A young Kenyan woman troubled by the question of her identity sets off to Indian to find her roots. She wants to determine once and for all whether she is Kenyan or Indian. Or possibly both. It turns out to be a great journey of self-discovery that even surprises her.
I had to go to India. Believe it or not, it was my first time – at the age of 25. I had to go; I had to go alone; and I had to go now. My entire life I have struggled with my ethnic identity, and with a lack of that feeling of belonging to a people or a place.
Every day in my life as a Nairobian, my Kenyan-ness is perpetually questioned – whether by the matatu tout, the vegetable seller, or the new acquaintance I have just made that day. I constantly have to justify or insist on my Kenyan-ness, and often my non-Kenyan-ness is simply assumed. It reached a point that I was tired and angry. I was getting increasingly irritated and hurt every time someone questioned my being Kenyan, or insisted that I was Indian, really. The identity crisis was driving me crazy.
A quarter of a century into my life, I decided to take a month off and finally visit my ancestral motherland. My quest was three-pronged: cultural, spiritual, and to figure out my identity. I set off on an epic journey, hoping to find some answers from that faraway mystical land called India.
A wannabe Kenyan in a brown bubble
Born and raised in Kenya amongst the privileged Khoja (Ismaili) community, my young life was an isolated bubble of community life. Every Friday night (at least) was spent at the mosque praying, then socializing. Every Saturday morning, I attended religion classes with fellow Ismaili kids. All social events, festivals, volunteering, competitions, and outings revolved around the community. My exposure to the outside world came through the international schools I attended.
I travelled to Canada (Montreal, Quebec) and the U.S. (Berkeley, California) for further studies. Suddenly, I represented Kenya, and more often than not, Africa. While patiently (and impatiently) correcting misconceptions and stereotypes about the African continent over the years, I also became aware of my own lack of connection with the Kenya outside my little community.
Upon return home to Kenya, I decided to re-learn my country while simultaneously following my passions, such as human rights, arts, the environment, and writing. I have immersed myself from head to toe to heart to soul in various social justice movements, from #SaveLakeTurkana to #MauMauArts and many more. I take every opportunity to explore a new part of my beautiful country, and every day I am filled with more love for the people, nature and the vibrancy of Kenya.
In my heart, soul and passions, I am Kenya and Kenya is me. But in reality, the happy union is fractured and a one-way relationship. I am betrayed by my skin colour, my accent, and my broken Swahili. I stand out like a sore thumb, an outsider in the country of my birth, of which I am reminded in every other interaction with “real Kenyans.” I am labelled “Mhindi” which means “Indian” – a constant reminder that I do not truly belong. This is why I had to go to India. I had to visit the country that I am continually told I actually belong to.
Identity search in India
- I blend in here
A quote from my travel diary: “The plane to Mumbai is full of brown skins. My brethren – yet I stare at them like a curious stranger. They stare back – maybe it’s in our blood. I wonder how it will feel to wander streets where I don’t stand out because of my skin colour, where I will melt into the crowd, where I can roam unnoticed, insignificant.”
It ended up feeling wonderful. For the first time in my life, I looked like every other person on the street. Living in Kenya, the average person is black; living in North America, the average person was white. Another quote from my journal: “I love how I blend in to Indian society, how I belong, how I am one of the group, how I don’t stand out, how when people look at me it’s not with curiosity – rather, it’s casual, no different to how they will look at the next person.”
In my opinion, security on the streets in Mumbai and in Nairobi is quite similar. There’s a good share of pickpockets and thieves, but you’ll be fine if you are smart about it and watch your back. However, skin colour does make a difference. A final quote from the diary:
“I feel safer in India than in Kenya because of my skin colour. I blend into crowds. People glance over me without registering my presence – I am just another Indian. Dressed as modestly as the average Indian female and without make-up or accessories, there is nothing that draws attention to me. In every conversation I get into, people speak in Hindi, assuming I am a local.
In Kenya, I often stand out as the only brown person on the matatu (public minibus) or strolling down the street in downtown. My lighter skin has money written all over it, so I get quoted higher prices and I am more of a target than my fellow citizens who are the same as me but black. I get longer looks (almost-stares), entertaining greetings from strangers, and people glance back at me curiously – which is harmless and I don’t mind, but the point is that I cannot melt into a Kenyan crowd.”
- Thoughts of home
In Kenya, I have been:
- A brown skin amongst black skins. Amongst my black Kenyan friend circles, I am often painfully aware of my lighter skin tone. I am similarly constantly aware of my jarring accent, international schooling, different community background, non-Kenyan heritage, foreign native language, and certainly an unintentional social privilege. Although my friends assure me that I am one of them, I feel more like an honorary than a genuine Kenyan.
