I have been peer-reviewed and have been found wanting. As it turns out, my nywele ngumu, my coarse, kinky hair, isn’t enough proof that I’m a Kenyan or an African at that, despite its very strong desire to turn into dreadlocks if left to its own devices. Even though my complexion is lighter than average, I swear upon my ancestors that there’s no caucasian in my lineage. But my pleas fall on deaf ears. My country people have solid reasons why I’m not one of them.
I. My English Is Too Good
Kizungu mingi, too much English, is my biggest accusation. Unfortunately, I don’t sound like a marathon runner (no offence to our national heroes who put Kenya on the map). I don’t speak with any kind of ethnic accent, which confuses people. If nobody can pinpoint my tribe or region from my English, I must therefore be foreign.
To this, I say, please blame my mother, not me. She was a high school English teacher. She taught grammar and literature. She had an uncanny ability to transform D and E students into straight As within a year of teaching them. How dare her children be anything less than perfect?
II. I Don’t Wear Ankara or Kitenge
Every woman has a kitenge or ankara piece in their wardrobe. I am not one of them. I only admire these bold, vibrant fabrics from a safe distance. You see, I’m neurospicy, and it comes with sensory problems. Kitenge and ankara are stiff, rigid, unmoving. No, thanks. I like fabrics that feel like a hug on my skin, not like plywood. Even if someone invented the softest kitenge or wispiest ankara, I would not be caught dead in such a loud print. It’s bad enough my skin tone yells foreigner; that’s more than enough attention.
III. I Am Undercooked…
Speaking of skin tone, I recall a creation story I was told when I was little, an alternative to the Adam and Eve of Sunday school. God gathered all the ingredients to make humans and put them in a huge pot. He placed it on a roaring fire and left us to cook.
By the time the fire went out, some of us at the top of the pot were underdone, but God served us nonetheless. Those in the middle of the pot were well done, and God was happy to scoop them onto the earth. Those at the bottom of the pot had worse luck–they nearly burned! But God saw that they were still good eats and served them upon the earth.
Why the all-powerful, all-knowing Cosmic Chef couldn’t stir the pot once in a while, I’ll never know. Maybe the story was an innocent way to explain to me why I didn’t look like my friends or schoolmates. Maybe it was to teach me that we all came from the same pot. But I still remember the jokes at school after that story, that sijaiva, I’m undercooked.
IV. …But I’m Also a Coconut
I’ve literally been called a coconut and an Oreo. So if I’m black, which already raises enough doubts, I must be white on the inside. It’s something to do with my taste in books and music. Apparently, having an open mind is not a black folk thing.
I’ve also been told my coconut derriére will end up marrying a white man. Okay, psychics, riddle me this: What disqualifies me from falling happily in love with a black man? Will my kizungu mingi turn him off? Will my inner whiteness give him some kind of cognitive dissonance?
Ironically, I did hang out with some caucasians and mentioned this very thing, and I got the strangest response. They laughed and said, “Oh, you’re black?” So, which is it, people?
V. I Don’t Want to Buy Land
As far as investments go, owning land has never appealed to me. Somehow, that negates my Kenyanness, especially because I come from certain Mt Kenya tribes that treasure real estate as the ultimate sign of wealth. Maybe it’s because I’m a millennial on top of being less black, but I’ve seen what people go through chasing this dream. The title deed scams, the real toil of farming, the conniving foremen, the collapsing buildings…
Because I’m so foreign, I’d rather buy an apartment if the God who served me underdone would provide that kind of money. I’ll skip the stress of chasing title deeds and get the finished product. “But that’s being lazy,” I hear someone protesting. Sure, if the cost of an apartment was merely pocket change.
VI. I Don’t Want to Have Kids
Before you threaten me with prayers and ticking clocks, at least hear me out. I adore children. These little creatures are here to remind us that we were all really helpless too at one point, so a little humility wouldn’t hurt. But I’m happier being the cool aunt who your kids will always obey, the fun aunt who knows how to play with them, the awesome friend who leaves the diapers and tantrums to you with a “cheers” and a thumbs up. Everyone wins, right?
Also, three little words reinforce my decision: In this economy?!
VII. I Am Too Much of a Nerd
Maybe I’d be blacker if I were a man, but alas, I am a female who occasionally geeks out on sci-fi and obscure bands and films that nobody ever heard of. It doesn’t help that I wear glasses because of my astigmatism. Apparently, this is too non-conforming by local standards. If I had a shilling for every time I was told my tastes were too weird, I’d afford an apartment. It doesn’t matter that I don’t play video games or read superhero comics or write code. I’m not black because I love Battlestar Galactica.
VIII. I Am Also Chinese and Puerto Rican
I saved the most absurd for last. One time, I hailed a bus and the conductor shouted, “Beba beba mrembo wa China,” and I had no comeback. I could only laugh and wonder what made me Chinese in his eyes. Incidentally, my mother had the chance to travel to China and she kept telling me, “I see you everywhere! The only difference is, you have bigger breasts!” Thanks, mom.
A few months after that, I was running errands at a major hotel in Nairobi, and I needed to find the business center to make some photocopies. I asked a security guard for directions in Kiswahili and he gasped, “Kumbe wewe ni wetu?” He could not believe I was a local. Again, I could only laugh. I asked him where he thought I was from, and he said, “Puerto Rico.” I gave him an A for originality. He had probably seen people from every nationality at his job at the hotel. But how he decided that I’m from the Caribbean will remain a mystery.
While I appreciate this kind of feedback, I think my country people are missing out on one small detail: human suffering. It’s the great equalizer. Struggles don’t care that I’m a child-free, coco-Rican geek. I know poverty, grief, hunger, ever-present pain, neglect, abuse. I know these things first-hand. I fight daily to stay alive. But no, I’m too foreign to have suffered. No, I’m not poor, I’m being stingy. These are words that someone said to me when I was starving. My struggles seem to be fictional because I don’t look like it.
Alright, then, here’s my solution. I’ll create my own country. I’ll cook everyone to the correct doneness. We’ll all speak in sign language. We’ll wear animal hides and live in huts. We’ll be more concerned about the lions in the bush and snakes in the grass. Sounds like heaven.