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You’re Not One of Us: The Battle of the Tribes Within Kenyan Marriages

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Marrying someone from a different tribe in Kenya is (still) a big deal. Part of the problem is because of tribalism, and social stereotypes that surround the various communities. Moreover, the nasty experiences that have made rounds on social media have only worsened matters. They have further reinforced the negative perceptions about different tribes, and intertribal marriages.

While one’s tribe is not the only factor that people consider when finding a marriage partner, it often stands out because it shapes who we are to a great extent; the way we do things, our opinions, and our perceptions are largely shaped by our upbringing, which is tied to our culture.

Interested in cracking open what it really means to be married to someone from a different tribe and culture, I approached couples who fit the bill. Lady luck bestowed a smile on me, as some generously agreed to talk about intertribal marriage. They give us the front row seat in the theatre of intertribal marriages.

The wearer of the shoe knows where it pinches

John (not his real name) has been married for ten years. He married from a different tribe. He narrates that the main challenge in intertribal marriage is cultural clash regarding issues such as naming children, food preference, and language. For him, it’s always a tug of war in light of these three things. He asserts that it is the woman who is supposed to immerse herself in the man’s culture since she’s the one being married. He further claims, that all the challenges in intertribal marriages would be averted if the wife assimilated her husband’s culture.

While John has been able to sustain his marriage for ten years despite the differences, for others like Suzan (not her real name), cultural differences and expectations brought a rift that could not be amended. She narrates her story.

“I met my husband in Australia, and we only came home (Kenya) to get married. He is Kenyan. We later came home again, this time for short holidays. But for most of our married life, we were on another continent, away from home.

When living abroad, we do not see each other as tribes, not even as nations, but as Africans. The tribe is so insignificant when you are by far the minority race in that continent. We were also young and untainted by the ugliness of tribalism. We had left home in our late teens, a time when all these biases had not sunk in fully. When our dating became serious, my husband made it known that his family and extended family had an issue with the people of my tribe. He didn’t. But, he was trying to explain the reception I might get from his people.

For the longest time, a President from my tribe had ruled Kenya. According to my husband’s relatives, many businessmen and women from his tribe did indeed suffer at the hands of greedy men from my tribe. Men who had the political power to frustrate and bring down businesses that belonged to the people of his tribe. His wider family and friends had experienced this, so they were not open to their daughters and sons bringing home anyone from my tribe.

Fortunately for us, my parents were political figures who stood up against the regime of the President of that era– their very own tribesman. This was seen favourably by his people, and on that one point, I was accepted.

During our wedding preparations, I was the one at the helm as my husband had to remain in Australia working to the very last moment. It is here that I encountered my father-in-law, and we clashed about every idea regarding the wedding. He had his clear plans down to the decor, and I had very different plans. At that point, I did not see this clash as steaming from different tribes, but later on, I realized my insistence to have the wedding I wanted and not what he wanted was very unlike the submissive nature of girls in his tribe. My father-in-law never took it kindly that I pushed back, and I felt he was never fully accepting of me in his home.

In the 8th year of our marriage, we settled back in Kenya. A well-planned and desired move back home. It is during this period that I felt tribe began to play a negative role in our marriage. I believe there was a lot of pressure on my husband to behave and think in a certain way. He suddenly had a very clear tribe role to live up to. His socio-economic standing within this tribal group had a clear expectation of him, and he was under pressure to toe the line.

This position or role he was to play is something I see clearly in hindsight, but at that point, it didn’t seem that way. Today I realize the wives of men of his standing are all in a certain way. They are meant to be silent. They don’t have any veto power in anything. They do not question and do not lead. They never blaze ahead in their field and should never be seen as more successful than their husbands. If they are, it is played down. Most are not financially independent, do not make decisions, and are all from the same tribe as their husbands.

We would sit at social gatherings where I would be the only one from a different tribe. Needless to say, everything was conducted in his language, which I do not understand. I didn’t mind, although I would get bored and feel left out when everyone was rocking with laughter at a joke. What was shocking is that in our smaller, younger groups, talking in vernacular, even when I clearly could not follow, was the norm. No one cared that I was obviously “floating.” And this is upper-middle-class Nairobi, not small town or village life. Everyone there was proficient in English or Swahili. It was the first time in my life I felt so left out by my own people. But maybe that was the problem. They were showing me I was not one of them, even if I married their own.

It did not help that I did not pick up on my expectations as a wife of a man from my husband’s tribe. I was go-getting, trailblazing, and very much leading in what I chose to do. Today I understand that this probably made him look weak, especially to his father. My mother-in-law and I are as different as chalk and cheese. So suddenly, what he admired in me when we met and lived together thousands of miles away was now a cause of shame and irritation.

Needless to say, the marriage did not withstand the pressure of the move back to Kenya, and although I acknowledge many other factors, I feel the subtle and not-so-subtle expectations on my husband from his tribesmen and family clearly played a role in our miserable end.”

After I listened to Suzan’s narration, I wanted to know whether there were some strengths she drew from being married to a different tribe. Her response, “I do not believe there were any strengths derived from the fact that we were of different tribes. What worked well between us was because of individual choices based on character. I believe it had nothing to do with tribe. In fact, some of the biggest issues in marriage, like finances, were a non-issue to us because we were both open books regarding what each brought to the table. We were able to sit and agree on what to invest in. But soon after settling back home, his attitude towards money changed, and now it was about secrecy and control— something I found out later as very typical of men of his tribe.

