I am 26 years old. A not so old person recently referred to me as a baby. I only mention this because it made me smile. I mention my age however because, well, it is relevant to this post. In all my 26 years, I have spent no more than 3 consecutive years in Kenya. If holidays and other short term trips are included I would say the total time spent in Kenya is about 4 and half years. That means 22 out 26 years have been spent either in the country of my birth, the USA or in the UK.
Having spent so long in England I have become accustomed to racism. I don’t mean this in a general “all whites hate us black folk” way. I am talking about real racism. The kind that sees you waking everyday to the words “Fuck off Paki” spray painted on your front door by the National Front. The same racism that sees the white children calling the only two black girls in the entire Infants School names such as “poo-poo face”. This is the sort of racism that I grew up with. There was so much more, but that is not really important.
What is important, to me at least, is the fact that my parents were strong enough to raise me into the person I am. I know their strength stems from the fact they knew where they were from. They were and still are rooted in their Kenyan identity. By default this identity was passed on to me.
As the years have gone by I have learnt to deal with the racism I face. All through this battle of “black” vs. “white” there was one form of identity based discrimination I never ever thought I would experience. I had not been prepared for this.
By ‘this’ I mean the behaviour of some Kenyans who seek to question and strip me of my right to call myself a Kenyan. I could blog on countless examples but I shall stick to two, or maybe three.
I remember being in Kenya when I was about 15-16. I had a boyfriend, I went clubbing and I wore miniskirts. All this was done with my mother’s knowledge and consent. In between the “oh your mum is so cool” statements made by my ‘friends’ were sayings such as “well proper Kenyan parents would not raise their Kenyan children like that!”
What these people never knew was that my mother raised me the way she was raised by her mother, who is 100% Kenyan. My mother and her sisters were allowed to go clubbing. Boyfriends were allowed so long as they came to the house first and met the parents. Clothes were not censored either. Instead emphasis was placed on how you carried yourself in the clothes you wore.
While the assumption that I am of ill-breeding would annoy me it seems to have been a temporary phase. The form of discrimination I seem to face now annoys me even more.
I usually come across this if I am engaged in a discussion on matters that relate to Kenya/Africa. If I happen to say something that a person disagrees with, most will try and debate the issues. One or two however will remind me that I am not Kenyan/African enough and therefore can not speak about such issues.
This angers me on two levels. Firstly it questions my authenticity/Kenyaness and secondly it attempts to take away my right to air my views.
The other thing that appears to give people the courage to challenge my Kenyan identity is the fact that I am officially sleeping with the enemy but I have already blogged about that.
For a long time I sought to defend/justify my Kenyan identity. Quite often I would be tempted to remind the Kenyans called Francis, Alice or Jane that since both my names are 100% Kenyan I could be more Kenyan than they claim to be. I soon discovered this was not the best way. Why should I have to resort to stripping down someone else’s identity so as to re-assert mine? Instead I decided to focus on what exactly gave a person the right to call themselves Kenyan.
This curiosity played a big part in my decision to include that final question in the Kenyan Blog Meme; ‘I am Kenyan because…’ Nearly all the answers were identical. People just knew they were Kenyan; it was a feeling, not something that could be defined.
At the time I did not have an answer either. I joked that it was because I had no choice. Now, I realise I did have a choice. I could rightfully and legally call myself either English or American. I have chosen to recognise the aspect of that is Kenyan. Not at the expense of my Englishness or Americaness. I am as much Kenyan as I am English.
What makes the Kenyan aspect of me stand out is because I had to work at being Kenyan without even understanding what it meant to be Kenyan. While I was growing up, I couldn’t just step outside and get hit by a does of Kenyan culture. I had to make a conscious effort to learn as much Kiswahili as I could find. I had to actively seek Kenyan friends. Read up on Kenyan history. I am sure there are many things that make a person Kenyan but that’s not my point.
My point is simple. I have given up on clinging on those outward signifiers that are supposed to symbolise my Kenyaness. I have decided to be honest with myself. I am wasting no more time on checking my accent to see if it sounds too English. Forget trying to cram strange slang (sheng) words that I am never going to use. If I ever do decide to learn Kikuyu it shall be because I want to and not so that I can fit in. I will continue to air my views on whatever I choose. I shall no longer be silenced because I am not Kenyan enough. Phrases such as “Wow you are more Kenyan than I thought” shall cease to be considered a compliment.
If the rest of Kenya can base their Kenyaness on a gut feeling, than that too shall be my basis.
I am what I am because I have chosen to be what I am.