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Kenya's middle class challenges political system

While politicians promote ethnic rivalries, the educated professionals keep economy going.

And that’s where the hope lies. Kenya’s urbanized, cosmopolitan middle classes travel frequently to the U.S. or Europe to build business alliances or visit family members in the diaspora. As horizons expand the lure of the homeland and the ancestral places loses its pull.

On Nairobi’s western outskirts lies a vast sprawling cemetery, where people from Nairobi are buried daily. Langata Cemetery is all but bursting with the bodies of city dwellers who no longer feel the need to be buried back in the rural homes, a sure sign that traditional bonds of ethnicity and unthinking allegiance to tribal elders is being eroded.

Increasingly those who live in the city identify with the it. Ask where they are from the answer is as likely "Nairobi" as the ethnic heartland from which they hail.

John Mwangi, a 35-year-old Kenyan businessman, landlord and hotelier who drives a Mercedes and owns a second 4x4 for his wife, does not put much stock in ethnic differences. His friends are drawn from across the ethnic spectrum, and they were all as appalled by the post-election violence as were outsiders.

“Our politicians, the old men, are all corrupt,” he said, echoing a common sentiment expressed in the capital Nairobi. “They just lead us into problem after problem.”

But while Mwangi can see where things go wrong he is more concerned with improving his own, and his family’s, condition than that of his country. “I say leave the politics to the politicians. I don’t want anything to do with it,” he said.

In his recent book "Wars, Guns & Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places," the Oxford-based economist Paul Collier makes the point that when political systems become corrupt and are run by thieves, they only attract more thieves.

The danger for Kenya, some argue, is that the middle classes are the very people who should be able to find solutions to the country's current political malaise and help to plot a new way forward. If they do not get involved, however, that will the leave the old guard of politicians, increasingly entrenched and corrupt, to continue with the status quo.

Africa's middle class is a GlobalPost series to highlight the continent's key but under-reported population including South Africa's growing class of "black diamonds," education opportunities in Ghana, the struggles to rebuild a middle class after years of civil war in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and the diaspora of thousands of Africa's ambitious in the U.S. and Europe.