Shaving the Leopard’s Mane

by Nkirote Laiboni

Nkirote Laiboni explores our narratives of migration, race and identity through her own family histories and personal realities

First published: 27 August, 2014 | Category: 

Ni kwenja nkari igoti

Translation: It is to shave the leopard’s mane

Meaning: a Meru proverb that is used to describe a difficult and risky undertaking

Three months before my visa expires. A decision has to be made. Should I renew my visa and stay? Or should I heed the directive of the stranger on the street who, a few summers back, voluntarily and at full volume advised my brother and I to go back to Africa?

Perhaps it is time to return to Kenya. After all, the newest narrative seems to be that ‘Africa is rising’. Africa, we are told, is the world’s fastest-growing Continent. The rapid growth in mobile phone and internet use in the Continent is revolutionising the economic landscape and presenting new ways for citizens to access services and to participate in decision-making. Kenya’s mobile banking innovation M-Pesa has been so successful that it has been adopted by India, Nigeria and most recently, Britain. In recent years, the papers have been filled with headlines of discoveries of oil, natural gas and mineral resources in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Ghana and beyond. Courtesy of the Chinese, Kenya now boasts the first superhighway in East Africa. International investors are flocking to Nairobi, Lagos and other commercial centres. Kenya, and the rest of the Continent, is indeed undergoing a tremendous transformation. And I, for one, would like to be a part of that change.

But wait. Are there no opportunities here too? After X number of years in England I’m finally getting used to the weather and the culture. The discovery that not every British person sounds like the BBC World Service journalists I grew up listening to no longer fascinates me. I have accepted that regional accents and dialects are as varied in the UK as they are in Kenya. My social and professional network is growing and I’d like to think that my experiences in England – positive or otherwise – have moulded me into a more discerning individual. I feel somehow indebted to my adopted country and I want to make a positive contribution. Is this really the right time to leave?

I spend a few sleepless nights weighing the pros and cons of each decision. Leave or stay? Go! No, keep calm and carry on! Finally I decide to seek solace in the Manchester Cathedral, an architectural attraction whose sombre interior has the ability to calm even the most cantankerous of old men.

As fate would have it, I stumble into an immigration-related event that is being held at the small wooden chapel next to the Cathedral. Organised by a local civil rights organisation, the event seeks to provide a platform for asylum seekers to share their migration and asylum experiences. Save for a few young Syrian men and a sprinkling of Caucasians in the audience, most people at the event are of African heritage. I find a seat at the back of the room and listen as the asylum seekers recount personal stories of abuse, war, destitution and isolation. Some of the speakers have been in the asylum system for over 10 years. A number of them have spent a stint at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre - which in recent years has been rocked by allegations of sexual and physical abuse of female detainees by guards - and are campaigning for its closure. Their stories are intimate, hard-hitting; almost too difficult to hear. I am at awe by how brave they are, at how effortlessly tales of torture and corrective rape roll down their tongues.

A Nigerian woman at the event takes the seat next to mine and shoves a paper and pen onto my lap.

“Sign it!” She whispers, “It’s a petition. For my asylum case.”

I look at the woman’s dark and slightly gnarled hands. Her asylum application has been refused and having exhausted her rights to appeal, she is under the threat of deportation. Yet she carries on fighting: if she collects enough signatures, perhaps this might put pressure on the UK Border Agency to reverse its decision. I wonder if the struggle is really worth it. Why invest one’s time, energy and other resources on fighting a complex and ever-changing immigration system only to stay in a place that at worst makes one feel like an unwanted outsider and at best, like an ‘in-betweener’, never really in your home country but never truly in your host one either? Then again, what other alternative does such a person have? Go back? What would she be going back home to? A country that didn’t protect her from persecution, debilitating poverty or whatever else she was fleeing? Besides, after spending 5, 10, 15 years in her adopted country, can she really call her country of birth ‘home’?

Whatever the reasons for migration – political upheaval, natural crises, economic betterment, education, social reasons - the migration experience can be as daunting as an attempt to shave a leopard’s mane.

