My family gatherings are usually like a United Nations conference,” says politician John Keen.
“One of my sons is married to a Dutch, another to an American and the third one to a Chinese, while my two daughters are married to a Kikuyu and a Mkamba.
My grandchildren are basically ‘tribeless’ since they can only speak English and a bit of Kiswahili,” says Mr Keen.
The peculiarity of the Keen Clan concretises the emergence of de-ethnicised Kenyans — Kenyans who have no particular ethnic affiliation by blood, choice or socialisation. (If the word ‘tribe’ didn’t carry with it the negative connotation of backwardness, the term would have been ‘de-tribalised’).
It is this de-ethnicised demographic that Planning Minister Wycliffe Oparanya did not capture when he released the national census figures, complete with the numerical strengths of Kenya’s 42 ethnic communities, last week.
And that was a costly omission that now calls to question the validity of the census and its accuracy for ignoring a whole demographic, with the attendant implications on planning and the understanding of our social development.
Back to John Keen, his father was of German ancestry, but his psychological affiliation largely lay with his mother’s Maasai community, he says, “because of the oppression they were subjected to by the colonialists”.
He is the proud husband to two women — a Maasai and a Kikuyu — and all his children have married from almost every continent. So, what becomes of his grandchildren? German? Maasai or Kikuyu? Throw in some Chinese blood and you have a new Kenyan tribe whose numbers will astound you.
These days, you don’t have to look very far for this new Kenyan breed. Anne Kirima describes one part of their family as “rainbow”. Her sister, Bishop Kirima, is married to an Englishman (Clifford Foster); a second one, Cindy, to a half Ugandan and Luhya; a third one to a European; and the fourth one, Maria, to a Ghanaian.
Then there’s Alice, who is married to a Cameroonian. Although the patriarch, Gerishon Kirima, is undoubtedly Kikuyu, there is now a way in which that family is no longer Kikuyu. Born in Nairobi 25 years ago, Muna Randa is among a section of Kenyans that were left more confused than convinced by the census figures.
His father is Luhya while his mother is Kikuyu, but Randa speaks none of his parents’ mother tongues. “I feel isolated,” he says of the census report. “This is so unfair because, although culturally the world claims that I am a child of my father, I neither speak nor identify with any of these tribes. They should have had a special category for my kind.”
And Randa is not alone. There are thousands like him across the country who felt overlooked by the census since it did not capture the number of Kenyans born of mixed parentage. “What is the point of counting a population if we are not seeking to find out who are its citizens? Or if we are excluding tribes apparently deemed too small in numbers to matter?” wonders columnist Muthoni Wanyeki, the Kenya Human Rights Commission chairperson.
Wanyeki is of Kenyan-Scottish-Canadian roots, and she says the census should have made provisions for people of mixed marriages instead of lumping them together with their fathers’ ethnicities. Moving away from mixed blood Kenyans, meet a lot that is brought up and socialised in a way that denies it any ethnic affiliations, although the parents come from the same speech community.
Take Peris Karani’s case, for example. Her parents addressed her in Kiswahili and English, never in mother tongue. “While I was schooling in South Africa — where most local students would switch to their mother tongue — I realised my ‘twanged’ English was not as fashionable as I thought,” recalls Peris, who has enrolled for Kikuyu classes at the ACK Language and Orientation School in Milimani, Nairobi.
“Most of the people that come for vernacular lessons here are urban Form Four leavers and working class folks eager to communicate with their rural relatives through a language they were made to despise when they were growing up,” says George Kaguchia, a tutor at the school.
“Some of them come here to challenge their parents, who they claim speak vernacular among themselves but communicate in English or Kiswahili with their children.” Learning a vernacular language takes an average of 60 hours’ direct interaction with the teacher, and costs about Sh18,000.
As for those Kenyans who have inter-married outside the country, how do such families view their roots? Mwende Mwinzi has African and Caucasian blood flowing in her veins. While in Kenya as well as in the US, she chooses friends for their spirit rather than their race or ethnicity.
