Monday, July 15, 2013


Identity. It has never been an issue for me. I know myself. I am secure and safe in my knowledge of who I am. Lately though I found myself questioning it especially from a cultural point of view. What exactly gives us that sense of belonging? Our parents,our language, our surroundings? A few weeks ago I travelled back to my shags (ancestral home) for the first time in about 12 years. Sadly, the reason for my travel was my aunt's funeral. I had never met her. She was my mum's older sister and had only featured in a handful of stories that I could remember. The reason for this was because she had suffered a mental breakdown years before and had thus been confined to a rather secluded life.

We packed the car and left for Kasipul Kabondo with my younger brother and mother. The beauty of the country played out in an endless vista as we drove into the Rift Valley. Past the parched expanse of Narok and into the breath taking coffee covered hills of Litein. I drove as my mother and I talked while my brother alternated between snoring in the back seat and ridiculous stories. During the drive, mum filled us in on what her childhood with her sister had been like. In many respects, she felt the version of her sister she had known had been gone for a while. So while there was a great sense of loss it wasn't exactly like someone she recognised. 

5 hours and loads of junk food later we drove into our homestead. The last time I had been here was to bury my father. I was barely 12 then. Now I looked at everything as an adult. The corner of the grounds where a goat had head butted me, (Hilarious now but terrifying then), the well I almost fell into during a thunderstorm, the paths I had taken when taking the cows to the river. It had all changed yet in the change were vestiges of a time gone by. What had once stood proud and grand was now run down and shabby. But it was home. My home.

My uncle walked my brother and I around the place explaining the changes. My brother and I exchanged confused looks. He rattled off names of relatives we hadn't seen in years & could hardly remember. Then he walked us to my dad's grave to pay our respects. In a corner of a desolate field is where my father's remains lay. A clump of weeds grew around his grave and a beehive was somewhere near. The latter ensured that we could only pay our respects from a safe distance.

On the night before the funeral there was a thum. (dance). Loud music was played from large speakers & family, friends & neighbours came from far and wide to dance. Again, my brother and I stood there watching like outsiders as they engaged in some of the funniest dance moves we had ever seen. On the other edge of the homestead a small group of religious mourners sang in low tones while they danced around a drum in a circle. By 4 am when I was finally succumbing to sleep both groups of mourners were still doing their thing with gusto.

The next morning more visitors started streaming in early. And then the barrage started. Do you remember me? Do you know me? Wow. You're all grown up. (This last one tends to annoy me. Like people expect you to be a child all your life.) I was completely ashamed. I didn't know most of extended family. Cousins, uncles and aunts seemed taken aback that I couldn't recall their names. Then there were those convoluted relations. The kind who made it sound like you should know the son of your grandfather's third wife's step sister's cousin's child. Apparently everyone here had held me as a child. (Did mum just like giving me out?) I was floating in a sea of utter confusion. I was that cliche. The kid brought up in the city who heads back to find his roots and can't quite find them. In the city I claim my luo heritage yet here in the country I struggle to string together proper sentences to talk to relatives I hardly recognize.

My grandmother and my mother are my refuge here. The former has nothing but sympathy for my shortcomings here. No one knows how old my grandmother is. I am basically learning dholuo just so I can converse with her. She watches me struggle through my dholuo then admonishes me for not knowing my relatives. Apparently some had snitched on me. She talks to me about the importance of identity. Of family. Then her old, leathery face breaks into a conspiratorial smile as she whispers that my dholuo is getting better. 

The ceremony goes off without a hitch. Actually just one. The master of ceremony has to ask the speakers to keep their speeches short. He says it's not a competition  to see who loved my aunt most. It draws a few angry remarks from the mourners. Later as people walk away, I stand next to my grandmother as she watches people commit her daughter to the soil. Her eyes are red. I realise I have never seen her cry. All this. All the bits I knew and the bits I didn't understand were all part of me. So was this woman I had never quite gotten to know. She's a strong, proud woman. Even now in her moment of utter despair, there is something regal about her. I take her hand and squeeze it. No words are necessary.


  1. Bosss... I like the writing. Very well put

  2. I can definitely relate with this. Every time I go to my country home I'm admonished on not knowing my mother tongue(Luo) never mind I grew up out of the country and my dad married out of the tribe. Apparently not knowing the language means I'm rootless but I don't feel that way and it annoys me that any one would think that.
    Great post

  3. This is my dilemma and for one, I think my folks gave up on us knowing the language.
    But I do not feel as though I am without identity.
    I don't know how to explain it but ....... I feel that it is more than this.
    Lovely post.

  4. It's not so much about not knowing the language as it is not knowing your people. A sense of family is not a cultural thing, it's a human thing. No matter Luo, Kikuyu, Indian, French or Hungarian the common denominator is the importance of family

  5. This is a great post and i can totally relate.

  6. We have a duty as young people that have been given opportunity of education, to go back and learn where we are from, what were our beliefs, traditions, celebrations(life,death,marriage,birth) like.Otherwise we will keep screaming to the world about Africans for Africa yet we do not know what being Africans really means.

  7. i relate 100%....great piece!

  8. I am soooo moved right now. Thank you for sharing!

  9. @gabu Glad you enjoyed it.

    cdooh Looks like we're in the same boat.

    @lifesmith I learnt that lesson the hard way. You lose touch with the people and then you lose a bit of yourself.

    @joan Thanks.Kumbe pia wewe ni mmoja wao?

    @Tulanana Unfortunately that education has endeared us to a way of life that makes us assume that we are better than those that came before us. Finding Africa within Africans becomes hard when we are still trying to define ourselves.

    @Ursula You are so very welcome.

  10. Nice piece of writing, Yenyewe, enyewe. Why not go on a 'root-finding' spree. Like a month of knowing yourself and where you come from? :)

  11. Nigga, never make me blink back tears again. But I do totally relate. I live about 30 minutes from what people call Shagz being from Central Province but since my grandparents passed away, all of them on both sides and even some of the aunties I knew. We hardly interact with the rest of the extended family except on big things like weddings which no one seems to be doing nowadays as "come we stay" has become the order of the day. My mum is 63 and was the last born of 12 so you can imagine how old or how dead my aunties, uncles and grandparents are. However I do not intend to lose my identity. Identity is when I can tell of things I would neber subscribe to because they are unAfrican, when I am able to still tell you: "that joke only sounds nice in Sheng, Kikuyu, Kao or Dholuo", when my kids second names will always be after their relatives, when the sun rise is still a symbol of God's existence, when I can pass a little bit of me into my kids, my nephews and nieces. When they can one day say, as a family and from what I saw from Uncle Edwin, we do this that way and this is wrong. We are a family and this is how we identify ourselves.

  12. Thank you for this one. This is what most go through. I have been there and many more will be. I thoroughly enjoyed it and i can attest that it's a fact. Identity........well i don't know my language that well but someday somehow i will know. Thanks for the inspiration.