When I make a new acquaintance in Kenya, particularly those of a certain age, there is a question I will very likely be asked during that first conversation: “You must know Mr So-and-So Singh?”
My new friend will then proceed to roll off the names of a few Sikhs of his acquaintance, typically building contractors or garage owners. And will look very surprised when I say no, I don’t know them.
The frequency with which this happens does give pause. It reflects a Kenya that still believes in ethnic cocoons, mentally gated communities and tribal lanes. One has to know “one’s own people” and be immersed in community affairs. One’s close friends are expected to be ethnically appropriate. We should only really interact with “other people” out of necessity, to buy or sell stuff or build business networks.
How sadly stilted and stunted that world is, and how anachronistic. How unfit for the modern world, and how out of place in what matters now.
I have written here before: “Once upon a time, this thing called ‘tribe’ mattered a great deal. When all our livelihoods were dependent on soils, rivers and pastures, your tribe helped you secure those vital resources for “your” people. Your tribe kept you safe and kept you fed, so you were right to feel loyal.”
But that’s not the world we’re in now. We left those economic systems behind, but have forgotten to take our minds along. We should be focused on knowledge and skills and interaction, not in peering over our fences at “the others.”
I am indeed a Sikh, and very proud to be one. I love my language and its songs, my food and its flavours, my kinfolk and their peculiarities. But that’s not all I am. I not defined and delineated by my birth. I love visiting all types of societies and partaking of all types of cultures.
So no, I don’t know that many Mr or Ms Singhs. You possibly know more than I do. I know a few, certainly, and have made great connections with them. But I equally know every other shade and flavour of person out there, and am very happy to do so. I need to learn from and engage with a wide variety of skills and opinions and passions, and it is not possible for the micro-universe of Singhs to fill this spectrum. Nor is it possible for “your people,” whoever they are.
Thankfully, a new generation is beginning to shed the shackles of ethnicity, and is fashioning fresh “tribes” based on occupations, passions, interests and quirks. Generation Y seems way less bothered by people’s names and birthplaces than its predecessors were. My child’s range of friends is appreciably wider and more varied than mine ever was.
This disturbs many, but it is a good thing. I do not want my language or culture to die out, but I do want it to earn its keep. If Punjabi retains the love of its speakers and if Bhangra music continues to entrance fresh generations with its irreverent beats, both will survive. I will fight for these things to make it, but not at the expense of a wider world-view or a broader appreciation of humanity.
Old Kenya, however, is not that way inclined at all. It is narrow and bigoted. It is no surprise that Kenyan “humour” is mostly a comedian saying things in a variety of exaggerated accents. That so many still find this entertaining in 2014 is telling. We have a long way to go, but negative ethnicity must eventually give way to a positive celebration of difference and diversity.
I do hope the world retains many, many wearers of colourful turbans and singers of irresistible folk songs, but I won’t befriend them all or make them my only companions in life’s many complicated journeys.