At the point the marriage was suffering, I could not attribute the failings to tribal differences, but with time and my growing understanding of what is expected of men of his social-economic standing in his tribe, I see more and more how tribe has affected us. My understanding has come from being surrounded by female friends from my husband’s tribe. They openly share what is expected of them, their opinions about it, their parents’ lives, and many other things I would never have known.

Has my tribe affected my marriage adversely? I do not believe it has. My parents’ life choices meant we did not have many friends of the same tribe around us while growing up. I became more tribally aware when my marriage broke down. I kept on being told, especially by women of my husband’s tribe, that is how our men are!

But you would have to ask my now ex-husband to give you his perspective. I may be the proverbial pot calling the kettle black!”

The hurdles of intertribal marriage

It’s clear that cultural differences that stem from our different tribes play a bigger role in marriage than we care to admit. It could be that these differences; or the perceived incompatibility, are the reasons that some parents and family members have made it crystal clear that there are some tribes their children shouldn’t bring home. While for some people the message is subtle, for a good number, it’s been a stern warning that comes with serious repercussions if one marries from the forbidden tribes.

A tale is told of one Patrick who, knowing his parents wouldn’t accept his fiancée, talked to his mum, who would later divulge the news to his father. Unfortunately, the news was not received well. The parents made it clear that their union will never be accepted. It was made clear that if he went ahead and married, he would be completely cut off from the family. In defiance, the young man married his love. None of his family members attended the wedding. In fact, he is no longer invited to any family events. To his family, he and his young family doesn’t exist.

In another scenario, Jane is stuck in the city with the soon-to-be father of his child as she can’t introduce him to her family because she’s sure her parents will not accept him. She prefers to hide in the city in the hope that once she presents herself with his child, her parents might warm up to their union.

These are not isolated cases. It is a reality that many people marrying from a different tribe have to live with. And it’s disheartening. The fact that one is pushed to choose between parents (culture) and a potential life partner is heartbreaking, especially in extreme situations where choosing the latter could lead to the severing of family ties.

Love should conquer all, but it’s clear that this isn’t the case.

Interestingly enough, even when you’ve put all the effort but somehow the intertribal marriage fails, the blame is always on the tribe. You’ll not hear enough of, “We told you so.”

Despite the negative connotations, we can all confirm that there is no evidence that those who married from their tribe have a higher chance of a successful marriage. If anything, there are broken marriages on both sides of the argument.

A ray of hope

While many mixed tribe marriages experience challenges, there are some cases where it was bliss from the onset. This is majorly possible courtesy of parents with progressive attitudes and clear boundaries from the couple in question.

Perhaps it's time we focused more on the individual and less on the tribe. Click To Tweet

Ken (not his real name) tells me that it was a delight when he introduced his longtime girlfriend, who was from a different tribe. It has been five years since that first introduction, and his parents have been supportive every step of the way.

In his opinion, marriage is about a person’s character and personality. It’s the two people who will live together, so it’s unfair to drag the whole community into it. In his words, “you can’t nullify a lifetime union because of a social stereotype about a community. It’s wrong to generalize the whole community as bad, yet you’ll only live with an individual. If their personality is good, the tribe should not hinder someone from marrying the person they love.”

I couldn’t agree more. Love is a beautiful thing that should not be limited to where one comes from. This is for the simple reason that no one chooses their tribe. It’s something you have no control over.

Another couple who has been married for 20 years shares their experience on how they conquered the insurmountable pressure from both families.

Ann (not her real name), who has been married for 20 years, says her main issue was before marriage. The dowry process was bad. Her dad and uncles requested 73 cows just so they could discourage her suitor. After the dark cloud had settled and they got married, she narrates how she sailed the murky waters to get to where they are now.

“I learned to create boundaries in our intertribal marriage. The good thing is, my husband has been all along supportive. He handles any issues that concern his family. I learned to say no to relatives coming to our house, especially sleepovers, or having nieces and nephews over the holidays. My children who are now 18 and 16 years don’t speak Kikuyu or Maasai. And it’s ok with us. They are Kenyans!”

Liberty to choose

While we want to think of ourselves as a progressive society, these stories tell us that we still have a way to go. From the city folks to our clansmen in the village, the narrative is the same. There’s this fear of what the other tribe is about. The fear that our sons and daughter will be absorbed into a “foreign” culture that we disapprove of. We’ve embraced the thought that our culture is better and our ways superior to the other tribes. But is it? Our cultures are just different. There shouldn’t be a battle of superiority or a numbing fear of the unknown.

What if we could let go of our preconceived notions of what the other tribe is about? In that case, there would be the beautiful chance of intertribal marriage being an opportunity to learn and increase our awareness about the 42 tribes in Kenya.

Perhaps it’s time we focused more on the individual and less on the tribe. Maybe it’s time to shed light on those intertribal marriages that are blossoming. Our brothers, sisters, daughters, and sons need to have the freedom to choose their life partners without fear of being rejected by their people.

Perhaps it’s time we embrace our diversity. We have 42 tribes, for Christ’s sake! It can’t be that your tribe or my tribe is the perfect one. And even if you or I believe it to be, how about letting others explore what this diverse nation has to offer? And what better way to explore this than through marriage?

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