Where are you from?
What I really want to know when I ask you that is what tribe you are. I will generally pose this question to you if I cannot already figure you out, if from your name, I cannot tell which region of Kenya you hail from. That tells you that the minute I hear your name, my first mental task is to fit you into a certain category of people – a specific pigeon-hole. My socialisation tells me that such categorisation helps me profile you, which in turn informs how I will regard and engage with you- what I should or shouldn’t expect from you and what shouldn’t surprise or shock me about you.
This is an unfortunate tendency that we received from those who came before us and is actively enabled and encouraged by those we call our leaders. We entrench it further by continually voting them into leadership so we cannot extricate ourselves from the problem. What we do not do for a single moment pause to question is why this question is posed in the first place.
Allow me to suggest that the question was originally meant to establish which village and specific family one hailed from. It was posed to people of the same region. The question was used during the era when anyone who was not immediately familiar was definitely a relative of someone known to us. It was sort of a Nyumba Kumi-type question usually used by the older folk to ensure that every person roaming around our environment was identifiable. It was a security question and therefore natural; definitely not offensive. In some regions the question was even more specific; “whose son or daughter are you? The answer normally came quickly and respectfully from a hitherto stranger eager to be identified as friend, not foe.
Fast-forward to now. The question has evolved to a tribal identification mechanism. The reason for it by a healthy percentage of the posers is still exactly the same as it was in the olden days. So what is wrong with it now, you might ask. It is not so much what is wrong with it but what is cold, mean, unwelcoming and totally counter-productive about it.
In the cosmopolitan nature of our surrounding, every third person we meet will be a stranger. The question is not posed to every third person but to people who come into our space.
This is the same instance in which it was asked in the olden days. One would face this question if they visited a village in which they were not immediately identifiable. The difference today is that the places in which this question is asked are meant to be inclusive; a police station, corporate office, government service point and even in places of worship.
In a city where we expect that we will inevitably interact with others from faraway lands, what might the relevance of this question be? We meet people from various backgrounds in our places of work, business, worship and so on. Why would your tribe be relevant in an office setting, a public service point or church for example? As a member of staff, a business person, a service provider, wherever it is that I do this, there is absolutely no reason why I would need to know where you come from. Could it be that it informs the attitude with which I serve you, which affects the level of service that you enjoy? Unless the subject of your background naturally comes up in a conversation, the question is in any language rude of me to pose.
Yes, I realise it is a common question and those who pose it will insist that it is simple curiosity. It is not. Let us look the tiger in the eye on this; we are a very tribal people. There is undeniable power in our diversity, power that we may never even scratch the surface of if we keep going as we are but the reason we display our intolerance of each other through this rude so-called normal question is not to tap into that power.
It is to inform how we are to treat those who are different from us; “the outsiders”, “those other people”. We ask the question so that we can decide whether we can be comfortable enough in their presence to be our real selves.
Let us understand that “where are you from” was nearly a customary question posed to people of the same region. When people from outside a locality were experienced, it was known and explained beforehand. Their presence was expected. Their presence was not strange and the question did not arise. To ask this question is to say to someone that their presence is unexpected, strange and even unwelcome.
It is to say that they are different and therefore it is required that they explain themselves. It is to a demarcation of the space for a specific people hence the strangeness of a different party’s presence. This cannot be said to be the case in our places of residence, work, worship, etc. we expect to encounter people from distant lands everyday.