In the past few weeks, I have been rereading our Vice Chancellor’s collection of essays titled Barack Obama and African Diasporas: Dialogues and Dissensions. There is a way that Professor Paul Zeleza writes that is simplistic and catchy and very enjoyable to read. The book is a collection of blog articles which capture the essence of African identity especially from the view point of African diaspora. One article that really captured my attention was The Whiteness of Airports – this article is poignant and although written back in 2008, it is still very relevant. Zeleza is stunned by the whiteness of airports during his frequent trips abroad in not only US and Western Europe but also in countries in Latin America such as Brazil and Venezuela. As a resident of Nairobi I have been able to make few observations especially on how Kenyans identify themselves. Kenya as a country has still not managed to forge a collective identity as one would say Tanzania has. The Kenyan society as is constituted remains a merely a conglomeration of ethnic nations and as economists David Ndii wrote in 2016 “The tribe has eaten the nation.” The article by David Ndii was discussed at length at the national level with many agreeing with him.
Despite the ethnic divisions which are largely manifested during elections, Kenya remains a country with immense diversity and rich culture. The Kenyan people are one of the most industrious people I have come across. Kenyans are also hardworking people and very creative. In the rural setting as opposed to the urban, they embody the true African spirit of hospitality and candor.
Over the past few days I have spent a considerable amount of time at Nairobi garages and I was able to make a few observations. For a country made up of 42 ethnic groups, it was obvious that there will be some interesting ethnic stereotypes in different sectors. Ethnic stereotypes are there in every corner of the world. Stereotypes are generally a conventional, formulaic and sometimes oversimplified conception of something or someone. Walter Lippmann, who first coined the term “stereotyping.” Lipmann wrote, “the attempt to see all things freshly and in detail, rather than as types and generalities, is exhausting, and… practically out of the question.” In my stay in Kenya, I have come across many ethnic stereotypes. Even when I was marrying a Kenyan, these ethnic conceptions played in my head. I remember my dad asking me where my girlfriend came from when I first introduced her to him. He said he had heard of the Kikuyus and had the generalized conception of the Kikuyu women including their home areas. He later learned that my girlfriend Joan came from the Kisii community. I remember being told all manner of traits each girl from every community in Kenya. One that I remember vividly was that Kamba women are good in bed!
Before I took my car to a garage in one suburb area of Nairobi, everyone suggested that because my car needed body repairs, I should make sure I find a Luo to do it. As I approached the garage a flurry of dirty mechanics rushed to my car. One gentleman was quick to catch my attention. He was a Kikuyu by the intonation of his words. Before I could hear what he was telling me another young man in a Chloride Exide overall said that Njoroje was cannot fix the dent in the car and that he was just a broker. “Njoro ni broker, nipatie mimi hii kitu (gari) ni fix,” the young man said. He was joined in chorus by few others who by their Swahili intonation were Luos. Another slim and light gentleman was examining the tyres and told me that he had a screeching sound in the front tyres and that he could replace the brake pads. I later learned that he was a Kamba. I hadn’t utter a word yet. For the five minutes these garage people spoke, the ethnic stereotypes that I had imagined were being manifested in front of me.
I eventually settled to work with Nick, the Luo guy. As I sat at the garage, political talk now that it is less than three months to the elections was always on the table. “Roundi hii ni baba [Raila Odinga], umeona jinsi bei ya unga iko juu!” one guy called Origi said much to the chagrin of one lady selling spare parts at a kiosk nearby. The lady was said she was a Jubilee supporter with a smile on her face. As we negotiated with Nick on the cost of fixing the dent, a middle aged woman passed by selling chapatis and beans. She spoke Dholuo (Luo language) with the Nick, although they also threw in a few English words. The brake pads guy was still there trying to convince me. I decided to be inquisitive and asked him where he came from. He didn’t tell me outrightly where he came from but he said that Kambas and Luhyias where the best in tyre repairs. “Wakamba na Waluhyia wanajua hii kazi ya mguu hata Origi anajua, wacha nikufanyie hii kazi!” He went further and said that Kikuyus can do the work but they are not trustworthy. “Kusema ukweli, Wakikuyu hii kazi wanajua lakini usiwaamini sana!” he said. I recalled another stereotype that Kambas are very loyal that is why Indians in Biashara street in Nairobi employ them. I asked them who is best at general mechanics and they were all in agreement that Kikuyus were best at this although not very trustworthy. Since my wife is Kisii, I asked Nick what are Kisiis best at. “Hao, wako sawa sana kwa kazi ya break-down, hata angalia hapo round about utawaona.” I laughed and I had something I can tease my wife with – that Kisiis are good at break down services. They said they liked the way I spoke Swahili and I could see they enjoyed as I spoke. Observing my interest in understanding their ethnic stereotypes, they enthusiastically narrated all other tribal jokes. They told me the best house-helps are Luhyias and that Kalenjin women are very obedient and make good wives. I told them I was married to a Kisii. “Wanawake wa Kisii ni kama Wameru, wana hasira sana!” the lady in the spares shops said.
My time at that Nairobi garage should be a reminder to all Kenyans that they can live together in harmony despite their differences – after all, it is this diversity that makes Kenya a beautiful country.