The American elementary school kids were fascinated with my history, with the fact that I came from Africa. They would hold up National Geographic magazines and ask me if recognized anyone in the pages. With a serious face, they would point at one of the Maasai women with no tops and pretty jewelry and ask me if she was my aunt. They asked me if I lived in hut. They asked me if I wore clothes. They asked me if I had a lion for a pet. Or an elephant. Or a cheetah.
After awhile, I got tired of saying no, of seeing the disappointment in their eyes, and I started to say yes. A totally sarcastic "Yes!" but a yes all the same. Funny thing, saying yes with a modicum of truth tinged with obvious sarcasm does not work well on 4th graders. They just didn't get the sarcasm part. It was all truth and awesome tribal stories to them. I’m sure my wild Afro; my penchant for storytelling and my accent didn’t help.
Yes, I am a tribe’s person, of the Kamba tribe. (True)
Yes, my father is the chief of the tribe. (False)
Yes, when I get old enough, I will marry the son of the nearby tribe in order to build tribal relations and foster peace between our tribes. (So obviously false)
One time, my father had to drink the blood of a cow to show his respect to the Maasai elder. (Totally true. And awesomely gross)
Yes, we wear clothes unless we're hunting in the bush and then we just wear our tribal skins. (False)
Yes, I can kill you with just a bow and arrow. (False but only because I hadn't tried)
Yes, I did have a pet lion. Everyone did. (False.)
The questions were so absurd and my answers were so outlandish that I was sure no one would believe me. And yet it continued, as I grew older. When the movie ‘Out of Africa’ came out, my friends and I trouped out to see it. As the movie started, with a long pan across the African plains, a friend leaned over and asked, “Do you recognize anything?”
“Yes.” I said, sarcastically. “Yes. That tree right there is where we used to picnic.”
Because I’m that good that I can recognize a lone tree in acres and acres of bush as the one tree we used to picnic under. Because that’s what we did in the bush, picnic. No need to worry about the wild animals or anything. When we wanted a picnic, we went to that tree and picnicked and the lions and cheetah and wild buffalo etc left us alone. Heck, we'd hand feed them when we were done.
People believe what they want to believe. And growing up in Africa, knowing someone who grew up in Africa, that’s a pretty cool story. In fact, years ago, long after elementary school, a friend introduced me to a new acquaintance as someone who grew up in the bush.
“This is ej.” She said. “She’s actually a tribal princess and when she grows up, she has to go back and marry the son of the neighboring tribe!”
I turned and looked at her and burst out laughing. “What? Where in the hell did you get that?”
“From you.” You told me that in 5th grade.”
It turns out she’d been telling my “story” for years, to everyone she introduced me to or talked about me to. I was the Kenyan tribes person who would one day be a chief's wife. I was so sad to have disappointed her.
Of course, now if I mention I’m Kenyan, people think of Obama. They have a better idea of what it means to speak with an American accent and have a history like mine. Now that I’m in the South, lots more false impressions come with that history but I just smile, tell them we’re from different tribes and change the subject.
Don’t get me wrong. I like my history. I like my different upbringing. I like that I do have stories of lions, and a rhino did actually charge us once but, while I am Kenyan, I’ve been American longer. No need to talk about the lions now.
At least until I go back ride one, like I used to do.