Monday, June 25, 2012



By Joyce Nyairo
Nairobi, Kenya
June 25 2012

Now that the dirt has settled on Prof. George Saitoti’s dramatic life and death, we might want to reflect on the kind of public discourse that George Saitoti’s “true” identity generated. Of course there have always been stage whispers about the “fact” that Saitoti was really a Kikuyu, his middle name, Kinuthia, was “proof” of this. His inability to speak the Maa language was further evidence.

Last week, these whispers moved to centre stage in the press. An authoritative report said Saitoti was born in Dagoretti and at the age of seven, his opportunistic father doctored his name and moved the family to Kajiado to escape the colonial government’s 1952 purge on Kikuyus, Embus and Merus. This talk of Saitoti’s birthplace smacks of the assumption that ethnic identity is a matter of where you were born. And that it is permanent and static. Is there no possibility that identity is always in the making and is, ultimately, the sum total of places lived in, influences encountered and practices exchanged and altered?

One report described Saitoti as having a “peculiar identity”. When I read that I sent off a note to a friend telling him that I hoped that the children of this Central Kenya writer (assuming, as our ethnic counting commissions are wont to do, that his name is an indicator of his origins!) would some day move to Rodi Kopany and Budalangi so that he can live to describe his own grandchildren as “peculiar Kenyans”.

Might there have been slightly less revulsion and derision to this dual heritage of Saitoti’s if his middle name had been Wepukhulu rather than Kinuthia? Even though the late Michael Kijana Wamalwa’s father was a Saboat who had moved to Kimilili, was absorbed into the Bukusu community and given the local name for one who brews alcohol, one never read derisive comments about Wamlwa’s “real” tribe.

Stories of mobility and fluid individual identity dot the landscape of pre-colonial and colonial Kenya but that is seldom ever the (hi)story that you will hear. It is certainly not the preoccupation of the various commissions instituted to redesign our nation-building project and yet, you would imagine, that legacies of ethnic borrowing, exchange, inter-marriage and translocation would be their natural point of departure on the road to establishing a national destiny framed on common causes and shared aspirations.

In our timid intellectualism, we opt to recycle colonial myths of origins and static frames of ethnic formation instead of boldly refuting histories of warring tribes as the only ways in which Africans have occupied their continent over the last two centuries.

Our aversion to plural identities has always been ridiculous. When I grew up in Nairobi in the 1970s, urban children who could not speak a “mother-tongue” or whose parents were from two or more different communities were contemptuously referred to as “wakosa kabila”. In a cautionary ballad filled with scornful laughter Joseph Kamaru warned that the maendeleo life of rootless city-bred children who thought a goat was a peculiar breed of vegetarian dogs would cause grave embarrassment in the “house of Mumbi”.

To say that urban and mixed heritage people have no culture or identity is to deceive oneself and to write a static antiquated narrative of Kenyan heritage. As a university student I was caught in interminable arguments to convince my peers that going to the “estates” on a Sunday morning constituted a credible act of returning to one’s roots.

Matters were not helped by the SM Otieno burial dispute, which dealt a near-fatal blow to the validity of a (peri)urban home and the legitimacy of multi-ethnic identity.

Recently, we saw how the interviews for the position of Chair of the National Gender Commission degenerated into a legal struggle to define a person’s ethnic group. Ultimately, a court magnanimously observed that people of mixed ethnic parentage can be assigned the identity of their fathers or that of their mothers. But “when considering actual ethnicity, then a person may be identified with that of the father”.

This “either/or” mentality will never resolve our battles for national belonging. We limit our options hopelessly with this repeated inability to recognize that hybridity and cosmopolitanism breed their own distinct sense of being, an identity that so fluidly absorbs “both/and” and does not need to be broken down because in its very acquisitive nature it is complete in and of itself.

The argument that we must count and document tribes for purposes of planning is a lazy lie. Progressive democracies plan for the number of people resident in an area and document migration patterns. Racial and ethnic affiliations are never the basis for budgets – for how many schools should be built, the size of a road or the level to which the local hospital and sports stadium will be upgraded.

As we write the history of the last thirty years we might find Saitoti guilty of all manner of political and economic transgressions. But let us never accuse him of flouting cultural boundaries or violating our sense of Kenyanness. His only failing in this department was in not using his mathematical genius to preach to us that you can make a whole and unique unit by adding two seemingly disparate entities – be they places or people. And that there is nothing unKenyan about that sum.