leaders touting the size of their tribes to claim supremacy.