The Kikuyus, in turn, turned on Luos and Kalenjins in an ugly, bloody spasm of anger and retribution that wreaked havoc on the nation's tourism industry.
Eventually, a power-sharing deal helped settle things down.
We stopped at a tent refugee camp where small children gaped at us and laughed.
A man named Titus, a Kikuyu, showed me the squalid UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)-supplied tent that he, his wife and four children have shared with another family since last May.
Titus said Kalenjins, some neighbors he had lived alongside peacefully for years, had attacked his home and those of other Kikukus and burned them to the ground. He said bitterly that the Kenyan government kept promising to relocate them to new homes, but that still hasn't happened.
I asked him about Obama. He said he only hoped that Obama, as American president, would somehow persaude the government to find them better housing.
An hour later, we were passing through very different scenery. On both sides of the road lay vast fields of a lush, light green vegetation: tea.
From a distance, the leaf pickers looked like waders in some kind of verdant ocean. Only their heads, chests and arms could be seen as they plucked tea leaves and stuffed them into sacks or baskets.
We stopped to talk to some of the pickers. A man named James explained that they work 14 straight days -- from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. -- then take a break to allow the leaves to re-grow.
James said he would be off and watching the American presidential inauguration next week. He paused from picking tea leaves. He said he never imagined a black person, much less one with ancestral roots in Kenya could be America's president.
"It is a dream come to life," he said, then resumed his labors.
On the road, we found ourselves following a small truck. On the rear window was plastered the image of Barack Obama, this son of a Luo Kenyan who is now a source of enormous pride and hope -- maybe even unreasonable hopes -- for so many Kenyans.