Distant Relatives : Chronicles of Being Luo

Often a times I get accosted by strangers in the street who warmly inquire about my well being and then proceed to chat me up with stories of the ancestral land. Don’t get it wrong, I’m no celebrity, it seems my skin pigment (excess melanin as @French_Freddy puts it) is getting me random friends from the lakeside.

The conversation usually runs from, where is your “home” to what do you think about baba (Raila). As much as it irks me, I have to feign affection to the leader despite my apolitical nature. The random friend would then realize it’s long since I’ve been “home” due to the influence of English in my mother tongue accent, and blame the under development of “home” to my likes.

What happens when we share a language but not a culture? Russell Peters, a Canadian stand-up comedian stated that racially he is Indian but culturally he is Canadian. Well, tribally I’m luo but culturally I’m something different, a mash-up of different cultures.

News about village heroes and school performances don’t interest me much, what’s more interesting is that these random acquaintances are mostly perpetuated by the river-lake Nilotes, though I’ve experienced it with the Maasai too. I’m not sure if it’s a good or a bad thing but it’s weird when the only thing we can talk about is our shared ancestry.

A while ago, a man in his early fifties approached me by the bus stop, he inquired about my destination and we were set for a 30 minute walk where he narrated to me the difficulties of living in Nairobi as a luo. In fairness I listened to the whole barrage of tribal and anti-tribal sentiments. At the end of the walk he offered his phone number so we could meet the next day for more “stories”.

How much weirder does it get? Two months later a man of similar description asked me to advise his son on which course to pursue after his high school studies. The fact that I’m a graduate and seem to be doing well kind of resonated with him as mentor to his kid despite our odd meeting. I guess there is a feeling in the luo culture that we are all related and we should check-up on our “relatives”.

The crème de la crème of my experience came mid last year when I was from a meeting at iHub. I usually take a small walk to Kenyatta Hospital to catch the matatus, midway near the baptist church a guy in his late twenties hurried behind to catch up on my pace and stop me. From his physique I thought he was a police officer, he offered his greetings and asked where I’m from. In a jittery mood I said I was from a meeting at the iHub and I can prove it. He then went on for about two minutes explaining (in Luo) that he also on his way to Mombasa but at the moment he’s from paying a visit to a brother living in Kibera. “I stay in Huruma, you should visit me so we can have a few beers”, he said. We exchanged phone numbers and one week later he called me, I never picked up.

Originally published at blackorwa.com on June 26, 2012.