Text & Photographs: Nikke Kinnunen
Before arriving to Kenya I had heard about the different tribes living there, but I didn’t quite understand what it meant. For an average westerner the whole idea of a tribal tradition is alien. I expected it to be a historical remnant, alive only in the countryside, where people live much like their ancestors used to.
After two days in the country I began to understand how much I had mistaken. The tribal tradition is alive and well, from the small townships in the countryside to the bustling Nairobi metropolis. The culture, history, and traditions of ones tribe are passed on from generation to generation via an oral tradition unlike anything I have witnessed before.
Parents teach their children the ways of their own tribe. This practice ties generations to a bloodline that endures through time and space, and makes people know that they belong. The feeling of rootlessness too common in our western society is unknown in Kenya. No matter how bad off one is, they always have a home and a family.
This was manifested particularly well in the words of a young man I spoke to in Kibera slum, Nairobi. When I asked him where his rural home is, the answer came instantly. “I am from the Lowlands” he said, and continued: “the same place where Obama is from. Obama is my brother, and if my brother can be the president of another continent, what stops me from being one, too!”
Having originated from the same place means having a shared history, culture, and traditions. For Kenyans it means – in short – being family.
Of course, the coin has two sides. Relying so strongly on one’s past sometimes makes it difficult to move forward. Even some of Kenya’s educated city dwellers believe that mental illnesses are caused by witchcraft. The rights of the LGBT-people are non-existent. And cruel traditions like female circumcision still have a place among some of the tribes. The tribal tradition makes parts of the Kenyan society extremely conservative.
Yet even with its faults, I view the tribes’ oral tradition as something beautiful, strong, and worth holding on to. In a world filled with uncertainty there is nothing more important than knowing, that you have a place where you truly belong to, and people who are always ready to welcome you there.