I have had the opportunity to migrate for educational, work and family reasons within and out of Kenya and all of those experiences have been accompanied by some degree of culture shock and loneliness. These experiences have taught me that while immigrants may be equal in their shared experiences, some are more equal than others. If well-paid expatriate professionals are at the top of the immigration pyramid, then undocumented migrants and asylum seekers must surely occupy the bottom. As an expatriate in Thailand and an international student in Costa Rica, I was largely cushioned from some of the challenges migrants have to grapple with. New university students and expatriates have one thing in common: they do not have to work very hard to make new friends. University students benefit from students’ societies and support services which induct them to life in their new places of residence and help them build friendships. Expatriates, on the other hand, have social networks where they can meet other expats and are likely to work with other expats or with locals who have international experience.

For people who move somewhere new to join family (like I did when I migrated to the UK) or to seek asylum, socialising might not be as big a priority as finding employment and accessing housing, health and other social services. For these groups of migrants the process of making like-minded friends can easily turn into a project, entailing goal-setting, research, planning and budgeting. On top of the stress that accompanies these practicalities, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants have to deal with additional limitations brought about by their irregular immigration status.


The Curious Case of Ole Laiboni

Two months before my visa expires. I learn that, due to a change in my circumstances, I may no longer be eligible to apply for permanent residency. I seek legal counsel. I get a second opinion. I scour the UK Border Agency’s website. It turns out that there is at least one other type of visa a person in my situation could apply for.

At night, the dance in my mind continues. Like two lovers in a dysfunctional relationship, I vacillate between thoughts of staying and thoughts of leaving.

As I lay in bed, I wonder if my forefathers ever had to deal with this type of dilemma.

Legend has it that my ancestors originated from ancient Egypt. A second and conflicting historical account traces the Meru people’s origin to Manda Island, off the coast of Kenya. What is common in these two narratives is the theory that as early back as the 18th century the Meru were conquered and enslaved by a community known to them as nguo ntuune: the red people. It is thought that the moniker was used in reference to their masters’ skin colour, suggesting that the Meru had been enslaved by people of Arab descent. The Meru, led by a prophet called Koomenjue, eventually fled and settled near the foothills of Mt. Kenya in Eastern Kenya.  

Although the first account might be less accurate than the second, I am tempted to pass it on to my child as the gospel truth. I like the idea of having Egyptian roots, however unlikely that may be.

What matters to me though, is not whether the Meru migrated from Egypt in the North, or from Kenya’s coast in the South but what both oral histories demonstrate: that we all came from somewhere. If this is the case – if, in essence, we are all migrants- can any one group of people truly lay a historical and everlasting claim over a place? Can any of us assert, beyond reasonable doubt, that this land, this nation, has always belonged to me and my people since the beginning of time; that we will own this land, this nation, until the end of time?

I would also like to pass on these stories to my son because they both illustrate one of the main reasons why people have migrated for centuries: to flee persecution. But people also migrate to seek greener pastures. And in the case of my great-great-grandfather, this might have been both literal and metaphorical.

A family debate is brewing on social media. The topic? My great-great-grandfather, Laiboni, and how he, a Maasai nomad and pastoralist, came to live amongst Meru farmers in the Eastern highlands of Kenya. My siblings and I have differing theories. These are largely based on what our father told us when we were children, and are perhaps an indication of how unreliable of a mistress memory is. As my brother observes, recounting oral history is akin to playing ‘broken telephone’.

According to my older sister our forefather was nothing more than an elevated watchman: a warrior who was recruited to protect the Meru farmers from cattle-rustlers and warring neighbours.

My younger sister remembers it differently. She claims that our great-great-grandfather was the son of a laibon: a Maasai medicine-man and spiritual diviner. Traditionally the laiboni (plural of laibon), who were all male, came from a single clan and the position was passed on from one generation to the next. As shamans, the laibon healed illness and determined god’s will. When conflict, disease and other forms of misfortune arose, people consulted the laiboni to establish what they could do to appease their god. And so it was that when conflict arose among the Meru people, our great-great-grandfather was called in from the land of the Maasai to keep the peace between warring Meru clans. Somehow, he never left Meru.

