Sometimes, one gets questions that sets one on an odyssey. This happened to me one day while I was working in some forgotten hamlet of the expansive Wajir County. A mzee who was furiously brushing his immaculate white teeth with a bush toothbrush posed:

Wewe ni  Kukuyu,sio?

The Somalis can’t say Kikuyu but articulate it as Kukuyu.  Same way with mwanamke which comes out as manamke.  It’s the same way most Westerners cannot say ‘Kenya’ but say ‘Kenia’ because they don’t have the ‘nya’ sound in their languages. Anyway, back to the story.

During my extended stay in Northern Kenya, the question about my tribe became so common that I had to coin a standard answer for it:

Mimi ni  madho madho.

Madho madho, which translates to nywele ngumu is a term that locals in Northern Kenya used to describe non-locals. People with hard hair unlike their curly hair. The term is analogous to nduriri which is used by the Kikuyu to mean ‘outsider’.

 By extension, madho madho is analogous to ‘Gentile’ which is used by Jews to mean ‘non-Jews. Every community, in its narrow reasoning, imagines that it’s the center of the universe. Every other person is an unwelcome intruder who doesn’t belong.

My standard answer served two purposes. First, it would break ice between the speaker and me. Secondly, it would lead to more questions. Questions like ‘who taught you that madho madho word?’

There before, I had never given much thought about my tribal looks. But after being asked so many times whether I am Kikuyu, I started asking myself an anthropological question:

How does a Kikuyu look like?

Somehow, I pored over some books that would shed light on how a Kikuyu looks like. One such book is   Binyavanga Wainana’s acclaimed essay Discovering Home. Sample this excerpt:

..Thin-faced, with the large cheekbones common amongst the Kikuyu, cheekbones so dominating they seem like an appendage to be embarrassed about, something that draws attention to their faces when attention is the last thing they want.

I found that description of our people abit of, more so since it came from a reputable writer who was half Kikuyu. Luckily, Binyavanga atoned for that misdemeanor against the house of Mumbi in his next sentence:

Anywhere else, those faces are beauty.

So much for Binyavanga-may his literary soul continue resting in power. Binyavanga’s sentiments made me innately aware of our large cheekbones and thin faces. My mom had large cheekbones and so have most of my aunties. A good number of my kin have large cheekbones and thin faces too. I have large cheekbones too-too high that I can hang a cap there.

What if Whoopi Goldberg is Kikuyu?

By the same token, I know sons and daughters of Mumbi whose faces are chubby and have no jutting cheekbones. Whoopi Goldberg has those large cheekbones yet she isn’t Kikuyu. So much so that if she donned a shuka and set up a   hotel in any estate in Nairobi, she would pass of as any other Mama Shiko.

 Alice Walker has those high cheekbones too, and so does Snoop Doog.Who has a thin face as Binyavanga describes Kikuyus. Could the ancestors of these African Americans have been Kikuyu before slave trade?

Kikuyu’s aside, the common perception is that Somalis are tall lithe people who are generally brown. In my travels in Wajir, I came across four feet tall Somali tribesmen who were darker than obsidian. I even met some blue eyed Somali ladies in Tarbaj constituency, yet blue eyes are believed to be a Caucasian trait.

The six blind men of Calcutta

Tribal identity is fleeting and a highly subjective matter. We allocate certain looks to a certain community based on the average looks of the members of that community we have met. We all are like the six blind men of Calcutta who, upon touching an elephant, each described how the beast looked based on the part they touched.

What do we make of this? The problem with those generalized perceptions about how members of a certain community looks is not that they are wrong. The problem is that they are incomplete.

One trusted ways of eliminating these incomplete perceptions is by travelling. But since it’s not always possible to travel to meet every other tribe, reading can smash stereotypes and foster more positive images about ‘other’ people.

One book that captures perceptions about Africa and its people is Binyavanga Wainana’s book ‘How to write about Africa.’ This award winning essay, his magnum opus perhaps, is a must have for anybody who wants to understand the psyche of Africa. You can purchase a copy on Amazon by clicking on this link:

Gilbert Mwangi

Creative writer,dreamer,and Drum Major for all things true.

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