One day you will speak Kikuyu to me and I will stare at you like a goat would watch soccer. You have seen me in that situation before perhaps. Then you will engage me in Luhya, my other part, and I will stare at your mouth and marvel at your assumptions. I have never mastered the courage to learn my native languages. I am a spawn of two ethnically different people who cut their cuffs of matrimony long time back. Much as I wished for an innocent existence, the world around me was stirring with suspicions. And I knew from that early beginning that there was something constantly wrong with our ‘tongues’.
It must have been at the heart of the 1992 first multiparty election campaigns. That was when I first noticed something sinister with the general orderliness of things. I was merely six then. But I could see the distaste in the faces of ‘my people’ as they regarded the ‘other people’ on the other side across the road. The hushed tones that held the night skies, making the night air thick with tension that you could feel a sword cut through its density. The night reverberated with fear. And our fathers locked us in and took the night with arrows and machetes in preparation for the worst that might come.
For the first time I learnt that the neighbors across the road whom we used to buy milk on lean seasons when our cows’ udders had dried up were Kalenjins. And kalenjins were bad people.
In those small hours of my tribal awareness, I learnt who to be wary of, who not to greet on the road and which homes not to visit.
We were living in the fringes of Western Kenya that bordered the Rift valley, several miles from a small rusty town of Turbo. Though this region was overly cosmopolitan, teaming with major Kenyan tribes, the divide was hugely between the Kalenjin and the Kikuyu.
Animosity between these two tribes was rife then.
Bitter, senseless politics.
There were two political camps then just like it has always been in this country. The genesis of this animosity bedded its roots firmly in this period. And such ethnic intolerance would continue to permeate our political fabric with every subsequent election in the following years. I don’t intend to bore you with this morbid history, much of which you know anyway. But hold on, I am getting at something here.
‘My People’ were solid behind the then fiery Kenneth Matiba- a Kikuyu- who by all indications was going to sweep the elections. I was too young to understand this. But in my mind the Kalenjins or Moi people (as it had been subconsciously passed to me) were a hindrance to this and they should be met with fire.
The Kalenjins and a great deal of other smaller tribes supported the incumbent Moi. The Luos, who by that time were almost aliens in my circles, were behind Jaramogi Oginga. I had not interacted with any Luo at the time.
At a very small age we were flung at the centre of this disaster that has been eating at our society. It rubbed on us and became part of our order. To some of the kids this inherited resentment grew in them, with them- without a clear understanding. It was merely what you learnt from your folks, without question it grew.
We had a nickname for the Kalenjins then. We called them ‘Wakurdi’ which I came to understand later as the ‘Kurdish’. In the minds of our folks the Kalenjins were likened to the Kurdish; a hostile ethnic tribe in the Northern Iraq which formed allies with Iran in the late 1980s and wedged guerilla warfare against Sadam Hussein government. The Kurds were seen as a strategic vulnerability to Sadam Hussein regime. A brutal counterinsurgency was wedged against the Kurds and most of them were killed in the genocide of Iraq in 1988.
That is how the Kalenjins were viewed by ‘my people’ then. A threat, an enemy that should be crashed. The Kalenjins could not view the Kikuyu any differently. To them, or any other man for that matter that opposed the reelection of president Moi, was a disturbance to the natural order and should be eliminated.
During the day we had fun watching our folks practice shooting arrows, with trees as their targets. We made ourselves useful by collecting the arrows. We learnt to make arrows from six inch iron nails and practice aiming in the field.
Life had sunk to such Stone Age savagery. My dad, a banker, then a teacher and finally a farmer with his equally educated brothers were learning these skills like their lives depended on them. I think when it comes to basic survival man is reduced to his primal instinctive animal. Civilization then seems like a coat that can easily be worn and discarded whenever situation demands.
Interestingly the Kalenjins were notoriously infamous in the art of bow and arrow combat. I cant call it archery. It was rumored that a Kalenjin’s arrow could seek an enemy from a crowd and land right on his head from miles away. There were myths around such tales that subjected wide panic. Little wonder why our folk practiced day and night throwing arrows, and as kids we observed this with great apprenticeship. I still remember how my older brother, Joseph, accidentally chipped off part of a cousin’s skull with a rogue arrow and how the cousin bled and we all ran home screaming. Kungu still has that scar at the back of his head. I doubt if he remembers its genesis.
As the day of elections neared, both nights and days became hours of unending terror. Blood smelled from every corner and we fled to Kitale, the foster land of my mother, where there was relative peace. But still here, men patrolled the nights with arrows and machetes, staying vigilant.
