Kenya: Why Are We So Inclined to Tribe?

A woman always dreams of finding the perfect man. I found mine and I am not being a dumb Cinderella-esque teenager about this. I am a 29-year-old woman who knows when the jackpot has been hit. The numbers have been called and this is my best bet yet. He is the one.

I love him, I approve of him. He fits the bill. My very wise and surprisingly proper friends think highly of him and are happy for me. But my family is giving me a difficult time about the hard time they are having with accepting my boyfriend. Tough for me because that puts me in double jeopardy because I am having an equally hard time trying to understand what their problem is. I am confounded, really.

They do not dislike him because he is a good man who loves and respects me and sometimes goes out of his human strength and wits to make me happy. They do not dislike him because he has a well paying job, lives in his own place and never lets me pay for anything. They do not dislike him because he comes from a family of respectable and honest people. They do not dislike him because he has never disrespected me, hit me or embarrassed me in public. Neither do they dislike him because he is always holding my hand and letting me cry on his shoulder when things are tough.

That would not make sense but it may have been better than their reason for opposing our relationship. Yes, he is that kind and loving man but they do not dislike him for that. Neither do they dislike him because they know a deep dark secret about him that I know nothing about.

They dislike him because he is Kikuyu and I am Luhya.

Now, that does not make any sense to me.

Mine is a family full of women, binders of them actually, and what they think of who I date really matters. The first person I told about my boyfriend was one of my sisters. She seemed excited until I told her his name and the first thing she told me was, “Quit that. Those people don’t love people from any other tribe.”

This coming from a person who speaks Kikuyu fluently despite being Luhya, really messed me up. Ever since she was a child, my sister’s closest friends were Kikuyu, they were so close that she picked their language, ate their food, asked for their help and slept over at their houses. For the longest time, all her closest friends were from that tribe but when she relocated from Nairobi to a town in Western Kenya, things changed.

I had wanted to tell my mother that I am dating someone and I wanted to do it in my own way because I am the last born and my mother is, understandably, very possessive. But my sister beat me to it almost immediately I told her the news and all hell broke loose.

From that day, some very ridiculous things have happened. A lot of unnecessary drama because I am dating a man from a tribe that my family thinks is made up purely of thieves and murderers. It went as far as them suggesting that I date someone that my sister tried to date – a man who has never had a girlfriend and could by all means be as gay as a gay man can get. Why? Because he is from the right tribe.

I have been told that my Kikuyu man will kill me, misuse me and treat me very badly. I have also been asked why it had to be a Kikuyu and not a Luhya or a Luo. Till today I have no answer for that because I do not think that matters of the heart are controlled by tribal inclination. I think they are controlled by inherent personal needs that vary from person to person. It could be money, genuine love or even a shared chronic illness but it should never be a deliberate bigoted, tribal or racist reason.

The unfortunate collective closed mind of my family has made them go as far as threatening to call the police and telling me that they know someone who can “fix” my boyfriend, making me wonder if I am Mafia progeny. Which would be cool, but it turns out I am not, so why the extreme plans for my man’s kneecaps?

I have tried to reason with them. What if I was dating a Luhya man who is abusive and broke, will they be happy?

No comment from my family.

We had a Luhya neighbour who was married to a man from the same tribe who used to beat her up and down the stairs, break her nose and when she came to our house to seek refuge, he would bang at our door, baying for her blood. One time she accused him of poisoning her after she was admitted to a hospital for food poisoning. But even after all that madness, she went back to him and got hit over and over again. I do not know why she stayed, maybe it was for her kids or because he is a “nice” man from her tribe. She knows best. My point is a man can be bad if he decides to be bad. His tribe does not make his transgressions better or more acceptable than those of another man.

No comment from my family on that either.

I went straight to common sense and asked them why they do not trust my judgment. I am a very level-headed person and they know that so why do they think that I will make a wrong dating choice.

Still, no comment, just the adamant, ” We do not approve of that man because of his tribe.”

Recently in a clumsy effort to call a truce my sister told me that I am young and I will get another man and we will laugh about this one day when I tell her that she was right. No, she is not right and we will never laugh about this. And I am not the kind of girl who looks to date 10 toads before finding a reasonable frog to settle down with. I want a prince. I believe I found my prince.

When I sit back and think about it soberly, I get the sense that my family’s tribalism, let us call a spade a spade, is born out of politics. Why? Because I have Luhya and Luo blood and my immediate and extended family are convinced that the Kikuyu guy always steals votes from “our man”. Our man is the man that they vote for in every election but never wins and they become bitter and go on a very unpleasant tribal tangent. But what does this “our man” have to do with the very basic unit that we call family. Does he come to our house every night? Does he pay our bills? Do we know what he does when no one is looking? Does he have a better idea of who our daughter or sister should date? Who on earth is he to us? Is he God?

It cannot be because Kikuyus are all unpleasant people because they are not. We have Kikuyu family friends and some of my extended family members have married from that tribe. There are Luhyas who are thieves and murderers as there are bad and good Nandis, Kisiis and Taitas. At the end of the day it boils down to human nature and that old but true philosophy of survival for the fittest, not which part of the country your ancestors happened to be born in.

I was not consciously aware of how unreasonable tribalists can get until I got into this relationship. Now I am ware of it and it angers me. My hairdresser is Luo and I chose her because she has a rough idea of how to cut my hair, maybe soon she will get it exactly right. However, when I go to her salon 99 out of 100 times there will be a conversation against Kikuyus initiated by one of her Luo employees.

One of them once told a story about a Kikuyu woman who had her underwear pulled down by Gor Mahia fans at the Tom Mboya statute. I am not sure about the truth in the story, we all know about the “colour” that is added to stories in salons but anyway the story was that these guys had come from watching a match and they had won. As usual they went to the statue to thank “baba”. A crowd gathered because things were getting entertaining and this woman in a short skirt came by. Some of the men hit on her and she did not accept their advances so they pulled her panties down. She was on her period and was wearing a sanitary towel.

While the rest of us felt sad and embarrassed for the woman in the story, one was quite amused and said if she was in the crowd she would have laughed. Her reason, ” Hata mimi kama ningekuwa katikati ya Wakikuyu, wangenifanya hivyo hivyo. So, good for her.” She seemed quite sure that a crowd of guys from Central Kenya will pull down her panties if they found her on Moi Avenue.

Why are we like this? Why do we enjoy other people’s misery and make very wrong assumptions driven by a sick need to identify with “our own”?

I love my family, I love my boyfriend but I do not want to have to choose between them. Especially not because of something as psychotic and evil as tribalism.

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