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Monday, January 21, 2013

what do you call a deer with one eye? no IDea

At some point last year it seemed like all my cousins were pregnant. All the female ones at least, they had reached that age where it becomes ok to be pregnant and every time the family gathered there would be another bump to take note of. Then they gave birth and decided on names and not one of them gave the child an English(well should probably say European) name. They are all in their mid to late twenties and this seems significant, this age grouping of people born in the 80’s as opposed to people born in the 70s and 60s they seem to give their children Swahili names. It reminded me of this thing I was told when I was in university, some girl told me that by the time they turn 26 half of the girls in Nairobi drop their Christian(again I should probably say European) name in favour of their (it’s used so much I don’t know what to call it, their African name? sounds like something said by someone who knows nothing about Africa says, their ethnic name? sounds like I support tribalism, their other name? why is it this name that’s other like its less equal or something) let’s say their middle name.

The confluence, or supposed confluence of these two things suggests something to me. It suggests that people are more willing to define themselves by things that are actually ours, that are actually Kenyan than they used to be. When I was in school a person with no Christian name (back then we called them English names whether or not they were because Kenyans are anglophiles) was an anomaly. Now it’s not going to be so. I talked to my aunt about it and she said that it will be a quick identity card among young people in schools. They will immediately know who has the older parents and perhaps even who is where on the organisational structure of when they were born. In a few years all the people with names derived from a Kenyan language will be first born while all those with European names will be 3rd or 4th out of the womb. It occurred to me that since we do call them European names it makes sense to call them African names.

I was watching this television show called Louie, funny, funny show. He’s not scared to make any joke and even to make a show about no jokes at all. In one episode he sees a man die and after  he walks around in a haze, he’s on his way to a date and realises just how much we waste life. He sees how we live everyday on the cusp of life and nothing(the pains of atheism.), he sees and feels the possibility that one day we are here and the very next moment we aren’t. He shows this in his attitude towards the day, in the way he talks about things; his unabashed honesty and realization that all the things we think are important are not. Then he talks about places where people don’t have such cushy lives, places where people realise their lives are immediate, transient because they may die tomorrow, they may die today due to a bullet or hunger or disease. “Places like Afghanistan and Africa.”

I was pissed. I like Louie, I really like the show and the man but it got to me that he could consign our whole continent to a place where people are hungry and killing each other. This is a subject that has been written to death and will be written way past the end of its second life. Africa is not a country! There is way too much going on here for it to be reduced to just two issues in that way. There may very well be an Afghani man somewhere carrying around the same concerns because no matter how much a country is embroiled in anything it’s never as bad as it looks on the news (except maybe Syria but then probably not.) life goes on everywhere and there is always someone whose biggest concern is which team won the most recent game. There is always someone scheming to get ahead in business and politics. There are always hearts breaking and sobs escaping and sons disappointing and daughters rebelling. This is what life is. Most of it is the mundane stuff that doesn’t feel mundane at that time. And even if it seems completely unimportant  the world and a life is too interlocked for it to remain so. It’s impossible to appreciate all the complexities of life, of anyone’s life even our own. We will simplify everything just so we can understand it. No one expects us to speak with authority about places we have never seen or studied. Most of us can’t even speak with authority about the places we actually do live in and study but it’s not too much to ask that it be remembered that Africa is not a country!


Sometimes I wonder if people have been struggling with the same issues of identity as I do. As most Kenyans will if they think about it. We have an election in a few weeks, so few it’s already past and here is a thing that binds us together: our anxiety about the possibility of violence. “Once bitten” they say. And now a Kenyan is a person who gets scared at the sound of elections.  Let’s say apprehensive. Some people hope for violence because this is the world we live in. In violence there are opportunities:, opportunities for revenge, opportunities for money, opportunities for gain, opportunities for power. Some people hope for it and denying that simple fact is too naive. Most people though, a vast majority do not want it. We are scared of it and have sent a lot of breathless prayers to occupy the space between the clouds and our faith. Even in the voices of the ones who are sure it won’t happen you can detect a false hint. A little too much bluster. A confidence that covers the things we all feel. A tremor that whispers it might.

So there we are after all this search for a national identity. After all the questions about whether we should call ourselves African even though that encompasses more tribes than the number of people even the most social of us have as friends on Facebook. What can it mean to be Kenyan when the only reason this happened is that we lived inside British borders. It seems that we lucked onto an answer. A Kenyan is someone who feels apprehensive about the reaction to the results of March 4th. This encompasses our diaspora community. It includes all our tribes. In this group there are people who are politically active and those who are completely apathetic. There are all those who give their children African names and the ones who still stick to European ones.

But then it also includes people who just live in Kenya. There are the ones who know Kenyans and the ones who have business interests here. There are even people who care about other people without any need for direct involvement. It doesn’t really work as a definition for Kenyans in the end.

Maybe nothing does. Nothing is supposed to. Perhaps identity, ours as individuals and the ones of the groups that we believe we belong to is supposed to be fluid. It’s supposed to change at every opportunity. It’s supposed to expand to encompass more people and contract and leave people out. To shake and shimmer so much it’s a mirage at the end of a long sun-parched road. Maybe the whole point of identity is our search for it. If we knew who we actually were what would we ask ourselves. What would be the point of writing or singing or any other form of artistic expression? Maybe the whole point of identity is that it makes us feel slightly uneasy and a little off kilter. Apprehensive about who we are. Apprehensive about what that means. Apprehensive about results and what comes next.