kikei [dot] net >> [r]evolution[s] >> prose fiction >> nationality: kensian


nationality: kensian

(first published in Awaaz, 2005, under the title 'the kensian')

“You’re not Kenyan enough. You’re just Kensian.”

When you first hear the word, you can’t help but stop in your clichéd tracks and turn around to stare at the speaker. It’s not the word itself that bothers you - goodness knows you’ve heard it enough times already - it’s the attitude behind it; it’s the sneer on the face of a man you had once looked up to; it’s the way he says it, sounding so odd coming from someone you once considered a mentor.

Until now.

‘Excuse me?’ Your voice is soft, polite, just the way mama always told you it should be. Although you know that if it wasn’t for the self-control that mama also taught you, you words might have been much harsher, much cruder; your reaction would have been more physical. You’ve got to have so much self-control so that you don’t just hit out at every face you see; you’ve got to have some insane amount of self control not to lash out at anyone and everyone who’s got a passing resemblance to your mother’s rapists and your father’s murderers…

And everyone here looks like everyone else.

Stereotypical thinking. You catch yourself, feel the brief flush of shame but then you tell yourself it’s not your fault you think like that. After all, it’s been drummed into you your whole life. In your world, it’s all about stereotypes, the stereotypical behaviour that controls people’s thought processes, even yours. Yes, even you stereotype people too easily, though you hate to admit it.

So you’ve got to have self-control to stand here and listen to him insult you like almost every one of his kind does. You’ve got to have discipline not to react to his slurs, telling yourself it’s not his fault because he is just another African, another black, viciously attacking whoever doesn’t agree with him. Another stereotype, although this one is more of an observation you’ve made, walking along the city streets, trying to keep your head high, ignoring the whispers, trying not to cry when you’re pushed down into the mud by hands unknown. And everyone pretends that it just didn’t happen.

“You heard me. You’re not even Kenyan,” The tone of his voice is casual, like he was telling you the time of day or the directions to a shop on Biashara Street. “You can’t be Kenyan, so why do you try so hard?”

His sentence ends oddly, stilting to a stop. Like he was saying something else, something he bit down before it could come out. And indeed, when you look at him, you can read the expletive that’s dying silently on his lips. As if the voices behind you giving voice to it weren’t enough: “whore.”


Stop, stare, drop pretences. Dust your shoes and find an attitude. This time, you don’t care about mama’s lessons. There’s a certain rage that you’ve had inside you for many years now, it’s a rage that never takes you far because you never let it get out of hand. The rage of being discriminated against: for your ‘terrorist’ religion, for your gender, for being too much of something and not enough of the other. For having a skin that doesn’t quite fit you, or anyone else for that matter. You’ve got a rage that stems from your inability to accept that you are not accepted.

“I am Kenyan, thankyouverymuch,” you whisper through gritted teeth, and, around you, it’s like even the cars have heard your strained voice, over the clamour of matatu touts shouting ‘Beba, beba, beba!’ and a thousand people talking on a thousand mobiles, because it’s like everything stops, comes to a screeching, grinding, audible and very painful halt, where the silence bangs away at your eardrums.

A moment when everyone stops to listen to this young lady. A minute to listen to the remarks of the hotshot writer of whom most have heard by now because his literary accolades have put Kenya on the world literature map. He’s the toast of the town; the one who people declare has single-handedly brought about a revolution with his ideas and his hard work with young, aspiring authors who all want to be ‘just like him’. And everyone stops to listen…

To him.

To listen...

To you being put down, yet again, by someone who’s obviously so much more important than you: little, non-consequential, too-Asian-and-not-Kenyan-enough you.

“I am Kenyan. I hold a Kenyan passport...”

Cutting you off, the man simply laughs in your face, his trademark short dreadlocks shaking as he throws his head back, brown beer teeth shaping the loud, coarse laughter. It had always sounded so sweet to you, but now it pierces your ears like the shrill scream of your mama when she was raped by shadows, shadows that she had once trusted and laughed with, shadows that changed their faces as day changed into the dark, dark night that they called home.

“That doesn’t make you Kenyan. I bet that you had to give out some good chai for them to give you that,” he spits, and the bitterness is so apparent in his voice that you can’t help but wonder at the irony of it all: here he is, labelling you, when all along you had thought he had the sense to see beyond skin colour. The one person you thought didn’t fit into the stereotype was the one who felt most comfortable in it.

You bite your lip, tasting the blood, trying to ignore the accusation. Around you, people don’t just stand still, they don’t even breathe because they’re all waiting for you to say something, anything.

Just so that they, too, can laugh at your pretence. Who’s going to believe you when you say that you hadn’t? Who’s going to take your denial seriously?

