Don’t Tell Me Who I am

Growing up and living as a Kenyan abroad you get accustomed to people asking the most ridiculous questions about your country of origin. I have on one occasion been asked if I know someone called John, because apparently John was in Kenya. No hang on, John was in Ghana but what does it matter? I must know John. Countless of times someone has asked me if I have bumped into a lion/rhino/elephant. Just recently a non-Nigerian (albeit a rather drunken one) asked me how I came to Kenya from Nigeria. Sometimes these questions irritate me; sometimes they amuse me; other times I am amazed at the sheer stupidity of some people. Yet in all these times I have never felt such anger as I have recently.

In the wake of what can only be described as one of my country’s darkest moments I have found that being a Kenyan abroad has generated a series of deeply troubling questions from non-Kenyans such as:

Oh you are Kenyan? So what tribe are you/What ethnic group do you belong to?

Or

You are from Kenya? So are you Kikuyu or Luo?

On the surface it is easy to view these questions as innocent enquiries from a non-Kenyan who wants to know more about where I am from. Given the manner in which ethnic differences crept into the dispute over the government’s claim to power I know all to well that these questions are anything but innocent.

The first question, in my view is a personal question and should have no place in a discussion between people who barely know each other. Furthermore it rests on the assumption that there is a simple response. For instance, there are many Kenyans who do not belong to one ethnic group or tribe and the question suggests that a single tribe response is the desired answer.

In the case of the second question, it is equally personal but it is more offensive than the first because it reduces my country to a two-tribe nation. It ignores the existence of every other Kenyan who does not fall into either the Kikuyu or Luo ethnic group. It also assumes that one can not fit neatly into both ethnic groups.

That said, what really angers me about both questions is that most people who ask will then use whatever response I give as a basis to project their own limited knowledge of the political and ethnic situation in Kenya.

When I opt to answer these sorts of questions I simply state ‘Kikuyu.’ Each time I have done so my response has been met with statements like:

You must be happy with the result then

or

Ah! It is your man/brother who is in power

even this:

You guys really rigged this election

In single sentence a person has taken my cultural/ethnic identity and formed an opinion about my political allegiance, placed blame upon me for the outcome of the election and worst of all suggested that despite the fact that my country is in turmoil…I am pleased.

The most frustrating part for me is, I am still not sure who/what I should be angry at:

Should I be angry at those individuals who believe that I, who can not speak a word of Kikuyu, would place such importance on my ethnic identity to the extent that I would not only stake my right to vote upon it but forsake my national identity because of it?

Is it fair to direct my anger at the Western media who oftentimes spoke of and wrote about Kenya and Rwanda in one breath/sentence thereby blurring the distinction between a nation disappointed in the outcome of a flawed election and a group of people who value ethnicity more than nationality?

What about those who willingly took part in the destruction of our people, our country, our lives and our homes, maybe I should be angry at them?

Perhaps those who made a mockery of our democratic right to be governed by the leaders we elect, who betrayed the trust we placed in our electoral system…maybe this should be the root of my anger?

I am not content with directing my anger, in equal measure, at all of the above because it is not that simple. I am not content with being angry because it is not productive.

I will have to work something out because when people who can not find Kenya on a map, who do not know the difference and distance between Ghana and Kenya, who can’t accept that we too can fly from our country to over 40 destinations worldwide on Kenya Airways…. when these people start telling me about my ethnic identity and what it means…I get really angry…

Comments

  1. The issue is worse when such questions come from Kenyans.

    I was in London in February and I bumped into this lady who I could tell was Kenyan immediately I saw them. She could not tell where I was from and once I told her, the next question was what tribe I was. I asked her why that mattered and she went all to tell me that these days it is important to know once tribe so that you are careful on what you say to them.

    Great post

  2. mama junkyard…you’s blogging again!!! wooohoooo how are ya and are you back here ama?

  3. Kui, even I am more Gikuyu than you.

  4. What you are describing is a typical exchange between people from trans-continental nations. Any serious traveler has heard it a thousand times. Everyone generalizes and everyone uses the information they gather from the mainstream media to make their assumptions about others’ nations. Im sure this happened before the recent electoral strife, but you have begun to feel anger because the questions have become based around what you feel is a shameful period in your country’s history.

  5. I am more disturbed about your response to the questions, many people from different parts of the world are sometimes fascinated with the various customs and cultue, do not be offensive at their remarks, but rather embrace them and teach them, its then that you are looked upon as the better person. I will be traveling to Kenya in the near future, and it is my hope that I will not offend anyone if I ask the question about their culture. Be the young kenyan that you are to be, be proud, intelligent and graceful.

