I am a Kikuyu. My name is Ngatia. I speak the language fluently and can read and write in it. In fact, it was the first tongue I learnt. My mother tongue. I can name all 9 (+1) clans. Though I’m worse than frozen steak where business is concerned, I still am a legit, original Kikuyu – mugikuyu karing’a. Or so I thought.
I took part in my first inter-tribal fight at Our Lady Of Visitation Day & Boarding Primary School, Timau, where I spent eight years of my life preparing (we were told) to join high school. It was halfway through that period; I was eight years old – in class four – and the youngest in my class. We were at the middle of one of those games boys play at tea breaks when some genius floated an idea, “Why don’t we have a fight between the Merus and the Kikuyus?”
When I look back now, though I do not remember the incident in exact details, I realize that that idea couldn’t have just come up. It must been a destination reached by several steps, most likely sprouting from someone bragging about their tribe’s superiority, then matured by a counter-brag and giving fruit to the violence. Furthermore, the country was then gearing up for a major election; there was the usual high political tension. So it is very possible that the ethnic superiority complex was something my friends brought school from homes rife with it. The boys started rounding their friends up for beatings; the Merus against the Kikuyus, while the rest joined whatever side they chose, or kept off. The problem arose when they got to me.
See, Timau is a cosmopolitan town tucked in the folds of Mt. Kenya. Then, it sat smack at the boundary between Eastern province and Rift valley province. A part of it was in Meru central district while the rest lay in Laikipia West. There are settler farms on the East towards Isiolo and the West as you head for Nanyuki. There are hills to the North that spill into Lewa, the foot of which is mostly occupied by the Maasai and Dorobo, between those settlements and the Mt. Kenya forest is a vast tract of land, formerly under a settler from whom small scale Kenyan farmers had to buy their pieces in 1963. These farmers are from different Kenyan tribes, but mainly Kikuyu and Meru. Timau also acts as the residential area for all the workers in the big flower and horticultural farms. Children from all these communities studied in my school.
Growing up in such an environment, it was almost impossible not to pick up fractions of the other languages, for me at least. So that day at school, the fact that I could speak a few shaky sentences in Kimeru saved me a beating. We later moved to the heart of Meru and I came to learn the language to an extent where it affected and slightly overshadowed my Kikuyu – that once troubled me, but I have learnt to enjoy watching people’s faces when I switch from one to the other.
That incident in 2002 may have been playful and considered harmless, since no one was really hurt, but thinking of it now, I am appalled. First by the sickening fact that Kenyans do not spare their children of the scum that is tribal hatred and second, by the realization that not all my classmates moved. The young skinny boys are now muscled young men. Their squeaky yet-to-break voices now have rough commanding tones capable of war songs. The hands that served unsure slaps have learnt how to hold pangas, axes, crowbars, petrol bombs and broken bottles. We all have been exposed to more forms of “heated political rhetoric”. Our minds have inherited more sharp stereotypes and unfounded tribal grudges. We are no longer small boys playing together near a school kitchen too shy to speak to girls. We are grown, through with school, frustrated, jobless, heart-broken, broke, angry and ready to explode. Hand us the crude or proper weapons and tell us the reason for our troubles is a different tribe, and then about 50% of us will join you.
We will slit the throats of innocent former classmates who thought they were safe among friends they grew up with. We will kick the belly of the pregnant older former schoolmate most of us had a pre-adolescent crush on. We will rape her ten year old sisters and burn the houses in which their parents live. We won’t remember the days our own parents were not around and we stayed safe under that same roof after school. No, we won’t remember when we were out of salt and that neighbour shared theirs with us. Why waste time in the memories of being bailed out of a sticky homework by that former classmate while we could be busy killing them? Hell! I will bring that panga down and spill a child’s bowels to protect my tribe! I will burn down shops and vehicles because the presidency is ours and ought to be fought for. The leadership belongs to Kikuyus and keeping it that way is my duty. Because I am a Kikuyu!!
Or am I really?
My name, which so distinctly shouts my ethnic origin, may not even be originally Kikuyu. Ngatia comes from ngatunyi which means a lion and is a synonym of muruthi. It so happens that ngetuny also means lion in one of the Kalenjin tribes. The two communities are not even under the same broader group. The Nandi, Kipsigis, Tugen and so forth fall under the Nilotes while the Kikuyu are classified under the Bantu. Anthropological evidence however indicates that when warriors from different communities raided each other, they not only carried cattle with them, but women and children too. These abductees brought with them their customs and language and though they eventually got assimilated, some aspects such as names and certain words remained and seeped into the host culture. Other nonviolent interactions also brought in such aspects – hence the adoption of some Nilotic cultural traits such as circumcision, clitoridectomy and the age set system into the Bantu groups. That might also be where my friend Manu Lang’at Maina got his third name.
A civil war among the Maasai in the 19th century forced many of them to seek refuge among the Kikuyu that reside around Murang’a. This lead to intermarriages and integration; many people from Murang’a who consider themselves pure Kikuyus have Maasai blood running though their veins. Heck! Even Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s paternal grandmother was Maasai! How Kikuyu are the Kenyattas? How Kikuyu am I? What makes one a member of a certain ethnic group? The language? Upbringing? Parents?
I can speak, write and read Kimeru. I’ve lived most of my life in Meru, got initiated the Meru way, my dad is Meru, though my biological father was said to be Kikuyu. My small sister has Kikuyu blood and Meru blood in her. So what does that make her? If clashes broke out between the two communities, where would my allegiance lie? Would I root for those who gave me my name or those who gave me friendship and love when I needed it? I once overheard my grandmother and her friend discuss how my biological father was a result of a barmaid and a white settler. And how his mother got married to the old man I am named after and have always considered my grandfather. If the story is true, how then can I claim to be a legit member of a certain tribe? Or even a race? Isn’t that living a lie? Maybe there is a dormant white gene in me waiting to manifest itself in my children – if that is biologically plausible.
My mother has raised herself from abject poverty to the woman she is today from sheer hard work and struggle – I know because growing up, I watched. I watched her toil to pay my school fees, clothe me and put food on the table. Not even once did she get a grant from the Kikuyu community. We never get even fifty shillings from Kabogo or Mwangi Kiunjuri or Moses Kuria. Not once did the Uhuru family or the Muhoho family or the Kibaki family offer her an eighth of an acre from the hundreds of acres they own to plant sukuma wiki on. Actually, I live in a place where I take an hour and a half to town from. That is because I have to take two vehicles and pay fare twice. That time could be reduced to 30 minutes if the road that passes right outside our home could connect to the Ruiru – Embakasi bypass. But it doesn’t. Because there is a thin strip of grassy land belonging to the Kenyattas that blocks the way and our road has to end at its fence. People here have been begging for the road to be unblocked for years…yet those please seem to bounce of dry walls. No one cares about them. And most of them are Kikuyu. Their sons followed the tribal call and once joined the Mungiki. After serving their purpose in the PEV, police operations served extrajudicial killings upon them like manna upon the desert.
How then am I supposed to head a call for tribal unity when I’m part of the tribe? I am the ugly duckling… but I’ve learnt to fly. I ain’t going to follow the tribe! The tribe ain’t loyal.