Obviously, no one cares about the honest few. It’s an unfortunate stereotype you’ve got to live with, just like everyone else who has been boxed into a neat little package according to race or tribe. Just look at the Kikuyus, greedy for wealth, so much so that they won’t even let any other tribe be - there couldn’t be a Kikuyu out there who doesn’t love money. It’s an essential part of them, just like corruption is a part of you. It’s in your skin, in your blood, in your brain, this love. Who can blame dear old Kamlesh for wanting to make a few million shillings on the side? Or Ketan for simply thinking of his future when the banks went broke? The conduct of your countrymen, of a few within your ethnic group, once again, is your undoing.

“I…” you open your mouth to speak, but it’s too dry. It’s always been too dry for you to ever speak your defence, for some odd reason. You know you’re telling the truth, so why is it so, so, so hard for you to open your mouth? Is it because of the hostile stares, the jeers that you don’t belong here? Is it just the whole idea that you’ve been written off even before you speak that undoes you?


“You nothing!” Again, the laughter that drives to your very soul, and you’re aware, you’re very aware, of the tension that’s behind the laughter, and the stench of sweat that permeates the air around you, the sweat from a hundred workers on a hundred construction sites. “You’re nothing but expatriate bullshit...”

Now it’s your turn to laugh. The words that were just levelled at you were nothing that you hadn’t heard before - in fact, you’re surprised he took so long to get to a simple point like that. Of course it just boils down to this, those two little words that describe who you are, what you’re doing, where you came from, that nicely sum up the popular opinion of you and your people.

Expatriate bullshit.

No wonder he sounds so bitter. Who can blame him, because everyone, everyone knows that you’re all the same, expatriate bullshit, and none of you can ever be different. There’s a certain mould for the likes of you.

Expatriate bullshit.

Isn’t that what always happens - the rich émigré of Asian origin hands out some…chai? And then gets his legal documents processed double-quick? Gets the passport, the medical claims, the good table at the reservation-only restaurant?

You throw your head back and laugh, and the sound to you is like water rushing through the dirty streets and the crying of a child who watches from behind the safety of a metal grille door as her father’s head is smashed against a wall. It’s dirty and comforting and weak and oh-so-terrifying all at once, this laugh of yours, because only you can understand why you’re laughing. No one else gets it, no one in the circle around you and least of all the man in front of you. He thinks he knows, with all his talk of promotion of industry and loud banging on tables with righteous fists and his denunciation of expatriate bullshit.

But he doesn’t know what you know.

And you know. You know that when your worth is defined by ethnicity rather than nationality, there’s going to be hell to pay.

“Is that what this is about?”

You walk up to the man, and you’re still laughing. He’s staring at you like you’ve gone mad, and so is everyone else. All of them are in a tight ring, standing around the two of you, your laughter heavy on their ears and their looks just bouncing off you because you couldn’t care less. You don’t need to look at them at all but you can just make out the few spots of tan between all the brown, like flecks of caramel in a bar of chocolate. The nervous tension of ten aliens, from ten regions in another faraway country, all watching you. That idea only makes you laugh more, and you even grab onto someone to support yourself as you try to control yourself, ignoring their attempts to shake you off.

But what’s so funny? What is it that’s just driven you to hysterical laughter, what is the thought that gives you so much joy?

Why are there tears in your eyes?

Why can’t you stop laughing? Are you afraid that you’re going to crumble? Is that why you’re laughing, because that’s what you’ve been doing all these years when someone steps on your pride and grinds it into the pavement, you laugh until it hurts to breathe because you know you’ll break if you don’t do anything else?

When you finally turn and face your former mentor, your face is frozen but for the rapid blinking that still fails to stop your tears. You’re rather glad for the clouds that have settled over your eyes, a natural defence coming to your rescue so you don’t have to see him. And even though he can see you, he can’t see into your soul, he can’t see what you’re thinking as you walk up to him. You move so close that you can smell the remnants of last night’s Tusker hanging on his early-morning dragon breath. Typical. The literary icon with the perfect bohemian lifestyle, where hygiene is an alien concept and the stench of stale alcohol only adds to his value as a writer. 

You’re typecasting again. But in your fight against the labelling of people like they were mass-produced commodities, you find yourself giving into the instinct of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. A stereotype for each and every stereotype they associate with you.

“Is this all that is about?” you say softly, not bothering to hide the hostility that you tried not to show before. “Is that what you called me here for, to tell me what I’ve always known? To humiliate me more, like everyone else?”

He doesn’t answer, but looks away, and the crowd leans in for what could be mistaken as dramatic effect. Or maybe it’s just your mind telling you that they’re leaning in because the space between you and them seems so small. Everything is at a standstill, something that you’ve never seen, at least not in Nairobi. Nothing ever freezes here, not even in a traffic jam, but you’ve done the impossible because there’s no sound, no movement, just you and a spotlight in a clearing in a forest of bodies.

