Monday, September 7, 2009

What is your Tribe?

A few weeks ago I was asked this question by an official Kenyan enumerator as part of the census which was occurring. I was taken by surprise because I have never been questioned on my “tribe”, I haphazardly replied “American?” and the census taker marked a number. I left feeling a bit overwhelmed, “what tribe was I?” I repeated in my head. I knew just “American” would never fly in the States, but I have never been sure the answer to this in the states either.

Tribe is a loaded word here in Kenya. After the post election violence where many people suddenly saw each others “tribe”, people who lived and as neighbors for years suddenly became enemies. Teachers attacked their students, the line of friendship and humanity was now blurred between my tribe or not.

Tribe is defined as “a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader” I am not sure I could say my community is very “traditional” but then again what does that mean, they keep traditions? From what I can see the Embu people have variety of economic, social, and religion within their tribe, and this is one of the least populous tribes in Kenya. What makes us belong and others not?

When I came to Kenya I expected to come across a lot of resentment amongst people from different tribes—but what I have encountered is almost the opposite. My neighbor commented that she did not want to reveal she was a Kikuyu on the census. Living in a Kikuyu dominated area, I ruled out the possibility that she feared discrimination from others. She simply said, “ I am a Kenyan, and I am teaching my children they are Kenyan”. This is a statement heard across the board from people in my area. This proclamation makes me hopeful about the future of Kenya, but also a bit rueful.

While in the Peace Corps office I stumbled upon a book “ Embu historical text”, it was accounts from village elders who described the oral history of the Embu people. The teachers at the school saw me reading the book and told me how I probably knew more about Embu then the Embu themselves. I tried to discuss the practices the book described and was told “ oh I think my grandfather told me about that, but we don’t do that anymore”. They seemed remorseful for not knowing more, but suggested that modernizing meant change. Is losing culture the price for a better, cohesive, society?

In the U.S I have come across so many bubble sheets questioning me on my “tribe”, I mean “race”. I have always felt uncomfortable answering these questions. I read each bubble looking for my place. My father is from the U.S would that make me white? The text next to White ( not of Hispanic origin), but that would be a lie. My mother is from Guatemala. I would fill both out and was reprimanded to “choose one”, but both felt like a betrayal to the other.

Coming to Kenya, has changed the way I think about “ races” and “tribes”. I can easily say to Kenyans “ I am American” without further questioning; which is impossible in the states. In a way its freeing to not explain “I am half this, half that”, and sometimes feel I am proving my “Americaness”. I also feel a pang of loss, I am part Guatemalan, a rich culture that I believe sometimes more closely resembles Kenya then the States. Is cultural ambiguity the answer, or is there a balancing act of holding on and letting go?

In my experience living amongst other cultures, I have also noticed despite the extreme variation in culture, there is a common thread of humanity that transcends all else. Sharing a belly laugh with Chinese friends in Shanghai, being moved by the kindness of a Bolivian postal worker, sharing a gaze and moment of understand with Ghanaian woman out the window of my tro tro, feeling unconditionally loved by my family in Guatemala, there has to be something said about our ability to see each other as one tribe-- of humanity.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Fast News

Pole sana for the lack of posting. I have been quite busy with training and various meetings and due to power rationing in the country have had a difficult time connecting. Here are some quick updates on my life.

1. I am very happy and proud to be a first time aunt to my beautiful new nephew! It's an interesting experience to be abroad during the time, and of coarse there is a hint of sadness to being so far, but it gives me a reason to go home in 2011.

2. I have restarted my shamba! Few friends and myself built a gate to keep animals out, the process involved climbing tree and cutting off branches to make the posts then buying chicken wire to close it up. This I hope will inspire me to keep it up during the school year). I also (in a fit of boredom) painted all the rocks outside my house bright green, I'll post pictures soon!

3.I have finished an amazing book The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS. I highly recomend this book to anyone working in Africa or anyone interested in HIV/AIDS in Africa.

4.I am very excited to have people visiting me within my service! I cannot wait to make plans and see loved ones and share what has become such a huge part of me.