We were living in a small town which is at the foot of Mt. Elgon. On a clear morning you could see the jagged peaks of Mount Elgon kissing the low hanging clouds. The Mountain lies in the West and on late evenings you could see the sun falling behind its back. This volcanic mountain and its sprawling valleys offered the civilization here abundance of land for farming and stretches of green pasture land for pastoralists. And where there is land for tilling anywhere a kikuyu man will find that land. But naturally Mt. Elgon is inhabited by the Sabaot (a major sub tribe of the Kalenjin) on either side of Kenya and Uganda. Luhya also are found here in great numbers.
Cosmopolitan areas in Kenya are fertile grounds for ethnic cleansing.
During the nights the mountain was thrown into huge balls of fireworks and screams as the tribes outwitted each other in the game of arsonry. It was horror. We escaped the warm houses, too scared to sleep, and scampered down the river to hide lest the savages descended the mountain to extend the fun.
Elections came and Moi was declared the winner. It was all controversial anyway.
I had tasted the bitter pill of tribalism.
A year came and passed. My folks could not tolerate each other and they called it quits eventually (nothing tribal here) we moved with mum to their home in Kitale.
My mum’s folk were living in a big village with more than two thirds the population represented by Luhyas and the other third scattered with few other tribes. Interestingly my siblings and I were the only kids around with kikuyu blood. There was also an old folk called Mutukula who was Meru. That name could have been a nickname of sorts for all I know. He was old and senile and hovered around with over sized weather beaten coats like a lost ghost. But he was the nearest of the GEMA ‘relation’ that we knew of.
The daunting started and never ended. Tribal stereotypes didn’t start yesterday. It was very much alive when we were growing up in the ‘90s. The constant jarring ethnic jokes got under my skin. ‘Kukuyus’ are thieves, oh, your kukuyu father stole from a bank, oh kukuyus blah blah. I instinctively felt there was something devastatingly wrong with the name ‘Kikuyu’ that I resorted to using my maternal grandpa’s name, which I would later come to abandon for reasons you will know shortly. The name stuck for a while in school, and this shielded me temporarily from brazen tribal jeers and stereotype attacks from my peers.
I detested the Kikuyu side of me while in my mother’s people. I constantly fought those who tried to associate me with that ‘damned’ tribe because according to them there was nothing cool about these people. Thankfully I have a wide nose and bold features that geniuses long associated with the Luhya folk. This helped me a great deal in stamping my Luhya identity.
I furiously tried to learn how to speak Luhya, eat like a Luhya, hunt like a Luhya, and eat ‘chiswa’ and ‘machichi’ -very crunchy and sweet insects btw!)
That is how my childhood in my Luhya relatives turned out to be- Constantly fighting and adapting according to the holy book of stereotyping. The situation reversed when I went back to live with my Kikuyu father and his people.
My new name, which was my pride and security among my Luhya kinsmen turned out to be another source of embarrassment before Kikuyu friends in my fatherland. The name was slightly corrupted to a Kikuyu name which have an almost similar sounding and which actually meant ‘he of a big belly!)
Growing up I was naturally a short plump boy with a slightly prouder belly than my peers, especially after I have had a serious meal. So you can amuse yourself at the aptness of such a nickname to its rounder character. Even funnier to remember is that it was my paternal grandma who in her unwavering wisdom had associated the two names and relished its meaning upon my eager cousins.
To avoid extending the fun to school I quickly changed my names again, for the school I was to join had many many Kikuyus. This time I took two Kikuyu names (that I still used to date) for avoidance of any doubt. And so life moved on in that fashion. I spent a great deal of my life in primary school switching schools between my mum’s place and my dad’s and on each occasion I switched names as situation dictated.
I ended up growing up totally detached from me, who I really was and what I really wanted. Maybe I lacked someone to teach me what really matters around here, which is- you are not your tribe, but rather what you make out of the person in you. That person is who I am subtly trying to persuade to come out in all this confusion.
Years have rolled by, nothing has changed. Absolutely nothing for sure. And this is why. Tribal bigotry has only worsened. Tribes have merged and formed political blocks, elections have come and the tribes have slaughtered each other still.
You know the history.
I have avoided embracing any popular political ideology, instead I tend to lean towards the ‘Liberals’ if at all we have such in this country. I neither speak Kikuyu nor Luhya and I really never wish to learn. For what purpose? What is your tribe if it is the major source of crisis? Many will argue that you must know your roots, your history. That you must know where you are coming from to know where you are heading. Good for them. Should we all live by specified doctrines? Well, as a liberal mind, I choose what I think is relevant and important to me. And tribe is nowhere in the list among the top a hundred. Well, unless it pops up in a literal discourse.
We are at the age where intermarriages between tribes is happening all over. I think its a great thing. I think it is a solution to some of our deepest problems. There is little to celebrate about our ethnic diversities if in the first place we can not see it. What we see is what our politicians from our tribes make us see.
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