I am an African. A Kenyan.
At childhood, I only knew about my people, the Maasai, who lived in the vast savannahs of East Africa – a world of culture, cattle and wildlife. But, over time, I adopted a few other identities.
At a very early age, a combination of school and church taught me about the Christian god and Kenya nationalism. I use the word “combination” because the two entities worked in tandem.
I remember one day, when the teacher said, all kids will be baptised over the weekend and must be given new names. I wasn’t sure what that meant. I was just 7 years old, leaving away from my parents in order to attend school. We all went with the flow. On Saturday morning, at a gathering at the Anglican Church in Meto, Kajiado County, the pastor approached as I sat with my elder brother and other kids on the church stairs.
“I have two names for you. Gideon and John. Which one do you like?” He asked. My brother said he liked the name Gideon and therefore, by default, I became John. Right there, I became a “Christian.”
The next day, we were all baptised and walked away with certificates with the new names. Those names became our new school identities. We wrote them on our books. At first, they sounded funny, but ,over time, we got used to them.
When my parents later heard that I am now John, they were in shock and I was a little embarrassed.
“What kind of name is that?” my mother asked. She is a proud traditional woman, draped in beautiful beadwork and colourful Maasai robes.
I grew up, trudging the two paths – the life of school-church and the life of the traditions of my people. A modern man and a traditional one at the same time. Right from the start, I was able to figure out something that enabled me to marry my two identities: Christianity was a world of emotions, fear, guilt, where sin lurks everywhere. While the Maasai traditions is about logic, pragmatism and commitment to family and society. A world of few sins even though God was at the centre of everything but not something to worry too much about.
I pursued education – went to university and traveled the world. I have lived in many countries. In this new world, my identity is ever shifting depending on how they see me through their own eyes.
In Somalia, they claim I looked like people of that country and mostly treat me with honour, although always disappointed when they figure out I am not muslim.
In Ethiopia, they speak to me in Amharic and eyes pop out when I fished out a different passport.
In Sudan’s Darfur region where I once worked, refugees considered me an Arab and a spy for their Islamic government, because I am not very dark. However, pro-government militias smiled at me thinking that I am part of a notorious enclave that’s brutalising black people. Laughable!
In Rwanda, I pass for a perfect Tutsi tribesman and get all the smiles, but, Hutus shun me until they learn I am not from Rwanda. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, I was once targeted while at work, with the suspicion of being a Rwandan, therefore an enemy of the state. I could have easily been killed.
In West Africa, I am considered a member of the Fulani tribe: must be a Muslim too.
Closer home, in Tanzania, I pass for an Iraqwi (Mbulu) tribesman until the passport does the trick.
At home, Kenya, cops in the streets of Nairobi would sometimes stop me to prove my Kenyan identity. Wapi kitambulisho? Immigration officers would take longer to peruse my papers just to make sure I am not a runaway Islamic militant from the Middle or Far East. Wariah gani hii kutoka Kajiado? Shameful!
When I lived America, I had one major identity – among the sea of white faces, I was a black man.
So, over time, I have figured out a few lessons in life – tribe is never enough, country is too limited, the continent embraced me in various ways and religion is complicated.
So, who am I? Simple – I am a human being, a child of God. Above all, I am truly African!
Hey… and who are you?
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