- A member of a brown community in which I feel alien. My brown Kenyan Ismaili community was certainly a sheltered and safe bubble in which to grow up. It has its homely share of giving souls who volunteer, of jokers who don’t take life too seriously, rumour-mongers spicing up conversations, and unifying traditions of religious rituals and festivals. However, I do not enjoy the community’s seclusion from mainstream Kenyan life. I do not understand why we support each other slightly more than other fellow Kenyan brothers and sisters (note this favouritism is a common feature of most communities – think about your own!). To me, a brown Kenyan Khoja and a black Kenyan Luo, say, are exactly the same until I have met said people. The Khoja community in Kenya is definitely privileged, and not fully integrated – and the blame for this falls on a lack of efforts from both black and brown Kenyans.
- Straddling cultures. I love and eat regularly ugali, mbuzi fry and sukuma wiki as well as a good serving of sev puri, khitchdi, or a home-made vege curry with roti. My ears buzz with various Kenyan and Indian languages, leaving me fluent in just one – colonial English. I comfortably sway my hips to Kenyan Afro-pop and Afro-fusion, manipulate my knees to Lingala beats, twist my entire being to Bollywood hits, and to add some spice, shake my shoulders with Ethiopian eskista. My current friends circle consists entirely of black Kenyan artists and activists, whereas my dearest and best friend since I began to accumulate memories is a brown Ismaili. Romantically, I have had an equal number of brown, black and white partners.
My big question for the trip: Upon leaving India, will I identify more as Kenyan or Indian?
- A new pride
I didn’t feel ashamed of my ethnicity/colour/culture/background in India!
Identifying with beautiful India
I love India (what I’ve seen of it). I split my time between Mumbai, Kerala (southern India) and Rajasthan (northern India). Throughout my travels, I met many people who were friendly, down-to-earth, proud of their culture, artistically expressive, spiritual and in touch with nature. I saw majestic palaces, holy lakes, magnificent diverse spice plantations, the serene shaded backwaters of the south, chaotic vibrant city life, peaceful spiritual centres, and my rural village home. I rode on rickety trains, ate piquant foods daily, meditated for 10 days in a remote pagoda, canoed the peaceful green “Venice of India,” watched traditional Kathakali and Rajasthani dances, stood calmly amidst a herd of buffalo, ran away from a wild elephant, shared a sad glance with an enslaved elephant, rode the famous rickshaws, learned to play the didgeridoo from a dreamy hippie, watched the sun set over Lake Pichola in Udaipur, ate the cacao fruit, and the list goes on.
India is unbelievably diverse and beautiful. My little dip of the toe has made me desire to return there, perhaps for a year. Back to the identity search, random little things made me feel at home in India:
- Most Indians that I met (note this was outside Delhi and they were generally not “upper class”) did not even remotely possess the shallow obsession with the material and with looks that Kenyan Indians usually do; as does the average young Nairobian female, really, whatever their skin colour. I felt much more comfortable and able to be myself without that pretentiousness.
- My legs always seem to fold themselves into that comfortable cross-legged position, whether I am in the office, at lunch, or taking an exam. In India, it wasn’t an odd thing – many others would sit cross-legged too! Funny little thing but it made me feel like I belonged.
- The Indian hospitality was felt almost everywhere. It was so genuine and wholehearted that I felt entirely welcome. Further, I identified with the authenticity and sincerity of welcoming all people (familiar or stranger) and having warm, positive interactions (obviously not every interaction was perfect, but the cultural hospitality is undeniable).
- People addressed me in Hindi, assuming I was Indian. What a contrast to Kenya where even a native Swahili-speaker addresses me in English, assuming I am a foreigner who will not understand Swahili! Ironically, I understand Swahili but not a word of Hindi.
- Of course, it helped to look like everyone else.
Then again, India is a foreign land to me, and I do not remotely understand any of its indigenous languages. I am and always will be Kenyan before anything else. However, my history and culture is rooted in India, and parts of me feel that ancestral connection.
Today, I feel both Kenyan and Indian, but not Kenyan-Indian. Perhaps I’ll start answering the “Where are you from?” question with “I am a Kenyan of Indian origin.”
So who am I?
One complication to throw into the mix is my lack of belief in borders. Borders as they exist today mostly serve to divide and separate. I do not believe in patriotism or nationalism. I do believe in the equality of all humans across races, religions (or lack of), gender, orientation, political viewpoints, so-called social classes, profession (or lack of), culture, and so-called nationality. This being said, it does not entirely make sense to claim that I am Kenyan before anything else, neither Indian, nor Ismaili, nor brown – rather, I am human.
On the other hand, these identity groupings have each played their part in forming the person I am today. It feels good to belong to a community. Perhaps I could claim a mixed ethnic identity: I am a Kenyan citizen, of Indian origin, with an Ismaili cultural background.
However, such an identity claim only feels right to me as a spicy backdrop to my true identity as simply human. Every other human out there is my extended brother or sister (or aunt, niece, etc.). You are me and I am you.
* Narissa Allibhai is a Kenyan activist blogs at People on the Margins, where this article first appeared.
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