I am not yet willing to give up on the concept of tribe. I am unwilling to grant that colonizers were right in their claims that tribe was a limited concept that had no place in the modern world. I am unwilling to accept their definitions that my history and heritage are small and uninteresting, lacking in depth and complexity, beauty and joy.
I am not yet willing to give up on the concept of tribe.
Tribe lets my friend say, “my name means one born at night,” and my other friend to say, “I belong to the people who shape metal,” and yet another friend to say, “I bring rain in the dry seasons.” Tribe marks the changing of generations, Maina to Irungu, Kamau to Peter.
Tribe celebrates how we have lived, how we have loved, how we have suffered, how we have mourned. We are the descendants of Gatego, the generation riddled with syphilis and Ngige, the generation decimated by locusts. To say these names is to claim that our stories are not yet done. We are not yet done. We are here.
I am unwilling to relinquish tribe.
To say tribe is to recognize the diversity of who we are. To say that women from that ridge discipline their men. Men from that hill are bowlegged. Children from that place run like the wind. To say that people from that place make the best ũcũrũ (porridge), from that other place the best mũratina (an alcoholic drink), from that other place the best mũtura (a dish made from stuffed animal intestines).
To say tribe is to say people from that place talk fast, they sing their language. And people from that other place are tall. And people from that other place are dark. And people from that place like the dark taste of burnt beans. And people from that place like the iron-rich veins of green weeds.
I am unwilling to relinquish tribe.
There’s too much left to discover, too much left to explore, too much potential to be realized. The past remains an untapped ore, myth, a rich vein, the present a fertile, fallow field. Songs remain to be sung, stories written, dramas acted.
We have much creating to do.
Tribe is not simply an inheritance, but untapped potential. It is the material we can work on, work with, transform and translate.
For me, tribe is Wamũyũ, Gikuyu’s tenth daughter, mother of an illegitimate child, founder of a hospitable clan. Wamũyũ, who embodies the mystery, wonder and potential of intimate hospitality. Wamũyũ, whose unnamed and unnameable lover fractures any sense of insularity, Wamũyũ, whose intimate welcome illustrates the best of tribal hospitality, tribal love, tribal openness.
For me, tribe is Wangũ wa Makeri, the leader who dared to dance nude in the moonlight. Wangũ, who let the moon’s rays caress her, her people’s eyes embrace her. Wangũ, who understood that leadership meant being vulnerable and taking risks that might compromise her leadership.
Against all logic, against all sense, I am in love with the concept of tribe.
It is, like all love, fraught with complications and ambivalence. At times I want to scream at what seem to be the limitations of tribal identification, the ways I am called upon to perform tribe: to sing, dance, or act in a certain way. I chafe at the constrictions that ask me to speak my language to gain certain favours. I worry that my positions are taken for granted, that my identity may be said to dictate my politics.
I am often seduced by the invitation to identify myself as national, international, or cosmopolitan. I am tempted by the idea that I can and should transcend tribe. I am compelled by the idea that I would be a better person if my allegiances were less local, less idiosyncratic, less wedded to nine clans that face Mount Kenya. But I believe in this love.
I believe in its potential. I want to see where it leads.