I Have No Tribe…

Kenya has more than 42 tribes. Their role is diminishing slowly, but the tribe is one of the main defining features of living in Kenya. An article I read a while back indicated what’s rather obvious that Tribes have social advantages and on the other hand, the tribes in Kenya are holding the country back. I subscribe to the fact that Tribes in Kenya are holding the country back. A reality we all know but deep within can’t barge when our kinsmen are in the limelight, for the good and the bad reasons.

Last week I took a drive to the Rift Valley for a job assignment. Driving through the hills and valleys the driver, a native of the extensive and versatile former province told me stories, from business, politics and culture. Most were negative. Perhaps from the pain that still resonates with some sections of tribes affected extensively by the post election violence. The good driver explained to me the differentiation between the dominant tribes in settlement. For instance, some sections of the highway had spaced out estates, older houses, most far from the road. These I gathered are for the Kalenjin. There were sections of the highway with close estates and parcels of land subdivided in many pieces. These were also characterized with small shops and kiosks. These are for the Kikuyu, I gathered. We stopped at Kikopey for late lunch; it’s strange what this country has become. People can actually differentiate food made by someone from a given tribe over another. I know it is possible to differential Ugali made by a Luhya and that made by a Taita, but surely, how can one differentiate meat roasted by a Kikuyu from that roasted by a Maasai? What does this mean with an election year ahead?

Tribe has its good. It’s what makes us Kenya. There is so much positive in just about every tribe. An article on Ezine puts it; The Masai, Samburu, Turkana tribes people have magnificent colorful jewelry and clothes, impressive rituals, and beautiful songs. Experiencing this is for many one of the big reasons of coming to Kenya. But let’s be honest. How many of the tourists who idealize the tribes in Kenya would be able to live that way themselves? Tribes also mean a belief in witchcraft (and better avoid being called a witch in Kenya!), female genital mutilation, and little individual freedom as the course of your whole life is already fixed at birth by tribal customs. Besides culture, tribes play a main role in business and politics. Tribe members ‘help’ each other, and this goes from, to favoritism in the government and covering each other’s criminal activities.

Everyone idealizes something they are not. Look around. While the white folk will save to come spend fortune at the rather expensive Kenyan hotels, enjoy safari and learn the culture from what they have learnt about tribe culture in Kenya and Africa in general, your truly is racking his brain on the most reasonable and cost friendly trip to South France or to Italy. Someone I know for instance finds the culture in Tibet, of the Monks or whatever those obsessive compulsive people are as so pure and she would like to go experience. She even fantasizes with an idea that her true soul mate is possibly someone from that side of the world. Mention Tibet and all I see is Human Rights issues. Another one I know admires so much about the true state of life in India, and Srilanka, most of that South Asia section. Apparently the way they live appeals to his true beliefs and what they wish humanity should embrace. Bleh!

There is tab on the top right column of this blog. ‘I Have No Tribe.’ It’s no joke; I truly do not have a tribe. Some people have identified me with natives of Kisumu County from my mannerisms. Others have had me mistaken with Giriama or the Akamba by my surname. Personally, I identify with the Luhya; for the chicken, tea, ugali and the benches other good things. I identify with the Luhya because my country home and upbringing was mostly in Western Kenya.

My late Grandpa, my father’s father was Mganda, from Mbale, Uganda. He relocated to Kenya in the early nineteen hundreds and settled at the base of Mt. Elgon. He then got married to a Kalenjin lady. The late Grandma Meg was of the Sabaot tribe. They bore my father as the last born. As my grandfather wooed grandma, the Sabaot people fondly referred to him as in-law. Gramps was a proud man, for being referred to as in-law by the good Sabaot people through the courting process; he adopted the Sabaot word for in-law as one of his names… That makes my surname; Mukewa. My mother is predominantly Luhya. Grandpa Nathan was Bukusu. Grandma Rachael, I wrote about her here happens to be of both Luhya and Iteso descent as I gather. What does that make me? I have no tribe…and I wish many more Kenyan’s can crossbreed with the many tribes we have. That will bring us a new tribe we all want called Kenya. As a matter of fact, with the exception of one, I made it my personal policy to date women away from the tribes I identify with.

