Zeituni Onyango was Barack Obama’s auntie. Obama writes about meeting her for the first time his best selling memoirs “Dreams of My Father” the story of reconnecting with his roots and finding a sense of belonging in Kenya. His sister Auma had given her ride to her place of work in a temperamental VW Beetle in Nairobi. As Auntie Zeituni was leaving the car for her office at the Kenya Breweries, where she worked as a computer programmer, she kissed Obama on the cheek and then turned to Auma and said, “ Make sure he doesn’t get lost again”.
This was an expression that Obama had never encountered and he asked his sister Auma what his Auntie Zeituni meant by getting lost. Auma explained the two meanings.
The first implied not seeing someone familiar in a long time and people would typically say, “ You are so lost”.
The second meaning was deeper and Auma explained, “Let’s say a son or husband moves to the city or to the West, like our Uncle Omar in Boston. They promise to return after completing school. They say they’ll send for the family once they get settled. At first they write once a week. Then it is just once a month. Then they stop writing completely. No one sees them again. They’ve been lost, you see. Even if people know where they are”.
Barack Obama may have risen to become the first Kenyan American president of the United States but he never ‘got lost again’.
There was a period in my life, I felt lost. I did not suffer from the complexity of a mixed heritage like Barack Obama, with family in three different continents. Both my parents shared the same heritage and were born within a radius of less than 40 kms separating their ancestral homes. My grandparents on both sides of the family were early converts to Christianity. They adopted a new way of life and brought up their children as good Christians who went to missionary schools. The siblings of both my grandparents were traditionalists who stuck to the customary way of life. When their world was disrupted by colonialism, they found themselves left behind, shunned as tribal, native and uneducated in the emerging modern Kenyan state.
My grandfathers were men of God, whose reputations as pious Christians would form a big part of their new identity. The women they married were influenced by the missionary wives and they brought up their children in the ways of the church turning their backs to many African traditions because they had become ‘civilised’. By the time my educated parents, moved to the cities to earn their keep, we had firmly adopted a new Anglican identity, as Christians who happened to be African. Their children would become fluent English speakers.
Therefore I grew up with a European protestant ethic. In every house in the village that I visited during the holidays, there would be a picture of a white Jesus next to the a framed message that read,
“Christ is the head of our home, The Silent guest at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation”.
I became part of a born-city generation who took on new identities influenced by the dominant cultures that were streamed to us through media. What was local or homegrown was rarely celebrated. We were city kids who only went back to the village to visit our grandmothers and improve our diction in local languages.
We all had prayerful grannies, who laid the table, read the bible daily and possessed a deep grasp of the ancient history of the Israelites.
Tabu Osusa a music producer and a curator of homegrown Kenyan music helped make sense of this cultural displacement. We were talking about Benga music and why it never got any mainstream traction. He blamed it on a lost generation. “When we left our villages for the city, we left everything behind. Our foods, our music, our languages, our culture and our identities”. We filled this vacuum with new identities causally draped as one would an item of fashion.
Eventually after deliberate study of my African history, I found a semblance of reconciliation with my ethnic identity. Once I learned to respect my own roots, I embraced the principle of Ubuntu, that I am human only by seeing the same humanity in others.
Therefore, it concerns me, that every five years in the run up to the General election, a toxic tribal narrative emerges and in tow, the peace ambassadors, the messengers of status quo with slogans such as my Tribe Ni Peace. The peace message is easy to imbibe because tribe has become a vehicle of retrogression and all things wrong with being an African.
Yet as Obama realises in Dreams of My Father, tribe is just a way of mapping one’s identity and acknowledging one’s roots. Most of the antagonism we hold towards this identity is based on inherited prejudice, ignorance and historically negative portrayals. Positioning tribe as the bogey man of chaos is an unhealthy preoccupation.
It is not lost on conscious Kenyans, that the peace message is akin to urging citizens to accept injustice in whatever manner it may visit us and then quietly move on with our lives.
Kenyans have not forgotten that peace without justice is like prescribing a placebo in place of the medicine. It might offer a temporary relief but it won’t cure the disease.