Celebrating East African Writing!
When I said I was going to raise my children not to be tribalists, all my family members supported me, as did my in-laws. They all said it was a noble cause. And how was I going to do it? Simple. My children were not going to have a tribe.
“That’s nonsense. Everyone has a tribe.” said my sister-in-law, good-naturedly (I think).
“Well, she might have a point. Her children will be from a mixed marriage,” one of my cousins defended me.
“Yes, but children belong to their father’s tribe.” Put in my sister.
“Not in all cultures. Some are matrilineal. It means you take your identity from your mother, for those of you who are a bit intellectually challenged.” Trust my brother-in-law.
“So how’re you going to do it?” they finally asked, after a good half-hour of arguing about tribes.
“Easy. The function of tribe is to give us an identity. So, I’ll just have to replace tribe with something else which will give my children an identity. I will replace it with nationality.”
“So our children won’t be tribalists, they’ll be nationalists instead. Their language will be Kiswahili, being our national language. Their culture and history will be Kenyan culture and history,” my husband explained. I have indoctrinated him.
Of course they did not agree with me. They said one cannot run away from tribe – it’s everywhere: at work, at school, in the streets, on the radio, on the television. Besides, it is a good thing. It helps ensure we have cultural diversity. It brings people together and gives them an identity.
Everyone, that is, except for my brother-in-law, who said, “Your idea is crazy enough to work. It won’t be easy though.”
No, it hasn’t been easy. My first challenge came as I was expectant. Now, everyone knows children can hear when they are in the womb. My family members pretended they did not know this. They insisted on talking in mother tongue right in front of me. I reminded them that my child was not to hear or see any tribal-related words, artifacts, customs, and especially not language!
They looked at me as though I was a little mad, but they kept quite. I left them exchanging looks and muttering “Pregnant women!”
Hurdle number two came as soon as my baby was born. What name would she get? “It cannot have any tribal connotations,” they reminded me. “And do not forget about her surname, what will you do about that?”
I reminded them that one could have a name that was neutral as far as tribe was concerned. I could get my child’s name from another country, or name her after a friend, a teacher, a famous person, even a phenomenon.
“Yes. Name her after El Niño rains, or after the World Cup. Or give her one of our rugby players’ names. Those are famous people – but no, and then it’d still be tribal.” I ignored them, and finally came up with a beautiful name – Pendo.
“Love? Not bad. Well, how about a surname now? If she takes her father’s surname, it would still be tribal. Give her another name. Are you also going to make it a Swahili word?” As she had been born during the season of the short rains, my husband gave her the name Vuli, also Swahili.
Well, the grandparents did not take it as well as I had hoped. They both insisted that the girl get traditional names. I insisted for a while, but old people tend to be stubborn, so I gave up. However, no one was allowed to use those names to call my daughter (excepting the above-mentioned stubborn grandparents). She remained Pendo or Vuli. (Some people actually merge the two names and call her Pendovuli, then ask what her surname is.)
For the next two years it was more or less smooth sailing, except when we went to visit Pendo’s grandparents. They would insist on using her traditional names, and speak to her in their respective mother tongues. They insisted she attend traditional ceremonies, and sing and dance accordingly. I was at a loss. How was my daughter going to grow up like that? She was not supposed to have a tribe!
My husband, sensing my frustration, tried to comfort me: “Don’t worry; she’s too young to understand.” But that was exactly my fear. It was this tender age that was most important. As long as Pendo had a strong sense of identity in being a Kenyan, and not a member of some tribe, she would be able to safely navigate the tribalised word and come out almost unscathed. But now she was still too young to confront this tribal entity.
I finally came up with a solution: Pendo would not be taken to visit her grandparents in the village. If they wanted to see her, they could see her when they came to the city. I know it was a little harsh, but one has to be firm.
I would usually leave her with the maid when I went to work. However, as soon as she had started talking, I noticed that she spoke some words that were neither English nor Kiswahili. At first I ignored it, thinking it was some kind of baby talk. Then she started singing in a strange language. I got suspicious. Where could she have gotten it from? Finally, I called the maid.
“Yes, it’s one of the songs we sing back home when we are harvesting. Pendo has learnt it so fast; she can even dance to it. Wait, let me show you. Pendo! Come! Dance for mama!” I stopped her that minute, and tried to explain that I wanted Pendo to only speak English and Kiswahili. I wanted her to know she was a Kenyan first.
That was the only way to stop tribalism, to stop people discriminating against each other, hurting each other, just because of tribe. Did she understand? She nodded, saying, that’s a good idea. It’s true we need to stop tribalism, which is a really bad thing. Do you know just the other day one of her cousins was denied a job just because his tribe was not liked? And even in marriage: why, at some point she had wanted to get married to this really nice man. But her family refused, saying he was from the wrong tribe. That’s why she was still unmarried at thirty-something. But maybe it was a blessing in disguise. Did I know she had heard inter-marriages could never really work out? That…She suddenly stopped. She had remembered I was also married to someone from a different tribe. Before she could start again, I took off on some made-up errand.
When it was time for Pendo to go to nursery school, I made sure I chose a school that would not mention the word ‘tribe’ to the kids. I believe I made a relatively good choice, at least for some time (three years). Unfortunately, their pre-unit teacher had done his degree in anthropology, and was insistent that the children know their cultural heritage. So, on the first day of Pendo’s pre-unit class, they were told to find out a little about their culture. They were to have a ‘Culture Day’ at the end of the term.
