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In Gikuyu, for Gikuyu, of Gikuyu

Nairobi, Kenya

In the year 2000 I landed home, for my mother’s funeral, and found myself in the small steamy office of some security official at Mombasa airport. I did not have a yellow fever certificate. A group of red-eyed bureaucrats had cornered me as I picked up my luggage. I tried to plead, using my mother’s death, patriotism, Kiswahili, hand-wringing. Ah bana, please, I said, head tilting sideways, Boss, Chief, Mkubwa, Mzee, Mamsap, Sir: but there was no yield. A long shabby man just stared at me, smiling. So I reached into my pocket and gave him one hundred dollars. Then I walked away, leaving them smirking behind me.

In 2003, less than a month after the general election, in which the Kenya African National Union was swept from power for the first time since independence, I walked through the airport in Nairobi and found to my surprise that all the officials smiled, said hi, welcomed me home. Where are you coming from? a smiling woman asked me. Many people are coming home now. If I asked anybody, of any tribe, So, how are things? I could expect a relatively consistent answer, sometimes gossip – They stole the mayor’s chain. We were the most optimistic country in the world. Much bar talk was even sympathetic towards former President Moi – people were angry that, during the inauguration of the new government, the crowds, the largest in Kenya’s history, had thrown mud at Moi. How unseemly. There were stickers with the flag everywhere.

If you carry a Kenyan passport, and are leaving Kenya to go to London, with a valid visa, on our national carrier, there is a particular little humiliation you need to go through: you are pulled aside by somebody from the carrier and asked to explain why you need to go to London. You are asked questions and your passport is photocopied and examined closely.

Tourists with better geopolitics sail past you.

So, one day, about two years ago, well into Mwai Kibaki’s first season as president, a young woman with a good middle-class accent looked at my passport, then looked at me, then looked at my passport, then looked at me, and asked, What tribe are you? I was startled. Something was wrong with this question. She manifested no tribe at all in her body language or in her spoken English. She was just some young Nairobi girl in an air hostess’s uniform. In many years of flying, nobody had ever asked me what tribe I belonged to. This is not to say that tribe did not matter. It is easy enough to tell who shares your mother tongue, and what you do is chat casually in your mutual language, in low voices – all of us conscious, for no clear reason, that this is a way of dealing between ourselves, and is okay, but can be shameful if it is too public.

So I thought that maybe this young woman was not serious. I asked her, jokingly, whether the authorities in England had blacklisted Gikuyus.

No, she laughed. But... this name of yours, Binya-Minya-Faga, where is it from?

She was smiling her air-hostess smile, head tilted to the side.

Nakuru, I said, naming my hometown.

In fact, the name Binyavanga originates from Uganda. Nakuru is a Kenyan town, but I was not about to make this easy for her.

She jabbed me happily. Ha ha, she said, ha ha, you are sooo funny, but, really, where is that name from? I just want to know.

I switched to Kiswahili. This was easy enough to deal with in stern Kiswahili.

My sister, I said, looking very brotherly and concerned about her manners, yaani, what is your business with this?

Kiswahili is perfect for revealing unreason. If you fail with this approach, then real shit is coming.

Are you doubting that I am a Kenyan? I looked at her straight in the eye. In Kiswahili, this is devastating.

She was taken aback, and started to backtrack. The queue behind me was becoming impatient.

Oh. No. Ai! You mean it is wrong to ask? Kwani, I can’t just ask you? I am just asking.

She still did not let me move. Finally I asked if she was saying I couldn’t check in until I answered the question. She pouted, and let me pass. For a second I saw her ethnicity in her small sneer.

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