A very close friend of mine is dating a man from another tribe. Like a lot of private-school-educated Nairobians, her tribe is something she thinks about when she attends a wedding and the occasional funeral.
Her new man is the same. They both understand their tribal languages but cannot carry a conversation in either language. They are both English speaking, Swahili struggling Kenyans.
Excited about her new man, she told her family about him, and got a rude shock. They were completely anti the relationship and one uncle went as far as to say he would not be ‘selling his child’ to another tribe.
After these comments, my friend is distraught. She loves her family but she loves this guy. She has been on my mind since our conversation. Hers is not the first inter-tribal relationship to deal with family disapproval, but it got me thinking about a certain type of Nairobi family.
If, like my friend, you are in your mid-thirties, chances are that your grandparents live in shags and they make some type of agrarian living. They are illiterate, and if they speak another language it is lilting Swahili.
Your parents came to the big city when they went to university, and then they got some kind of professional job that eventually gave way to a business venture that allowed them to educate you outside of our borders. To their parents, your grandparents, seem drastically liberal.
After interacting with all manner of people outside Kenya, and perhaps dating a few, you might have come to the conclusion that while tribes seem huge here, they are but a drop in the global bucket.
Our interaction with foreigners teaches us that tribe and nationality influence the individual but ultimately if that is all you look at, then you never get to know the individual, and you might be missing out on a great person.
My friend’s family refused to think about her new man as an individual, and let his tribe sit squarely between them and him. The fact that she likes him, the fact that he matters enough to be introduced to the family, the fact that she is an adult who doesn’t value her tribal customs too much… these facts were not even considered. They heard his tribe and froze.
I don’t know what my friend and her man are going to do about their families. But this situation is happening across Kenya as we speak. We deal with people from other tribes on the basis of stereotypes and rumours about their customs.
We routinely miss out on getting to know amazing people, working with them or even marrying them. Yes, our tribal customs matter and there are grievances that need to be settled.
But the people who offended, and those who were offended are long gone. Carrying on hatred through generations when many do not even know what the offence was is ludicrous.
Kenyans hate and fear are making sure that we miss out on great people simply because they are wearing a cloak that says ‘Somali’, ‘Luhya’, ‘Kikuyu’, ‘Meru’ or ‘Giriama’.