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Fashion, documents to language: Why Kenya is facing an identity crisis

By Amos Kareithi | November 21st 2020

Maasai morans walk out of the bush during a cultural festival at Orkiramat in Mashuuru Sub-county, Kajiado County. [File, Standard]

After more than a century of experiments, one would expect the tapestry clothing Kenya to perfectly cover the seams and the scars, offering a uniform blanket to all and act as a form of a national identity.

However, as some bureaucrats pursue the elusive national dress, ignoring the pervasive Maasai shuka because of expediency, some residents at the Coast have been mulling over the idea of breaking away to be autonomous.

Still, other residents have been walking in and out of Kenya to Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia for basic commodities and pasture, saying other than the Kenyan national identity cards they had acquired, they lived like foreigners and felt so too.

Ironically, millions of people residing in North Eastern Kenya have for a long time been forced to carry two identity cards to prove they are bona fide citizens.

For decades, these citizens have adopted desperate tactics in a bid to be recognised as true sons and daughters of Kenya.

The ghosts of secession are still haunting parts of North Eastern Province, whose residents had to first get a screening card before they could qualify to be given national ID cards.

For applicants to get screening cards issued by Special Kenya Somali Registration Unit, they had to give details of his district, tribe, sub-tribe, clan, sub-clan, chief and assistant chief. After all this information was verified before the document was sealed with the applicant’s thumb print.

In the event one lost an ID or passport, it could not be replaced without them producing the screening card. In effect, until recently, the residents had two ID cards.

In places like Mandera, some elderly people are still caught in a time warp and refer to military personnel as Jom.

“There are people who still believe that Jomo Kenyatta is still alive and they refer to any black, coarse haired non-local as Jom. They tune into Somalia radio stations and rarely know what is happening in their own country,” says Issak Abbey, the chair of Economic Freedom Party.

Abbey, who was born in Mandera, says flying to North Eastern is still a big issue.

“If I want to fly to Mandera, I cannot just board a plane at Wilson Airport and fly away, like a friend destined to Kisumu or Mombasa. I need special clearance from the aviation authorities,” he says.

According to many residents of North Eastern, being born a Somali is like a prison sentence because obtaining a passport or national ID card is not easy.

“That is why thousands of people, desperate for better life, registered as refugees from Somalia and happily moved into camps in Daadab. Now they can’t get out because their fingerprints show they are foreigners,” Abbey says.

From the onset, the residents of Northern Kenya and especially the Somalis were locked out of negotiations when Kenya was getting her Independence after they voted in a referendum in 1962 to secede to Somalia.

The resultant struggle for self-determination was thwarted, triggering a revolt which led to massacres of thousands of people. The survivors had to live under a state of Emergency, which was in force for decades, long after Kenya got Independence.

Although Abbey speaks freely about the tribulations in the search for the elusive government documents for a people with a conflicted identity and split loyalty between Kenya and Somalia, there are millions of other Kenyans who suffer in silent.

Tribal cocoons

There is also the paradox of the diaspora’s most enlightened and educated Kenyans who return from Britain or America with a nasal drawl or ‘tweng’ after a short stay abroad, where they retreat into their tribal cocoons.

A veteran journalist recalls an incident he encountered of an evangelist preaching in vernacular in an American city.

Rather than use Kiswahili to accommodate other Kenyans who come from a different community, the evangelist secured the services of a fellow tribesman to translate to the “foreign” section of his congregation.

Mzalendo Kibunjia, the former chair of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) is still shocked by what he encountered on a mission abroad.

He says during one of his visits to the US in 2013, accompanied by commissioners Jane Kiano and Fatuma Mohamed, he realised most of the churches run by Kenyans in Georgia, Atlanta and Boston and other cities,  preached in vernacular.

“I confronted the preachers and their followers and told them although they were the most valued people in Kenya they were guilty of exporting tribal bigotry and exclusion. I told them, ‘You are the biggest inciters because when you come home you preach this same gospel of exclusion’,” Kibunjia says.

He also found out that whenever a leading Kenyan politician went abroad, his reception event was normally a tribal affair where other Kenyans were excluded.

According to Kibunjia, Kenya has been tried and found wanting because even its history had been tribalised to an extent many scholars treated freedom icons like Dedan Kimathi, a Mau Mau fighter for Kikuyu and not a freedom icon.

“If I had my way I would make history a mandatory subject for all the undergraduate students. We should emulate other countries such as Russia, Korea, China and Britain where people are taught their history and the values, ideals, icons and institutions,” he says.

National identity, Kibunjia argues, is not something one gets overnight, but it is organic and evolves over time just like culture.

But as national leaders and politicians chase the elusive national identity or dress, there are people who have learnt to feel at home and belong to the communities they grew up in although they are at times treated like strangers.

The dream of what Kenya’s identity would be, if all Kenyans were judged by the content of their character and not the region they were born in, is best symbolised by Abdul Rahim Dawood, the North Imenti MP.

Dawood says his Asian ancestors came to Kenya about 400 years ago and intermarried with Arabs, creating a mixed lineage whose sons and daughters ventured out of the Coast into the hinterland.

For the last 10 years, Dawood, who is considered a son by the Njuri Ncheke elders, has represented North Imenti Constituency in Parliament.

“Although I was born at the Coast, I grew up among the Meru people. I started off in Maua, Kangeta then Maua and Meru. I have never felt secluded. I participate in all cultural events,” he says.


But despite his assimilation, Dawood still cannot be admitted into the inner sanctums of the community he leads  by being initiated as an elder by the Njuri Ncheke. Unlike other area MPs and prominent leaders, he is still considered an outsider, owing to his ancestry.

“I have participated in bride price negotiations. When East Africa Legislative Assembly MP Mpuru Aburi’s daughter was being married by a man from Nyanza, I was part of the delegation. I saw the groom give Aburi miraa and the union was blessed,” Dawood says.

Sometimes in 1990s, Jimmy Musoka Anan wanted to be the MP for Ol Kalou. He was vying on Democratic Party, which he had served loyally. During the primaries, however, he would be booed by some of his opponents’ supporters, dismissing him as Kamuthungu (a European) on account of his mixed ancestry.

A lot of water has since passed under the bridge and Anan, who hails from Boiman in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County, sill laughs whenever he is inundated with calls by his fans who fondly refer to him as muthungu (European).

However, a city lawyer of British scion has a different experience, which he is only willing to share on condition that his identity is not unmasked.

The lawyer says while growing up in the 1970s, life was okay as Mombasa’s golf courses, clubs and hotels did not discriminate people on account of their origin.

“I have since witnessed incidents of people being alienated and punished for not being Kenyan enough. I am likely to be targeted if I speak out. These things are very sensitive,” he says.

This apprehension is understandable in a city where ageing colonial settlers have been targeted by criminal cartels who seize their land upon the expiry of the 99-year leaseholds.

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