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In my story, the parents of Jata and Muchoki’s mother play a significant role. Pictured below are her “parents”—the real-life inspiration for Jata and Muchoki’s grandparents. These are in fact the parents of Henry Kyatha, my dear friend who was integral to the running of the orphanage and who died suddenly in late 2013. Henry’s father, pictured here, died just a year before his son, and was somewhere between 97 and 107 years of age. Henry and his wife, Ruth, with the permission of Henry’s father, generously donated the land on which our orphanage on The Rolling Hills Residence is built. Henry’s father also gave generously of his time and history. He spent two days telling my wife traditional Kamba stories, including the creation story, the people of the string, which are so important to Walking Home. It is on his authority that I was made a member of the Kamba tribe and given permission to tell “our” stories. While this is truly an honor, I fully acknowledge that these aren’t my stories—that I need to write them with care and respect and be always aware of the dangers of appropriating the voice of those to whom those stories belong. There is always a need to use extreme care when telling the stories of other cultures—whether it is a traditional tale or a current situation. I entered into the novel knowing that I had to not only draw on my own experiences in Kenya but also to rely heavily on the expertise and opinions of Kenyans. I have a real sense of comfort in being in Kenya. It feels very much like a second home—but it is not my home. I am a visitor and while at times this allows me an outside perspective I always need to be aware that my interpretations are second-hand and can lack the depth of those who are part of the culture and who actually experienced what I’m trying to write about. I am not Kenyan. I was not forced from my home. I did not lose members of my family to violence. It was therefore essential that through the research and writing of this story that I was constantly engaged in dialogue: I interviewed people, asked opinions, shared my thoughts, perspective, and ideas, and then finally the writing itself. IN the end, this story was read and reviewed by Kenyans. It’s important to now only get it right but to show respect and honor to the people you are trying to portray.

An interesting side note about Henry’s father

Having climbed Kilimanjaro in the summer of 2011 I returned to Kikima worn-down, tired, and more than a little beat up. I went to sleep for 12 hours. Waking up the next morning, I went outside and in the mist coming up the side of the mountain I saw two figures. It was Henry’s father and another man. Henry’s father only speaks Kakamba (and I only speak English). Through the other man, who acted as translator, Henry’s father said that he had “heard” I was in the community but since I hadn’t visited with him he needed to verify that this was true with his “own eyes.” I apologized, tried to explain how worn out I was and that I had needed to rest before visiting and paying respect. He seemed satisfied, said goodbye, and turned and walked back through the mountains to his home—a round trip of approximately eight kilometers. I made sure to visit him the next day!

Bonus Chapter

When I’m writing the first draft of a novel, thoughts and ideas about my characters can pull the storyline in different directions. I almost always write more than I end up including in my final draft. Sometimes knowing what not to include is as important as what is included. Here’s an alternative Chapter Three that didn’t make it into the final book. Do you think I made the right decision?

Click here to read: Bonus Chapter

Ethnic Groupings in Kenya

When we think of Africa, the image that often comes to mind is that of “the tribe” and “tribalism.”  Where did this profound imagery come from, and what is the reality behind the word “tribe?” Some scholars like Professor Ngugi Wa Thiong’o have argued that the idea of the tribe was a colonial invention, used to divide and conquer those native to the land. Although ethnic differences were recognized in pre-colonial Africa, they were not emphasized to the same degree as after colonization. Thiong’o believes that the “colonial state deliberately kept the colonized peoples in perpetual tension through the well-known imperial tradition of divide and rule. Over time, the cumulative effects of these policies and practices stoked and deepened bitterness … toward one another.” That said, Africans prior to colonization had self-proclaimed groups and identities based on ethnic and cultural similarities. Perhaps then, a better way to understand those living in Kenya is by looking at groupings based on ethnic similarities rather than through the lens of tribalism. In fact, Thiong’o identifies that “most African languages do not have the equivalent of the English word tribe.” The intent of this section is to look at the groupings within Kenya by identifying the ethnic groups that existed prior to colonialism and continue to exist today. In doing so it is important to note that these ethnic groups are not exclusive to Kenya. For example, the Maasai people can be found in both Kenya and Tanzania. In total, Kenya is believed to have as many as 70 distinct ethnic groups with populations as big as seven million (the Kikuyu peoples), and populations as small as 500 (the El Molo peoples). To better understand similarities within these groupings, most ethnic groups can be placed within one of three linguistic categories: Bantu, Nilotic, and Cushite. For instance, the Kikuyu peoples are the largest group in Kenya, making up 20% of the population, and are within the Bantu linguistic grouping. Below is a chart, presented by the African Studies Centre at the University of Pennsylvania and published in the Encyclopedia of the Third World, which gives a comprehensive breakdown of these complex and bountiful ethnic groupings. The chart shows fifteen prominent ethnic groupings in Kenya.

