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.


My first name, Binyavanga, has always been a sort of barometer of public mood. As a child, I hid it, and was comfortably Kenneth Wainaina. In the third form, I decided to abandon the name Kenneth. Some small humiliation had taken place. Some American guests of my father’s had visited, and I had been introduced, hand forward, This is Kenneth.

In my own mind, Kenneth was a good Kenyan name. Not too common, like John, or Peter. Not aspirational, like the three sons of an army major in my school: Dionysus, Anestus and Marius. Or comical, like the guy who told me his name was Polycarp, and I should just call him Poly. Kenneth was a quiet, serious person who liked The Famous Five and The Three Investigators and who resented his parents’ recent rejection of pork sausage and boiled egg breakfasts for things such as fermented millet porridge; he hated the smell of boiling njahi beans. The world, the good world, was made of milkshake, baked beans and oats porridge. But the shilling had fallen, and my mother no longer shopped at Supaduka, which had things like leg of lamb. Now she went to the market, talked about fresh produce and stopped on the sides of roads to buy us roast maize instead of chips and sausages.

Many Kenyans, who had no class at all, called me Kennedy. Civil servants especially. I would say Kenneth. They would say, Oh, Kennedy.

So, we sat there, in the Rift Valley Sports Club, all dressed in the best Deacons had to offer. (Deacons was to middle-class mothers of Kenya almost like Marks & Spencer – it promised satisfactory cotton underwear for the Commonwealth’s middle classes.) Then the American woman said, Oh, Kenneth is such a lovely name, did you know it means ‘handsome’ in Scottish? I blushed. I must have been about fourteen, and blushing meant all my pimples lighting up like flashlights on my forehead.

Now, I had defeated my geography teacher in an argument about the longest river in the world. I knew the word lacustrine. I could read a Harold Robbins novel in three hours. I had been asked to read my first-form composition to fourth formers. They had accused me of plagiarizing James Hadley Chase. I was mortified: I was too intelligent to read James Hadley Chase.

I was a smug and self-satisfied little shit.

And this woman knew my name better than I did.

So, I became Binyavanga Wainaina. I had moved to Mangu High School, where smart kids from all over the country came to study. In truth, I got into the school because the headmaster was tongue-tied while talking to my beautiful and exotic mother. He could not say no. I was Kenyan enough, with a dash of exoticism. There was some ‘international’ in me. Uganda was well mythologized. We had a physics teacher, a victim of the war in Uganda, who had a PhD.

In the ragged and nerdy school, with people meeting people from other tribes for the first time, nobody struggled to pronounce my name. I was a bit strange, but we were all a bit strange.

While I was in A levels, somebody gave me a copy of Decolonizing the Mind by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and fancied myself an intellectual. The book impressed me because it used words like decolonizing. A very satisfying word: like a squeegee on a dirty dorm floor, it promised to leave things squeaky clean. We are not messy people, it said, you can pull a completely unpolluted person out of the mush. I was terribly impressed. So I decided to name myself with Gikuyu correctness.

My father’s proper Gikuyu name is Muigai, but people know him as Job Wainaina. Wainaina is not my father’s name. It is my grandfather’s. But the confusion of the British naming system inserted itself into the way we register our names, and left many strange parallel ways of announcing yourself. You had to have a surname. So, my grandfather’s name became our family surname. In a culturally decentralized society such as that of the Gikuyu, names are used to plot you, quite exactly, on a map. You can ask a stranger three questions, and know where he or she comes from, which clan they belong to.

I was not brave enough to decolonize myself. Removing the Wainaina would be to separate myself from my nuclear family, from my father, and to place myself in our family roots in Kanyariri village, a place I do not know at all. We are the Wainainas of Nakuru, and that mattered to me.

Anyway, it would be stupid to go around telling people my name is Binyavanga wa Wainaina because then they would grin and start nattering away in Gikuyu and my fakeness would be exposed. If they did not belong to my tribe, or to the more anglicized middle classes, they would look at me as if I were one of those communist Mau Mau-loving people who do not date women in perms, curly kits and lipstick. I wanted to date women in curly kits and lipstick. You do not slouch about Wimpy restaurants looking like Shabba-Doo or Boogaloo Shrimp or Michael Jackson and call yourself Binyavanga wa Wainaina. You do not go to Bubbles nightclub and say to some chick, Hi, my name is Binyavanga wa Wainaina.