As a product (and now producer) of a rainbow family, she considers herself Kenyan, having spent her formative years learning English, Kiswahili and vernacular. “I’m culturally Kenyan,” she says. However, Mwende views her roots as one thing and heritage another.
“My roots are my grounding; my identity is Kenyan. Growing up in Ukambani, I lived with my paternal grandparents, who taught me to view myself as a Kamba,” she says. “That notwithstanding, I was always emotionally close to both sets of grandparents, including my maternal (white) grandmother,” she adds.
When she comes to Kenya, she’s mistaken for a foreigner. Writing in the Sunday Nation (August 29, 2010), Mwende recalls an immigration officer asking: “I thought you were one of us,” a remark that made her feel ashamed, guilty and even anxious every time she entered Kenya and “lined up behind tourists and painfully forked out $25 (Sh2,000) to enter my own country.”
She continues: “I’ve hated visiting parks that charge me exorbitant rates because, notwithstanding my assertions, I’ve remained a foreigner in my government’s eyes. Doesn’t my name sound Kenyan?” In her words, she silently feels like screaming while haggling for resident rates in local hotels.
Mwende is married to a Nigerian and her sons, Mezz and Jaden, “describe themselves as Nigerian, but they also gloat about their Kenyan heritage, eat nyama choma with as much relish as fofo and okra soup, and speak more Kiswahili than Igbo. Though their roots are in America, their heritage is central to who they are, and the manner in which they’re being raised.”
And, with dual-citizenship now a reality, what is their “tribe”? The flip-side of socialisation is that it can reinforce ethnic identity in the most unlikely situations — such as the many years spent abroad. “Take a quick glance at who you will find where and you will discover ethnic clustering. Kikuyus in Boston, Kisiis in Jersey City, New Jersey and Luos in New York…. When it comes to the concept of tribe, there is little difference between those in Kenya and the Diaspora,” says Mwende, director of the Twana Twitu Foundation.
She adds: “During the last presidential elections, Kenyans in the Diaspora campaigned and fundraised along ethnic lines, something understandable given our cultural and political orientation. But, to the future generations born abroad, the concept of tribe will, in all likelihood, be foreign.”
And it would appear like the future Minister for Planning will have no choice but to factor Kenya’s Community X in the census. The Inter-Tribal Marriage Association, which, since 2007, has been “advocating national cohesion and integration through inter-tribal marriages in Kenya”, took issue with the census results factoring in ethnic groups yet there are Kenyans from mixed marriages.
“There is a different community in this nation which should be described as ‘other’ or ‘mixed-parental-tribe’,” says Pastor Hodari Wagalla, the Chairman of the association that also aims at helping inter-tribal couples tackle their many challenges while appreciating themselves.
One Kenyan ‘community’ that is bound by language and perceives itself as one cross-cultural extended family is the ‘Sheng Generation’. Sheng was originally a slang language that blended Kiswahili and English, created by the youth of Nairobi’s Eastlands.
Gradually, this language, which incorporates other ethnic Kenyan languages, is being used in complex multi-lingual and multi-cultural settings. Although senior citizens upturn their noses at the “generation that speaks this hybrid language”, the bastardised medium of communication has now become the accepted language of advertising... and that across generations.
Today, ‘Mkopo was Salo,’ ‘Bankika’, ‘Kwachua Milioni’, ‘Bambua Tusker’ and ‘Bamba Fifty’ is the official advertiser’s parlance. The language, contends sportscaster Bernard Otieno, “helps in appreciating ‘positive tribalism’ because incorporates terms from different communities”.
Otieno, who has taught his children English and Kiswahili “and they can learn mother tongue later on their own, the way people learn French or German”, refutes the notion that Sheng can make its speakers lose the concept of the tribe. “Sheng’ does not have a culture. It is borrowed and constantly evolving. What will help Kenyans lose the concept of tribe is a change of attitude. In my family, we identify ourselves with our nationality. “We are Kenyan.”