'X' marks the Spot
A common stereotype in Kenya is that people of Nilotic descent are good in English. The Nilotes are groups of ethnically related people that originally inhabited the River Nile valley. You might imagine that since the Nile ends at the Mediterranean Sea and the Roman Empire once extended to Egypt; it is possible that in the years 700BC -1000AD that they picked up on their penchant for English. After all English is written using the Latin alphabet. The alphabet itself originated from Italy around the 7th Century BC and has evolved since then. The problem with this hypothesis, though, is that the old English spoken at that time was spoken in one corner of the Roman Empire and was in any case derived from the German languages. It is only around 1400AD that written Middle English began to resemble the English we write and speak today. So how did these Nilotes come across English?
One method of trying to establish where they found the English would be to plot on a map, their migration down the Nile to present day East Africa. By convention when plotting on a map X, Y coordinates are used. Having those two figures for example longitude and latitude can allow you to place someone at a precise position on the earth. The letters ‘X’ and ‘Y’ are very interesting. The letter ‘X’ on its own means a secret is hidden somewhere. Place it on a map and it means there is treasure buried underground. Put it on a ballot paper and it means, “I am secretly voting for you”. Even in medicine it denotes there is something not known. X-rays were so named by their discoverer because they did not know what they were. But the moment you put ‘Y’ next to ‘X’, then things become a lot clearer. The sense of mystery evaporates. Mathematics especially algebra can help solve the problem. So too can medicine.
In medicine, XY is the male chromosome, while XX is the female. Humans have 46 chromosomes (in 23 pairs) and this is what defines humans. For example the domestic cat ((Felis silvestris catus), does that remind you of any cartoon?) have 38 (19 pairs) chromosomes while all dogs have 78 chromosomes (39 pairs). A chromosome is the part of a cell structure that is made up of the genetic material DNA. Most cells in the human body have DNA. The DNA of each chromosome is divided into genes. And it is the genes that determine the features a person inherits from his or her parents, such as eye colour, hair, blood type and so on. Half a person’s chromosomes come from the mother and the other half from the father. Of the 23 pairs, one of them is special and determines the person’s sex. So for a child to be female, she inherits an ‘X’ from her mother and an ‘X’ from her father. For a child to be male he inherits an ‘X’ from his mother (she only has ‘X’s to give) and a ‘Y’ from his father.
Genetic disorders arise when the genes that get passed on by the parents have a problem. Some disorders may be inherited when only one parent has the abnormal gene, while others require both parents to have the abnormal gene before the disease is expressed. Sickle cell disease is an example of a disease where both parents pass on a mutated gene to their child. Genetic disorders can also arise if the process of passing on the genes is messed around with resulting in defective genes. A common example is radiation which mutates genes when they are at their most vulnerable, as they divide, leading to cancer.
Sometimes the problem with the genes is that they refuse to divide like they should. For example there are XXY males. That is they have an extra ‘X’ chromosome. This is not an inherited condition where a generous mother gives her all or the father leaves nothing behind. Instead what happens is that there is a random error during formation of the egg or sperm or even after conception resulting in an extra ‘X’ in the sex chromosome. Most males with XXY are not aware that they have a problem and it is not that uncommon. Klinefelter syndrome occurs in about 1 out of 1,000 males.
Based on our population of 43 million we would expect that there are about 21,500 males with Klinefelter’s in Kenya. Many babies and boys with Klinefelter syndrome have few noticeable symptoms, and the condition may go undiagnosed until adulthood. For others, the condition has a noticeable effect on growth or appearance. For those who have symptoms the common ones are sparse body hair, enlarged breasts and wide hips. Some develop speech and learning problems as boys. As adults they usually cannot father children.
So ‘X’ can represent either the unknown or trouble when it is where it should not be. Maybe its time to put an ‘X’ to these ethnic stereotypes that really have no basis. Or maybe encourage people to intermarry?