Stories we Tell Ourselves

Brothers, not

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Appearances are deceiving. For me it goes something like this: That I know a fellow for a month or a year, then one day, they gasp, “Haiya, I thought you were from western!” when they hear me talking in Kikuyu. Then I laugh it off and jest that I really should ask my mother who my father is. Perhaps, he is this or that prominent politician from Luhya-land and I can go claim some inheritance. The fellow joins in the laughter, but things are never the same going forward.

Thing is, we Kenyans are tribalists through and through. Some do it covertly, others overtly. And having been judged by your tribe, you are then treated accordingly. Which means that if you are being served by a fellow Kikuyu, you will receive better service than if you were, say, Luo or Luhya. In the same vein, if you are being served by a Luhya or Luo and you are Kikuyu, they might serve their own people better. Of course, this is a generalisation, but which occurs with alarming alacrity.

So, over the December holidays, I went to Migori, then Kisumu. The elections were over and things were quite and back to normal. Of course, as I look like a Luhya (in their case, Luo – In Kisii I l looked like a Kisii and in Narok, they talked to me in Kimasaai), I was comfortable strolling around on my own. The only time I felt uncomfortable being when I had to withdraw cash from an M-Pesa/Equity agent and had to hand over my ID card.

Fact is, I feel safer in Kisumu or Kakamega than in Nairobi when we are experiencing our cyclical electoral violence. My dark complexion (I like to imagine that I fall under the category of ‘tall, dark and handsome’ but my lack of a regular girlfriend suggests otherwise) marks me out as Luhya/Luo and considering that I live in a neighbourhood that is predominantly Kikuyu, I might get killed easily, a case in point being the 2007 post-election chaos that rocked the country.

Plus, I tend to use my Christian name and speak Swahili with no accent thus I cannot be easily pinned down as coming from this or that region. Then again, I grew up in Nairobi where I had neighbours from all over the country, hence I picked up Kikuyu late in life and it is nowhere near the fluent and idiomatic kind employed by the nationalistic (read top Kikuyu leadership) leader as he or she cobbles up a coalition with other tribal demigods to reach the threshold required to lord over the country. Of course, when in Murang’a, I am taken to be a Kikuyu at face value by virtue of being there in the first place and because we have many dark-complexioned people there who might be mistaken to be Luo/Luhya elsewhere.

So now, my next-door neighbour to the right (right as when I enter the door) is my landlord’s son. When I first moved here, the landlord had assumed me to be Luhya and nonchalantly proceeded to show me the vacant houses on his lot. I then proceeded to produce my ID card for purposes of confirming the lease-agreement. And what a transformation it was when he got hold of my ID card! He switched to Kikuyu, suddenly became amenable and I even had the house repainted before occupying it.

In part, he had been a councillor and I made a cock-and-bull story about being his agent at a polling station when he had been seeking re-election. Then again, I am named after his father, so, culturally, I am both his father and his son. He always makes a point to converse with me, and me with him, whenever we bump into each other. Some might refer to this as Kikuyu Privilege, but I am not sure it meets that criteria.

Anyhow, about the landlord’s son, my neighbour. There is this thing about how the various Kikuyu groups in Nairobi relate, subtly of course as we are always one when it comes to things elections. There is the original landowners, ene, those who have bought land, oki, and akombori, tenants, with Kikuyu tenants being given preferential treatment over the others. This applies to the Greater Dagoretti/Kiambu areas. Otherwise, in Eastlands, the distinction is two, land/structure owners – ene/wenyeji and tenants – wakukuja, and who are equated to outsiders. The ene look down on the others, which means that the oki have more humility in how they deal with people. Our landlord bought property here, so he is more friendly.

Where were we? Yes, my landlord’s son. Thing is, I am his senior when it comes to tenancy here. There I was enjoying my tenancy at full blast courtesy of a brand new sub-woofer (in more polite society, I speak of it as a home theatre). Here now is this bugger sending the caretaker to tell me to tone down my music. I know I am making a ruckus, but I mean, I was here first, so you can as well sympathise with my self-indignation. Still, I could fall sick and he was the one to rush me to hospital in the dead of the night, so I might as well be civil and say hi whenever we bumped into each other.

So now, this morning, I am late for work. As I emerge from the house, I encounter him outside his door. He is high as a kite and is struggling to unlock the door. The padlock is on the inside of the house and you have to insert your hand by a space on the door to open it. Which calls for a steady hand absent in an inebriated man. I’ve had my door opened for me when in such a state and so I sympathise with him when he calls on me to help him out.

Now, on those other civil days, we say hi to each other and that is that. Not today though. His inebriation shields him from his vulnerability. And we go deep. His wife, work, et cetera, mostly in Kikuyu but switching to English and Swahili now and then. And as all drunkards go, the man speaks fluent English. PhD English.

Says he, he was traumatised for like three months, unsure how to broach the subject with me. He has judged me to be Luhya, notwithstanding the small matter of me playing mugiithi at high volume when he had the caretaker tell me to tone down my music. Why? His father had asked him how his son was – meaning me – as he had not seen me for a while.

Now, his father has three wives, with my neighbour’s mother being the third wife. Could the father be having a fourth wife out there and me as the secret son being sheltered by the father and yet to be introduced to the rest of the family? Could their inheritance shrink as a result? Understandably, he had reason to be concerned. And so, blissfully ignorant was me that I was somebody’s brother for a whole three months without knowing when continuing to greet them in the morning and evenings when we met.

My brother, now not brother, says that he was troubled until when the father, enquiring after me, mentioned that I was his – the son – namesake. It was only then that the confusion cleared. On my part, I am flattered that the landlord thinks highly of me. I mean, come on, who wouldn’t mind having a surrogate of a father to look after him in this Nairobi of ours that is shamba la mawe? Anyway, I heartily laugh at my neighbour’s narration, giving him further assurances that we are far from being brothers. In this, I invoke all three of my father’s names, home county, clan and sub-clan.

So now, the fellow has invited me for drinks. Still, we are not the best of mates, and I don’t intend us to be. So, I declined tomorrow’s offer. The bugger was insistent, and I improvised that the weekend after might just be possible. By then, I will have come up with an excuse not to accompany him in his drinking sprees. As he rightly pointed in jest, I might just drink up the rent money.

Plus, the girl neighbour that I rejected (a whole story on its own) she uses this particular neighbour as a prop (effusive, exaggerated greetings when I am around while a hapless me is totally ignored) to make me feel insignificant. And why lie, it sometimes gets to me; but not on those days when I am getting laid by a beautiful and yellow PYT (pretty, young thing) and whom she chances to bump into. Then, I too have my revenge.





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