Stop the tribal tagging, we are simply Kenyan
Posted Monday, September 6 2010 at 10:57
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.