Interesting editorial on fluidity of ethnic identity (New York Times)
- February 12, 2008
Kenya's War of Words
By SIMIYU BARASA
WHEN you find yourself at a wedding discussing how more than 800 people
have been killed and more than 250,000 kicked out of their homes for
having certain ethnic origins, you know there is something terribly
wrong with your country. Living in Nairobi the past few months has been
like living in a relatively comfortable glass cave in the middle of
What began in late December as protests against election irregularities
has spiraled into killings based on which tribe your identity card and
speech indicate you belong to. English and Swahili, the languages that
were supposed to unite us, have now been rendered useless. In these
times, when belonging or not belonging to a particular tribe can be the
difference between not being dead or being seriously dead, what chance
does a person like me have? I was born to a Luhya father and a Taita
mother, but I speak the Kikuyu language of Kiambu, where I was raised.
The politicians no longer have the ability to stop the violence, despite
their posturing that they could do so at the snap of their fingers. We
see Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations,
posing with the rival contenders, President Mwai Kibaki and Raila
Odinga, in photo sessions where the two antagonists shake hands and
smile and call for peace. But the political rhetoric seems a joke; we
know that revenge and counter-revenge are what the various ethnic groups
really seek - to "do to what they did to our tribe mates."
Daily life is a constant kaleidoscope of languages for those of us who
are of mixed ethnic heritage. We must gauge what sort of street or
village we are in and, like a chameleon, speak the "correct" tongue.
My sister Rozi, a health worker, was recently taking a patient to a
hospital in western Kenya when their ambulance was forced to stop by
youths who demanded to know what tribe she came from. The youths were
hunting members of Mr. Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe. When they saw that her ID
card showed a mixed Taita-Luhya name, they asked her to speak in Luhya
to prove she wasn't a Kikuyu.
"I really can't speak it because my mother is a Taita!" she pleaded,
explaining that our father had never taught us his language. In
desperation, staring at the freshly chopped corpses around her, she
showed them a photocopy of my mother's national identity card, which she
had had the foresight to put in her purse. This apparently convinced
them, and she was let go.
Never before has it been important in our family to know which tribe we
should belong to. My sisters and brothers have names from both of our
parents' communities. I know no tribe. I know only languages.
Supposedly cosmopolitan Nairobi has now been Balkanized, with whole
neighborhoods turned into exclusive reserves of certain tribes. Some
have imported murderous thugs from rural areas to protect their own -
the Mungiki street gang for the Kikuyus; the Chingororo for the Gusii
tribe; and groups taking the names Baghdad Boys and Taliban for the Luo
Where can those of us of mixed heritage, who do not know their tribes'
war cries, find refuge? My Luhya name is problematic in itself: The
Kikuyus, who support Mr. Kibaki, are hunting Luhyas, whom they claim
voted for Mr. Odinga, a Luo. And the Luos are hunting Luhyas as well,
claiming they voted for President Kibaki. Such is my fate for having a
father belonging to a tribe that apparently voted 50-50!
Virtually all the major police stations and church compounds in Central,
Rift Valley, Western, Nyanza and Nairobi Provinces have been turned into
camps for internal refugees. These people's laments are all the same: We
were born here; we don't even know any relatives in our so-called
ancestral lands; we are Kenyans, not people of whatever tribe you want
to pin on us. Yet the government now says that it will relocate them to
their ancestral homes. For many, this means ethnic cleansing and death.
Many of my friends have now resorted to taking crash courses in the
dialects of the tribes indicated on their identity cards, "just in case
it comes in handy." We sit in groups and laugh morbidly at the e-mail
messages from our former classmates who are now abroad asking us if we
are safe. After we graduated from high school, many of our friends faked
bank-account statements to get student visas and fled to the United
States, to wash toilets between university courses. Not me: I proudly
swore to them that I was sticking here because I am an Africanist, a
believer in the African dream. Now my faith in my countrymen has faded
faster than the newness of the New Year.
In this climate, inter-tribal marriages have become so rare that they
are the subject of TV news reports. This is greatly upsetting to those
of us who - thinking about our parents marrying all those years ago -
never felt that living a life outside your clan was a significant
matter. We love Kenya, without thinking of our neighbors' lineage. It is
from us that Kenya will rise afresh.
Simiyu Barasa is filmmaker and writer.
Ann Popplestone AAB, BA, MA
CCC Metro TLC
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