But you couldn’t care less. All those years, in the classroom and on the streets, you had never dared to put a foot out of line; you had never let yourself get past your fear of retribution. Retribution. That was all you were afraid of and that’s why you always kept your anger to yourself because when it’s about two million against one, it’s not so easy to escape. Bite your tongue and shut your eyes and maybe the teacher will finish the lecture on “why foreign labour is the main cause of unemployment in Kenya”, and maybe you can go home and just dream about getting your own back on everyone who hates you because you’re expatriate bullshit.

But this is not the classroom. This is not the classroom, where your teacher would smile at you as she passed you a test paper which you had inexplicably failed, even after getting all the answers right. This is not the classroom, where the girl to your left whispers insults loud enough for people three desks away to hear, and when you try to tell her to shut up, you get Saturday detention. This is not the classroom, where you put your hand up but the teacher refuses to see it and where you can only sit in your corner and watch in envy as others are given the chance of being the student of the week because you’re the undeserving foreigner in the class with the funny accent whom everyone hates because that’s what they’ve always been told to do. This is not the classroom, where you hate people right back, but you have to harbour your anger in silence, because of your fear.

This is a busy Nairobi street, and you had come all the way here, in a Metro Shuttle, no less; you had taken time out and skipped off a day from school just to get to town to be told that the one thing you really wanted, the thing that you had worked your whole life for, was not meant for you because of your skin colour.

It’s nothing that you haven’t tasted before, though, this disappointment, this defeat. It’s even become a regular word in your vocabulary because you’ve been let down twenty-bloody-nine times before, and only God knows how many more times you will be rejected in the same manner of ‘not enough… too little.’

This is your life story: the statement of one; the story of one girl who lives in one country but is buffeted around because people think she belongs to another.

How many times have you rehearsed this speech, always wanting to tell people what you really think of them but every time getting cold feet at the last second? Well, now’s your chance, your moment to speak, because this chance - it’s never going to come again. Go ahead, tell them, tell them what you’ve been telling your bathroom mirror for years.

“You know what my mama told me once?”

He shakes his head at your question, this man who once inspired you now shaking in fear at the sound of your voice. Once you shook, with awe; your hands trembled because you thought it was such an honour to meet such a man. Now your hands tremble with a different emotion altogether; your hate flows through your veins and keeps you standing, determined to tell your story, to teach them a lesson, and to show the one, who once made you shake, what kind of fear you had to live with day and night.

The fear of retribution, because all you are to anyone here is expatriate bullshit.

“She told me that I shouldn’t try so hard to be Kenyan either. She…”

Your dear mama, she was wise, wasn’t she? But it had never been enough for her just to be wise because she couldn’t ward off those who wanted to break her. She couldn’t just fight them off with her wisdom, could she?

But she did teach you, and she taught you well, and now you’re going to show them that she raised you to be a woman who stands on her own two feet in the face of those who doubt her. You had to pick up the broken pieces of your life along with your father’s battered body and your mother’s torn soul, and all you had to help you were words, words that stayed with you a long time after they had gone.

“She told me that I could never be like my classmates and that however much I tried, I would not be able to be Kenyan. But do you know the reason why?”

One step, two step, and you’re so close to him that you can feel the heat, permeating through his clothes, and the space around you grows even smaller as everybody strains to hear your next words.

“I might have been born here; I might have lived here all my life. I might die here. I might do everything to serve this country… but at the end of the day, it’s not where I come from. In a place where everything’s just black and white… I’m not.”

Ati?’ His eyes bulge. His lips are slightly parted and you can see the ugly beginnings of brown teeth, and it’s all you can do not to turn tail and run away, but this is no time to be scared. Fear only becomes those who have something to be afraid of. And what are you afraid of? Speaking out? Speaking out for those rights that rightfully belong to you but have been snatched away by those who stereotype all as if they had been given the divine right to classify people into good or bad along race lines? All you’re doing is saying the truth, and that’s what’s the most important thing in this world of lies.

“If I were black, people would hail me as one of the revolutionaries. If I were white, you would kiss my feet. If I were black, I would be a woman working hard for her income using her talents. If I were white, I would be someone who graced your functions as a welcome guest. But guess what? I’m not. I’m a muindi, I’m someone who’s apparently closed up and confined and hostile towards the locals because everyone who shares this skin colour happens to be. I’m a suspicious character because I live here, where everything about me is unwelcome. My name makes me a terrorist… my colour makes me an elitist… my clothes are not of this land just because I wear them. When I line up for a job I’m always barred from getting to the interview because I’m…”

And then you pause, savouring the moment. Because everyone is listening to you. The world has stopped turning, and a collective breath is being held as you survey the man in front of you with disgust. The same face you had thought was once kind now appears to be harsh and cruel; the lips that had once praised you highly are hypocrite’s lips. His eyes are blind of colour and have a look that’s begging you not to go any further because he knows what you’re going to say.