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  1. [...] "You are from Kenya? So are you Kikuyu or Luo?" ~ Wangui [...]

  2. [...] "You are from Kenya? So are you Kikuyu or Luo?" ~ Wangui Blogs of women from Africa. That is all. posted by hadjiboy (17 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite Why must all of your posts be awesome, hadjiboy? People better not shit up this thread like they did the other one recently. posted by allkindsoftime at 6:34 AM on April 17 Yeah, this is seriuos. posted by smackfu at 6:39 AM on April 17 Kikuyu walk like THIS but Luo walk like THIS posted by DU at 6:46 AM on April 17 Bravo. posted by Stonestock Relentless at 6:47 AM on April 17 That first piece is especially excellent. posted by The Straightener at 6:50 AM on April 17 Fascinating and eye-opening, thank you. posted by owhydididoit at 6:51 AM on April 17 Amazing post. Thank you, hadjiboy. posted by sveskemus at 7:03 AM on April 17 This is the best of the web. It brings things to me that I had no idea existed. Thank you. posted by fleetmouse at 7:09 AM on April 17 It brings things to me that I had no idea existed.That’s not necessarily a good thing. In this case, however… posted by No Mutant Enemy at 7:18 AM on April 17 I just picked one blog at random (Kui/Wangui’s Mama Junk Yard) and started jumping around posts and every single one of them is great – especially where she discusses local dialects. I just wish she posted more. Thanks hadjiboy for turning me onto something I never would have found (or even thought I needed to find) on my own. posted by Slack-a-gogo at 7:44 AM on April 17 Thanks for the post, hadjiboy. The first blog is simply enraging. Here’s another post from that same blog: But you cannot be abused without participating in it yourself, mainly by finding reasons to acquiesce. This is important. In the first post, her father asks if there is any reason he shouldn’t beat her. But she doesn’t think to answer "Because it will hurt" or "Because I don’t like it". 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When abusive parents want to control their kids into adulthood, they realize the need to stop the beatings at some point or else they scare the kids off. And you can’t abuse them if they’re gone. There are AskMe questions on this site about people who hit their kids and feel some ambivalence, or from people who know relatives are abusing their kids, etc. But the question is always, without exception, framed with from the viewpoint of the abuser, and with a concern for their reaction. The abused is an afterthought. The question "Can you think of any reason why I shouldn’t beat you?" is fundamentally sadistic. I’m going to beat you and it’s your obligation to submit to it, I kind of enjoy it and it’s my right, but I’m not unreasonable. But the victim has to submit to the frame. The victim has to be a masochist. You get to ask the question, and I have to answer, because being abused is familiar and safe. Doing something else is uncertain. And when you grow up having the people you love beat the shit out of you, the only thing left to cling to is familiarity and certainty. Predictability offers an illusion of control to the powerless. But there is really only one answer to the question "Can you think of any reason why I shouldn’t beat you?" "Because I’ll beat you back." posted by Pastabagel at 7:46 AM on April 17 [9 favorites] And the physical abuse was going to stop anyway in favor of psychological abuse. When abusive parents want to control their kids into adulthood, they realize the need to stop the beatings at some point or else they scare the kids off. And you can’t abuse them if they’re gone. My mom got really really icky nice once she realized she couldn’t beat us anymore. And when that didn’t work…she would call with a disaster….and when that didn’t work anymore…. posted by The Light Fantastic at 7:59 AM on April 17 Mama Wangari’s writing excavates some of the most complex mires of both women and a particular culture so deeply I feel that the air she is exposing them to might actually heal. All of these blogs arrest with their voice–they give me hope for blogs and the way this medium might evolve (so many seem to be sharing a writing voice I find really irritating lately). I’m truly inspired, and look forward to sharing these with friends and colleagues. This is one of those FPPs that compel me to pay my 5 bucks all over again. Thank you so much, hadjiboy. posted by rumposinc at 8:07 AM on April 17 Thank you hadjiboy. A wonderful post. posted by gaspode at 8:09 AM on April 17 You done good, boy. I’m going to bookmark this for a later read. posted by Stewriffic at 8:16 AM on April 17 My god, these are amazing. Thank you, hadjiboy, for another phenomenal post. posted by rtha at 8:17 AM on April 17 This is awesome, hadjiboy. I have my entire afternoon planned out now, thank you. posted by headspace at 8:36 AM on April 17 [...]