“Why do I have to be anything?”

Before long, the only voice you recognize, the only life you can emphathize with, is your own. – Zadie Smith, Speaking in Tongues

About a month ago I accompanied one of my cousins to visit his girlfriend’s home. It is the first visit in what will in the next few months be the beginning of a marriage. One of his close friends was riding in his car with me in the backseat, curled in on myself and peeking in and out at my Kindle. Already four sheets to the wind, my cousin’s friend turned in his seat and asked me why I was so quiet. I told him I am usually quiet. I still get amused and puzzled by people who are uncomfortable around introverts.

As we neared our destination, he turned around again and asked what tribe I am, am I Gikuyu? I looked up and narrowed my eyes (and possibly sneered) and asked him, “Why do I have to be anything?” I could see the cogs in his head come to a stall, like a needle stuck in the groove of an LP, playing the same clip of a song over and over, relentlessly and nonsensically, yet unable to play anything else.

After a beat, I said yes, I am regarded as a Gikuyu having been born to such parents and in such a family. My initial response was arrogant and maybe even offensive. He was probably just trying to be friendly. I recently read an article in The Guardian written by Taiye Selassie on African writing and African writers and I could not help but draw a thread, however tenuous, between what she talked about and what happened that sunny Saturday those weeks ago.

Her piece was about writing. What does “African writing” mean and why are the works of writers from Africa considered somewhat anthropological works and not taken on their own merits, judged as the work of their Western peers is, for being “great writing”?

My thoughts are on what it means “to be a Gikuyu” and why one has to be identified not by their own merits but by their tribe. I don’t think about my tribe much. I grew up in an urban area, went to school with pretty much everyone, different races, religions, and classes, and even when I was in university in the tribally-hot area of Eldoret, the question of the tribe I come from never came up, not openly or in any way prejudiced anyway, and therefore was never a strong part of my consciousness.

I am only reminded of it when I am with my family and even then it is not so pronounced. My cousin’s friend made me uncomfortable. It is common for visits to the girl’s home, to be charged, often with the fierce, almost self-immolating idea that one’s family and, by extension tribe, is better than ‘the other’.

Despite my outwardly calm response to his question, my reaction and refusal to pinned down to that one aspect of myself were so visceral and violent it scared me. I hate being labeled. Labels are limiting. However, this is, as one of my friends loves to quip, a most cis-normative thing to say, since by virtue of my heterosexual and male privilege I have never had my identity questioned. I have never had to openly identify myself as something and therefore fight to be and for that something. This is a discussion for another time.

Tribe should not only be the people who choose you, but also the people you choose. By this definition, my tribe comprises my friends and my workmates. My friends, the ones I selected and was selected by over the course of time, have come in interesting flavours, from fiery atheists to phlegmatic drawers, to programmer-playboys, to engineer-entrepreneurs and to warm wonky brilliant feminists. It is a veritable human rainbow. I imagine it is quite the same way for them, the way we all paint psychedelic each other’s hearts.

I forget which someone it was who said that you do not find the right people for a job. They find you. I found my current workplace by finding my CEO and I was happily taken in. My colleagues are a hard working, hard playing and luminous bunch. I enjoy what I do and am grateful that I get to do it with them. I often mention it to anyone who cares to listen how I still feel like I am dreaming, almost one year into this gig, and how I would hate to wake up.

Friendship and work cover a large swathe of our identities in complex nuanced and ultimately more beautiful ways than would be by any one thing. To be pinned down to a single aspect of your identity would be a diminishment, for yourself and for everyone. We are many things at many times.


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