Can you look beyond the stereotype?


If you live in Nairobi you are probably have a cross section of workmates and friends from different ethnic groups. You probably know more than just a few people who come from Luo, Luhya, Kalenjin, Kikuyu or Kamba backgrounds and  even  a few more from the less populous ethnic groups such as Bajuni, Digo or Teso. Nairobi is a melting pot, the place where many flock to find their fortune.

Rural-urban migration ensures that people from all corners of Kenya moved here for work. Some have made it their permanent home with up country (shagz) reserved for monthly or annual visits.

If you are a second generation Nairobian, ethnicity can even fall behind neighbourhood and schools attended with social groups forming around the people you see every day. While this has in a way brought down ethnic barriers, many people still resort to stereotypes when jokingly describing people from another tribe or even themselves.

“ You know us Kyuks love money”

“ Ha! Lunjes and tea!”

“ Jangos and flossing! Eish, but do you say”

and so on and so forth.

These stereotypes serve as comic relief, ice breakers and have created enough content for local comedians to laugh all the way to the bank for a very long time.

They are “never that serious” as Kenyans would say.

In my first year in college, I had a friend whose heritage was Jamaican and Kalenjin. The first time I found out about it, I made an off hand joke about Jamaicans and weed. Sean Paul’s Gimme the Light was involved and I cringe at the memory, an imaginary smoke ring was blown. Coming to think of it, it was not even funny.

She looked at me blankly and said.

“Not all Jamaicans smoke weed, I hate that stereotype.”

What followed would have been an awkward silence but we ended up having an interesting conversation about stereotypes and how they affect our view of people and places. I made a mental note to think twice before making stereotypical jokes about anyone.

plural noun: stereotypes
a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.
synonyms: standard/conventional image, received idea, cliché, hackneyed idea, formula.

Fast forward to 2016 and I still find myself at the receiving end of such jokes, based on one of my parents’ ethnic group. Usually I shrug them off, make a self deprecating comment and move on. The thing is, unless you have the comic timing of Eric Omondi, ethnic stereotype jokes usually come off flat and clichéd. But we make them, smile wryly at friends who make them, nod knowingly or erupt in applause if it happens to be a positive stereotype about ones own ethnic group.

In most Kenyan social settings, stereotypes are considered ‘not that serious’. This does not mean that they don’t have their dangers… politicians do take advantage of perceived stereotypes to drum up support by creating an ‘us vs them’ scenario, case in point Donald Trump or the ubiquitous use of hate speech in Kenyan politics.

On a more personal level, I think stereotypes stop us from learning more about a person based on who they are. We would rather place them in a box that suits our views and experiences than try to get to know the multi-faceted being behind the label we have assigned them.

Stereotypes can be offensive in a backhanded way, take the girl in my high school dorm who asked what tribe I was and then replied: “The way you are cute, I though you were ________(insert her ethnic group here).

Or the people at work who insist on knowing exactly where ‘home’ is so they can create some form of kinship based on your ethno-geographic lines.

And yes, we can make jokes if we want, but do these jokes come from a place of respect and understanding of another persons heritage? Or are they just sweeping statements made to garner laughs?

If someone tells you that your stereotype comments bother them, do you stop making them or do you keep doing it all the while chastising them for not knowing how to take a joke?

As five year olds in the playground, we rarely started off by asking what someone’s tribe was or based our affinity for them on this knowledge.
Conversations went something like this:

“What’s your name?”

“How old are you?”

“Do you want to play?”

Perhaps it’s time to embrace our childhood curiousity when it comes to socialising, I am convinced this will lead to much richer  and mutually rewarding interactions.

Read more about stereotypes at:

I’m Not What You Think I Am



Have you ever been stereotyped? share you story on the comments below…


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