You can imagine my shock when, as soon as I get home, the first thing Pendo asks me is “Mummy, what tribe am I?” I stood speechless at the door. Who had told her about tribe?
When I finally found out what the teacher had sent them to find out, and what she planned on doing, I decided I would get back at him. So I told Pendo that she should say her tribe was Kenya. For her homework questions, I made her answer that she was Kenyan, her family came from Kenya and her mother tongue was Kiswahili. However, I was unsure of what to tell Pendo to write as her ‘traditional food’. When I asked her father, he replied, “Traditional Kenyan food? Pendo, write nyama choma. I mean, most Kenyans eat roast meat.”
“My friend doesn’t. She says she’s a vegetableran” Vegetarian, I suppose.
Well the next day, the teacher wrote to us in Pendo’s diary, “I need the children to identify their specific tribes. If you are not sure about yours, I suggest you find out from your parents or older relatives. If that doesn’t work, I’ll be glad to help. We learned about it at college.” The nerve of him! If he’s an anthropologist, why is he teaching children? He should leave teaching to those sweet people who can be natural teachers.
The next day, I went to see this anthropologist-cum-nursery school teacher. I explained as clearly as I could what I was trying to do with Pendo, and all my other children. (Pendo would soon have another sibling.) I explained how I was using nationality to replace tribal identity. And I made sure he did not put in a word edgewise until I was done.
“Well, since you are Pendo’s parent, I must respect your decision. However, I am warning you that what you’re trying is impossible. Tribe is everywhere. She will find it wherever she goes. And Kenyans will not stop being tribal anytime soon. Cultures just take too long to change. Besides, why deny Pendo the beauty of belonging to a tribe, rich in cultural heritage? It is something to be proud of.”
“Maybe, but that is what leads to tribalism. You see the bad effects every single day in the news, on the streets, at workplaces…”
“Well, I don’t know. Tribes do not immediately lead to tribalism. Besides, a little tribalism is normal human behaviour. We need to put people into categories so that we can simplify our interactions with them. I can see you don’t understand. Let me explain. For instance, it helps knowing people from your tribe are generally stubborn (just as an example, don’t take offense). So when one meets with them, because most will have some element of stubborness, one won’t be surprised or argue with them too much.” I was too shocked to answer. However, he had malice neither in his voice nor face, so to be fair, he had not meant to insult me.
He continued, “There has to be a lack of something in the society to lead to violent tribalism. Maybe basic resources, security, or good governance. Violence is not synonymous with tribalism.
“At the same time, I understand where you are coming from – it’s a common mistake: saying that one thing causes another just because they are present at the same time. This is not normally true, and you need to avoid drawing causal relationships where there might be at best, a correlation, or, at worst, a coincidence. Furthermore, with all due respect, I still feel you are running away from facing the whole tribal issue. Maybe you have issues from your childhood: identity or self-esteem.”
Well, now, apart from being an anthropologist, he’s a psychoanalyst, too? I tried to stay cool, calm and composed. He’s still quite young and idealistic, so I have to humour him. I quietly take my leave, but not before he has arranged me to meet with one of his professors. (She has two doctorates. Can you believe it?) I only agree because I remembered her from primary school, though the said professor had been about 3 years older than anyone in class.
By this time, however, I have already made up my mind: Pendo is moving to a school that follows the IB system (or any other international system that does not mention the word tribe in their syllabus, if such a system exists), where they (hopefully) will not ask her about her tribe, and where tribe will not be an important topic. I move her the following week.
My husband accompanied me to see the professor, for moral support. She was very nice and understanding (unlike a certain student of hers whose name I will not mention), and even remembered some of our school days. She was working on her third doctoral dissertation. I was impressed – this from the same girl whom the teachers had given up on when we were in school. Who always held first position from the bottom of the class! So teachers can be wrong. (Again I have in mind a certain former teacher of my daughter’s, whose name I do not want to mention.)
We had a very productive talk over a cup of tea in one of those numerous coffee houses all over town. She even understood my point of view, and wished us luck. I was also able to understand her perspective – she aims to preserve the different cultures that human beings belong to, because she believes it is an important part of heritage.
Not that I have changed my mind. My children are still Kenyans first, and they speak Kiswahili and English still. They still use their unique names. (I named my son Utu, loosely translated to humanity – in its adjectival sense.)
Oh, I was told to stop saying tribe – it is too demeaning: ethnic community or culture is what I use nowadays instead of tribe. And I don’t worry so much about my children finding out about different cultures. I just make sure they know their culture is Kenyan. (I still haven’t told them what tribes they’re from yet. I’ll do it when they’re 18, though my husband wants me to push it to 13 instead. We’ll see.)
Finally, some good news: my friend’s son agrees with me entirely. He suggested we start a group on Facebook: My Child’s culture is Kenyan. At first we were the only two members, but recently, a middle-aged lady joined our group. She tells us she’s also been raising her children to be Kenyan first, and now her last born is in University abroad. The rest of her children either work in Kenya or around Africa in organizations that help promote peace. Well, so it can be done. (Ha! – directed at the anthropologist-cum-nursery school teacher, whom I have since forgiven.)
©Twahira Abdallah 2010
If you would like this piece to be the Story of the Week, please vote below on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being weak, and 10 being excellent. The numbers will be tallied on Friday and the story with the highest figure shall be Crowned Story of the Week. Be sure to fill in your name and verifiable email. You can include your critique/comment after the vote.