After all, the words had originally been his, his creative expression of what you are, what you mean to him. And you are going to throw them right back in his face; you are going to give it all back to him, not just the support he pretended to give you but also the pain he’s just caused with his petty insult.

The thought makes you shiver. You’re the one in control now and you’re not used to it. But you’ve come too far to get out now; you’re condemned to be a villain, so start acting like one.

When no one listens and in a land where everything about you is alien…you’ve got to put aside your dignity and listen to your pride.

“When I try to get ahead…”

One step away.

“When I give my all to something that I love…”

Two steps away.

“Whatever I do is not enough. My charity isn’t wanted and my work is thrown in my face. It’s not enough because I’ll never be… because I’m not… as you said, I’m not Kenyan enough. I’ll never be Kenyan enough because I’m not black. My child will never be Kenyan enough because she’ll be the child of a whore. A Kensian whore. That’s what I am.”

Your mama’s screams fill the air. But no one can hear them but you.

“Thank you for enlightening me to the fact that in a country full of smiles, there has to be one to cry, and who better than me? You think that it’s just that easy, to brush me off, to pretend you never heard of me, because I’m just a little Kensian bitch and who listens to me? Why believe me when you’re too Kenyan and I’m not Kenyan enough? Why believe me when you’re the one with the black skin?”

Your mama begs you to stop. But no one can see her but you. You turn your back on the image of your mama, prostrate on the ground.

“In a country where the most important thing is if you’re black or white, I’m just a Kensian. So forgive me for wasting your time with my expatriate bullshit. Forgive me for ever trying to be Kenyan, because if being Kenyan means that I have to be black, and if being Kenyan means that I have to be a racist, then I don’t want to be Kenyan.”

Your mama’s sobs are too loud. But no one can hear them but you.

The matatu touts shout, “Shillingi kumi, beba! Kumi, kumi, kumi!” A car horn blares. People walk away from the tight circle, pretending that nothing just happened there. You know that he’s staring at you. You can feel his eyes burning through your clothes and into your back, his fury tangible even at this distance. But he’s soon lost, swallowed up whole by the mass of people who have stopped being individuals to you… now they all look the same. And it’s not just you typecasting anymore.

But you don’t care, not now. You can’t bring yourself to care at all any longer. Your steps take you farther and farther away, down roads with names that you can’t pronounce and up the stairs into a building that you’re all too familiar with. Once you had come here to get a little blue booklet, the little blue booklet called a passport that claimed to say that you belonged to a certain country. Kenya. Kenia. Kee-nee-ya.

Now you’re here for a very different reason. In this old building, the air is musty and even with the lights on, it’s dark. The stairs go on and on and on. It’s like you’re going around with your eyes closed, feet moving as your brain switches to autopilot and directs you to the left. There’s an office, the glass window set into the door dirty, dirty, dirty and no way of seeing through.

You knock. The voice behind the door could be saying anything, but you don’t really hear the words. You’re not even sure if you hear the voice or if it’s just another assumption that someone obviously has to tell you to come in. The door squeaks horribly as you push it open. Through another door, down another passage… another dark room where you stand in front of a desk. There’s a man there, just another man with a bored smile and terrible teeth and beer breath. He thrusts the papers at you almost as soon as your practiced words are out of your mouth and turns away. You don’t matter to him, and he doesn’t matter to you. He could be a part of the background, even, just another piece of furniture to you in this dirty old room.

The documents that you hold in your hand seem to be the only things in this place that are real. Everything else is just an image in the background, something that’s been projected onto a screen. Yellow cards and black print and dotted lines and boxes. You sit at an old desk and stare at the forms in front of you, drinking in the rich yellow of the card that they’re printed on. They’re vaguely familiar, forms that you’ve filled out countless times before for various reasons so that the response should be automatic by now.

You fish out a pen from your pocket and scratch away at the topmost form for a few seconds before you reach the line that asks you for your nationality. You pause and stare at it, this little blank space on a card, a formality, asking you which country you belong to. A question that does not matter because your skin betrays you otherwise.

Your pen draws letters in the air, and your hands shake. You have to put the pen down for a few seconds - at least until you’re sure that you’re not going to end up writing something illegible. The man at the desk peeps at you from over the newspaper, the rustling being the only sound you can hear apart from your own breathing. It reminds you what you’re here for, what you’re supposed to be doing, and again the pen rests firmly in your palm.

You fill in the space that you had stopped at before and append your signature below, only pausing to re-read the form once more before you move onto the next one - only pausing to re-read that little word you know will always be a part of you, that you can’t escape.



© Marziya Mohammedali, 2001-2013