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Interracial bonds! Why can't we just get along?

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Gardy chacha | August 3rd 2014
Lovebirds Sarika Patel (right) and Timothy Khamala.

Samba Mapangala’s track Marina plays to a tired lot of passengers en route to Nakuru Town. “Mzungu mchaina huoana, Japanisi Mwafrika vile vile (Whites and Chinese marry, so do Japanese and Africans)” goes a line.

Some of them are nodding, others humming along, and I cannot help but wonder if the previous day’s news item on KTN is on their minds. It is on mine. May be it is on theirs too, and are listening to the song and agreeing, or disagreeing.

The news item in question on KTN was a dispatch from Webuye, in Bungoma County where a rich Asian Sarika Patel is in love with a poor African Timothy Khamala. The story that got all Kenyans talking is proof that for intermarriages to work, much more than willingness of the bride and groom is required. The Sarika-Khamala saga epitomises the difficulties and challenges of marriages between different races in Kenya.

The love birds entered the public limelight with a bang if the online pandemonium that followed the airing of their story is anything to go by. Going by comments from “Netizens” that a Kenyan woman of Asian descent woman has betrothed herself to an African man calls for close-up scrutiny.

Sarika’s parents are reported to be vehemently against their daughter’s desire to marry Khamala. They are not the only ones who have reservations about the marriage, but Khamala’s mother also expressed her fears that her daughter-in-law might not execute her duties as Bukusu culture demands of a wife.

What was so abnormal with Sarika and Khamala finding solace in each other as soul mates?

“Culture is a powerful thing,” says George Ouko, a psychosocial analyst at Catholic University in Nairobi.

“Culture is deep. Just like here in Kenya many parents would be shocked if their son brought home an older woman, so it is awkward when an African and Asian are in love.”

Incendiary topic

Culture, according to Ouko, has propagated stereotyping which provokes the incendiary topic of bias: race, colour, tribe, family, religion and so forth.

“We are brought up believing in certain ways. Parents are major culprits of disparaging groups of people and they tend to tell their children “to believe that all men from central are thieves, that men from western Kenya are very virile and fertile, that Kamba women have certain mannerisms between the sheets — and just about every conceivable idea based on isolated cases.”

Sarika, on several occasions, was told by her parents to go back home, but went against their will and decided to stay with the man of her dreams.

Hers is not the first recent case in Kenya though. In 2008, a love affair between a pregnant girl of Asian origin and her black boyfriend became a public spectacle when the girl’s father said publicly that he did not approve of their union.

This is not a case of history repeating itself but rather a fundamental reality of human growth,” says Catherine Mbau, a psychologist at Arise Counselling Centre in Westlands, Nairobi.

“When two people get married, it is not just them coming together. Their families are also getting involved.

“While marriage is just between the two, many sectors of their lives will be conjoined to the extended families. In this regard, many parents, brothers, uncles and aunts tend to vet a spouse before they allow their son or daughter to proceed with the marriage,” she explains.

Like Ouko, Mbau says  the social structures of our society — especially with the generation going back in time — allow very little room for children to tolerate or appreciate other cultures.

From their nascent years, children are made to believe that they can only interact with people they share language and culture with.

Mbau says that this has been the bane of humanity.

Tom and Lynette Lichuma, authors of marital books To the Altar and Beyond and A Successful Husband confirm that culture has a contorted way of harmless demographics such as marriage between couples from different tribes. The couple, who also offer pre-marital counselling services, have been together for 36 years.

Important facts

“We are both from the Luhya community but different clans,” says Tom.

“During our time, it was commonplace for parents to advise against marrying into or from certain Luhya sub-tribes, or even other cultures. For each ethnic group, they had a host of reasons why their children should not get married there.”

While both Tom and Lynette agree that marriage should be based on certain important facts of life, they feel it is repugnant to use tribe, race or clan to prevent two people who want to get married.

“Love has no boundaries. Social class or not, people who have fallen for each other will find a way to live with each other,” says Lynette. “Often, the problem is with extended family members who want to dictate who their son or daughter marries because of difference in backgrounds and upbringing.”

Harleen Sharma, a Kenyan journalist of Indian origin has a different view.

She says that while the decision to marry falls squarely on the parties involved [man and woman], love is not all the reason one needs to take a leap into marital life.

Education background

Harleen admits that she would not marry a man from any culture that does not identify with her race and religion.

“Not that I am racist but we have to be honest with ourselves. Love alone is not reason enough to marry a person. The bottom line is, can you live with each other for the long haul? Education background, upbringing, religion, financial status and level of knowledge are more important than just love.”

Harleen adds that that factors like religion can never be ignored.

“For instance Muslims are not supposed to marry non-Muslims who don’t share in their beliefs. In Sikhism, we are taught to marry amongst ourselves.”

There are many others who believe in Harleen’s school of thought.

Wycliffe Onyalo, a Kenyan in his 20s, predicts that Sarika and Khamala’s union will not last long. Race and culture, he says, will eventually take their toll on them.

While his scepticism against interracial marriages is palpable, Wycliffe expresses optimism that Kenyans can marry from different indigenous tribes because “over the years we have come to interact with each other. We have lived together for so long and we understand each other.

“Provided the two have known each other for a substantial amount of time, inter-tribal marriages among Kenyans can work.”

Wycliffe says that some parents’ advice against marrying from certain tribes is based on their own experiences. He, however, believes that such intolerance is gradually waning.

It is a discrimination that Esther Kathini, a mother in her 40s, thinks should not exist in the first place. She says that she has friends who have married from other cultures and the relationships thrive.

Thus, culture does not necessarily determine if a marriage will be successful or not. As long as two adults understand each other and have the same beliefs, Esther has no qualms if they decide to get married.

Would she be fine if her daughter married a man who does not share in her family’s culture? “It will be her husband, not mine. She will make her own choice and I will respect it,” she answers.

Hopefully, her daughter will not face stereotypes like Sarika and Khamala have.

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