The problem with decolonizing is that it reveals you to be undecolonizable.

So Binyavanga Wainaina stuck. Not a single person throughout the Moi era asked me directly why I was called Binyavanga. People were curious, but they investigated subtly. Sometimes I would say my full name, and people would smile politely and say a small, Oh?

And somebody standing next to me, who knew me, would say, His mother is Ugandan. Or, Ah, you know these days people are from all over.

Now, after the incident with the air hostess, three years into Kibaki’s reign in Kenya, my name mysteriously started to twist tongues. Binyawho? Manyabanga? Sometimes people started laughing at it. All the people who were unable to pronounce my name were Gikuyus. My own tribe. Some members of my family. Friends even. One person stopped me on a street to tell me how happy they were when they saw me in the newspaper, but that name of yours, my friends are asking, You are half what?

For the first time in my life, to be Gikuyu was a public event. You were tagged and measured, and then people let you in. There was a national conversation taking place and this conversation was happening in Gikuyu, for Gikuyu and of Gikuyu.

The rest of Kenya became The Tribes. Or Beasts from the West. This sort of thing was being peddled even among the middle classes. The direct target of this was the Luo, personified by Raila Odinga, then leader of the Orange Democratic Movement and now Prime Minister in the coalition government, who became the devil in hundreds of text messages and websites. For decades, the public face of Kenya’s struggle for identity has been symbolized by towering Gikuyu politicians fighting towering Luo politicians. In our vague, unthinking way, we Gikuyus have come to see the Luo as meaning the coming of communism, emotionalism and the collapse of order.

To be Gikuyu, it is now being said every day in nearly every forum where Gikuyus gather, is to be reasonable. We are the invisible middle-class objectivity of Kenya. For others to belong among us, they have to behave like us. We do not need to examine ourselves.

We need to tame the tribes.

Years ago an old man I respect told me that Kenya would work wonderfully if we had an overt policy to develop people according to their tribal abilities. Positive tribalism, he called it. The Luhya are strong, and make good labourers; they also speak English very well. The Luo are very artistic and creative. They are good tailors. The Kamba make good soldiers, because they are loyal. So the man went around the pizza that is Kenya, naming every slice and according it grace. It completely escaped him that every skill coincided near-perfectly with the first acts of labour division introduced by the British; that he was, in fact, affirming exactly how we were defined and given roles to play in colonial Kenya. These identities were, to him, our permanent tribal personality. I asked him, So what will the Gikuyu do in this utopian Kenya? He was surprised, and frowned. It had not occurred to him. The Gikuyu just were, and everybody else was an ethnic.

Something slipped into his generation’s view of a possible Kenya. Those early Gikuyu technocrats under Kenyatta inherited almost exactly the British idea about who does what: who runs things, who can, who can’t and why not. The tribes were primeval and could not escape their fate. This impartial and objective view is always presented as the conclusion of a long and thorough analysis that, by complete coincidence, comes up with the finding that we are the best people to allow the tribes to develop.

Over the past four years, many Kenyans complained that nice middle-class Gikuyus were meeting in office corridors and speaking in their language. It was a strangely disturbed place to be: many Kenyans assumed I was not Gikuyu and would share their concerns with me. An equal and opposite paranoia about the Gikuyu was starting to spread around Kenya. By the December general election of 2007, Gikuyu had become cockroaches and weeds. Many Gikuyus spoke of their newly discovered contempt for everybody else. The mood was triumphant. We are back! And now Kenyatta is on the face of the Kenya shilling again!

It is clear that this sort of ethnic chauvinism has been growing all over Kenya, with all tribes, and the terrible post-election violence of earlier this year was the inevitable culmination of this new reality. The most visible Gikuyus in Kenya said nothing about the rising sense of a Gikuyu establishment. Our new cardinal took, exclusively, his tribe’s position in the political debates last year.

Of the older generation, hardly anybody credible was speaking to the idea that we were better than the political rhetoric. Nobody was prepared to admit that their own tribe had anything to account for. To publicly criticize ourselves was to give the enemy a weapon to use against ‘us’. We had all gone mad. It was left for us to assume that the elders had closed ranks to make sure a Luo was not elected president in the December general election. For it has come to be, now, that part of what it means to be a Gikuyu is not to be a Luo.



Photograph © amateur_photo_bore

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