The answer: “I AM KENYAN!” used to be the cutest, most profound thing to say; a show of solidarity against tribalism and the fact that tribes will never divide us! Yaaaaaaaay!
But then people used that same answer in serious discussions and now to be honest, it’s just a stupid thing to say.
First of all, there is no such tribe as “Kenyan”; that is a nationality- like being Nigerian or Rwandese. Say you’re Kenyan by tribe and you’re just like those ignorant foreigners who can’t tell the difference between Kenya and Africa.
To answer “I am Kenyan” instead of: “I am a Kisii…” also means that you do not want to disclose your tribe due to your own insecurities or for fear of being treated “differently”. Sure the latter has happened in the past but it is still not reason enough to make it taboo for people to ask “What’s your tribe?”
See, more often than not, when someone asks you what tribe you belong to, it is on a get-to-know basis rather than for judgment. And true, sometimes, those same people are in fact judging your actions but it’s not always in unkind ways. If someone sees you in lessos a lot, they may conclude that you belong to one of the coastal tribes where lessos are popular. This may be proved true or false by their asking what tribe you’re from and I think this is always better than assuming. In reality, most people just want to understand why you are the way you are. They ask your tribe to get a picture of where you’re from, what you do or don’t do, or merely just to know.
We Taitas for example, welcome people differently. When a cousin of mine was marrying a Kikuyu and the groom’s family came home, we offered to take their bags to put safely in the bedroom as we do all our visitors. (Most people from the coast do this a lot- not just Taitas.) However, our in-laws preferred to hold on to their bags and that was a little strange for us. Some of my aunts took offense of course since it made it seem like we would steal their things or something.
Jabs like, “It’s a Kikuyu thing” and “Just because they steal from each other…” came up of course. It took some explaining on the groom’s part and in the end, we realized that it’s just something they don’t do due to past unpleasant experiences and so to avoid any bad blood, they preferred to just watch their own stuff themselves.
It was also, not “a Kikuyu thing” as I later got to know from other Kikuyu members of my family. See, being free to ask someone’s tribe comes with the openness to ask things like “Hey, we had Kikuyu in-laws come over and they did this and that. Is that something you Kiuks do?”
To ask someone’s tribe goes beyond labeling them and putting them in a box full of stereotypes. It is all about opening up a conversation about how different their culture may be from your own and even further, getting to understand what works with them as people and not just as members of whatever tribe they belong to.
So let not this question “What tribe are you?” become a taboo. Our different tribes and cultures are very much a part of who we are as a nation- and I think we should celebrate that diversity rather than water it down in favor of a common Kenyan-ness. The touchier we feel about exposing our tribal roots, the more tribe becomes more of an issue than it should be.