The chart shows fifteen prominent ethnic groupings in Kenya.
Group%LanguageArea
Kikuyu 20.12 BantuCentral
Luo 13.91NiloticNyanza
Luhya13.28BantuWestern
Kamba10.95BantuEastern
Kalenjin 10.88 Paranilotic Rift Valley
Kisii 6.41 Bantu Nyanza
Meru 5.07 Bantu Eastern
Mijikenda 4.76 Bantu Coast
Somali 2.29 Cushitic Northeastern
Turkana 1.86 Paranilotic Rift Valley
Masai 1.42 Paranilotic Rift Valley
Embu 1.08 Bantu Eastern
Taita 1.00 Bantu Coast
Iteso 0.78 Paranilotic Western
Kuria 0.54 Bantu Nyanza
Samburu0.50 Paranilotic Rift Valley
Tharaka 0.45 Bantu Eastern
Mbere 0.45 Bantu Eastern
Pokomo 0.32 Bantu Coast
Boran 0.31 Cushitic Eastern
Bajun 0.22 Bantu Coast
Nderobo 0.19 Paranilotic Rift Valley
Rendille 0.17 Ushitic Eastern
Orma 0.15 Cushitic Coast
Gabbra 0.15 Cushitic Eastern
Swahili 0.09 Bantu Coast
Njemps 0.06 Paranilotic Rift Valley
Taveta 0.06 Bantu Coast
Sakuya 0.04 Cushitic Eastern
Bani & Sanye0.07 Cushitic Coast
Source: Kurian, George Thomas 1992. Encyclopedia of the Third World, fourth edition, volume III, Facts on File: New York, N.Y., p. 970


Below is a visual approach to understanding the geographical locations of Kenyan ethnic groupings. As you can see, even the Kikuyu peoples, who are the largest ethnic group, do not inhabit a large geographical space, nor do they make up the majority of the population.
map-of-ethiopia
Source: CIA, UK Foreign Office, African Studies Centre.

When Kenya became an independence state in 1962, those living within the defined geographical boarders were now considered “Kenyans” rather than Kikuyu, Kamba, Luo, or Maasai. This new concept of self-identity based on nationality rather than ethnicity was not a quick transition and, for good or bad, ethnic identity is still prominent in Kenya. This transition in identity was happening across the continent as decolonization was in full swing by the mid-twentieth century. A quote from the first president of independent Nigeria, Obafemi Awolowo, perfectly highlights how difficult it is to accept a national identity when the nation you live in does not reflect cultural or ethnic similarities, but rather, is the product of imperial tampering. Awolowo states, “Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression. There are no ‘Nigerians’ in the same sense that there are ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, or ‘French’. The word ‘Nigerian’ is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria and those who do not.” Simply put, identifying as ‘Kenyan,’ ‘Nigerian,’ or ‘Rwandan’ after independence was merely the recognition of living within a state boundary. Now that Kenya has been an independent state for over 50 years, there has been a slow progression or shift to the acceptance of a national identity. As a result, intermarriage between ethnic groups has become more common, and widely accepted. The study of ethnic groupings in Kenya shows just how diverse this nation is and sheds light on how colonialism affected the concept of identity and belonging. The clash between seeing oneself as Kenyan or seeing oneself as Kamaba continues to have lasting effects on the stability of this nation.


References Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi. “The Myth of Tribe in African Politics.” Transitions (2009): 16-23. “East African Living Encyclopedia.” African Studies Centre University of Pennsylvania. url: http://www.africa.upenn.edu/NEH/kethnic.htm.