It comes with challenge though, people from my side of Kenya for instance get shivers when someone says they are dating someone from Central Kenya, or Eastern. Simply because cousin/uncle so and so married a woman from Nyeri/ Makueni and she took off with everything of theirs. People from the other side also think in a similar way. I have heard all sorts of things from friends and foe, how people from my side of the country eat people… sigh, still laughing. They call us wakabila if I am not wrong. Our supposed culture is questioned on so many aspects but heavily is on what happens when the man dies. Does the family take all the property? Is the wife forced to sleep with a dead body? Do they force people to take family names… You know, the kind. It’s the Kenya we live in. I grew up in a very urban environment, school, boarding school from class one through to university education. My own family doesn’t even know me. I do not know most of the things people say. Perhaps also from the diversity of the tribes I identify with, I don’t have specific things I can say are ours or not ours. I am just that, I have no tribe.

Borrowing Arjen Koopman’s words though different in context; while some people romanticize the tribal life, seeing this as a ‘purer’ lifestyle which is more social and ‘closer to nature’, I personally am happy that I’m not a part of it, and I believe many Kenyans would benefit from a gradual roll-back of the tribe system.

Playlist: Simama, Atemi Oyungu


5 thoughts on “I Have No Tribe…

  1. I think Ugandans from Mbale are Bagisu (the tribe we call Bukusu in Kenya). Baganda are generally further in, after you cross the Nile in Jinja. Ugandans refer to themselves BanaUganda but we Kenyans call them Baganda (just one tribe in Uganda). I obviously don’t know more than you about yourself though so maybe your grandpa was a Muganda.

    I Have a Tribe! But not for lack of intermarriage in our family ( marriage of Maasai girl -who was my grandmother-to a Kikuyu man after a raid. At least that’s the story she told to explain why she couldn’t do seemingly obvious Kikuyu things like make a kiondo, tell a Kikuyu story to her grandkids etc).

    Let me explain why I’m not for the idea of ‘I Have no Tribe’. People’s tribes are part of their identity. It’s like denying one part of what makes me, me simply because someone else has abused it. Even if we succeed in doing away with tribe, there are still way too many factors that can and do separate: clans (in Somalia where there are limited tribes) religion (the Koran burning priest and the aftermath), race (black people in majority white countries, and Indians in Kenya/Uganda can attest to this), sex/sexual orientation (need I give an example?) , national origin (a lot of us against ‘immigrants’), etc. Those aspects too, define us in a small way each. Shall we then join: I Have no Tribe, I Have no Religion, I Have no Race, I Have no Sex…?

    No. The mistake lies in taking only one part of who you are and opposing everyone that is unlike you in that respect. Obviously in Kenya, tribe is that small part. I think the answer lies in embracing everything that makes you, you, but also acknowledging that that’s just a part of your identity. Beyond being Kikuyu, I am woman, a Christian, black, Kenyan, African, educated even….so many things to be just a Kikuyu. I hold each of these identities dear to me.


    Proud Kikuyu Woman 🙂 Maybe I should rename my blog.

    • mmmh… @PKW almost a blog post for Tribe you did here 🙂 Well, I revisit my gramps, he is minority mbaganda from Mbale area.

      I can relate to your sentiment for tribe being part of someone’s identity… I have found myself identifying with one even with glaring obviousness that I probably do not have one particular one. The good that comes with belonging perhaps?

      true, there are many things that still separate us, it wouldnt be practical for instance to call on the world’s races to intermarry and bring about all sorts of point five offspring. The problem, the big problem I find to be originating from tribe in kenya is that the negative energy is pronounced more than the positive. The best way perhaps to overcome this is to intermarry/ mingle and rid tribes… or perhaps enrich?

      Rename your blog? No… maybe add very to PKW ha!

  2. Zack,

    I have stumbled across your article which makes an interesting read. We Kenyans know how deeply entrenched tribal loyalties are and for some reason have chosen not to have a constructive public consultation on the way forward. In a nutshell, we need to readdress the equitable distribution of wealth and also put to rest the land issue.

    I follow your sentiments and your arrival to the conclusion that you have no tribe. I have also read the responses to your article and somewhat agree with both reviews on the question of tribal identity.

    Is it possible to drop me a line on my email to discuss this issue further? I would like to pick your brains on the tribal factor if you may allow me.

    A quick response would be highly appreciated.

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