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?


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


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…


  1. says

    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. Matthew says

    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.

  3. Roz says

    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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