Uncle Ndereba, my father’s brother, finally sets the record straight and reveals that there might be some truth in all our theories. It was Laiboni’s great-grandfather Sinkuu, and not Laiboni himself, who migrated from Maasai-land. My uncle cannot say why Sinkuu decided to settle permanently in Meru. Perhaps the benefits of living in Meru – access to resources and the status he held as a visionary – outweighed the personal costs of leaving his community and everything he knew behind.

Laiboni’s descendants seemed to have rebelled against their Maasai and shamanic heritage: ironically, my great-grandfather led a group of warriors to fight the Maasai and my grand-father literally broke the ‘laibon’ lineage by throwing away his father’s divination objects and embracing Christianity. A direct result of a community of migrants that had a great influence over the Meru and other peoples in Kenya before and during the colonial era: Christian missionaries.


From Meru to Nairobi through Asia

Perhaps Sinkuu’s genes are to blame for my family’s seemingly restless nature. My father grew up in Meru but has lived in Mombasa, Nanyuki and Nairobi in Kenya, and in the UK and Asia. My mother, also born in Meru, is no stranger to living away from loved ones either: she went to school in Garba Tulla in Kenya’s arid North and was working in Nanyuki when she and my father first met. When I was three weeks old, my father got a job with an oil company and my family moved to Asia. A year later, we returned to Meru only to move to Nairobi about a decade later. And so without having to say it out loud, my parents imparted upon me a curiosity and an appreciation for other cultures.  

Growing up in Meru in the ‘80s and the early ‘90s, I did not consider the Indian family that lived on the flat on top of my mother’s shop in Meru town or the small mysterious Japanese community that had settled in a forested area a few kilometres from town to be any different from, any less Kenyan than, the rest of us.

My older sister, on the other hand, was wise enough to recognise that however settled migrants appear to be, one of their constant private battles is that of acculturation and integration.

A few weeks after my mother packed us all up into her blue Datsun and moved the family to Nairobi, my older sister, then only twelve years old, decided to baptise us. If we were going to survive in the city, she argued, we had to shed our old skin. We were no longer country bumpkins: we needed to stop using our native names and to adopt new names – English names – to match our sleek, newly-acquired city personas. Armed with a Macmillan English dictionary on one hand and a Bible on the other, my sister christened my siblings and I with names that she had chosen from both books.

We did not fit in as easily as my sister would have liked; not in our new neighbourhood and certainly not in the primary school that my parents had enrolled us into. We were different. Our thick accents betrayed our rural roots and where our schoolmates wore shop-bought uniforms (plain red dresses with white collars and white sleeves), my siblings and I had to contend with red pleated tunics and white blouses that had been made in my mother’s tailor-shop. The fact that there were seven of us provided the aspiring comics among our classmates with rich material. References were made to the musical scale (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti) and to seven-aside football teams. Needless to say, we stuck out like a sore thumb. Not for too long, though. We watched our new friends closely and learnt what to wear and how to enunciate like native Nairobians. We became urbanites: we picked up Sheng (the slang language of the urban Kenyan youth), listened to American Rhythm and Blues, and wore the uniform of the cool 1990s teenager: jeans, bodysuits and checked shirts. Slowly, as English and Swahili became our primary languages, my siblings and I also lost something: our native language, Kimeru. When one looses their mother-tongue, a part of them also dies.

Although I have since stopped using the English name my sister bestowed upon me years ago, I have been tempted to revert to it in recent years. In England, my name seems to elicit an interesting range of reactions from people: from frowning to stammering to laughter.

“I can’t pronounce that,” one woman tells me at a training workshop, “Do you have a nickname?”

I want to ask her if she can pronounce ‘Ronaldinho’, ‘Didier Drogba’ or the ‘unpronounceable’ name of any other international footballer. Instead, I begrudgingly ask her to call me ‘Nkiro’.

 ‘Nkiro’ is a term of endearment; it is what my mother and siblings call me. The word sounds wrong on the tongue of a stranger who is too lazy to learn the correct way to say my name.

“Kio,” she says. I do not bother to correct her. So for an entire afternoon, I become ‘Kio’.

My name is no longer just a name: it has become a cultural lesson-in-waiting. It is more likely than not that whenever I meet a native of my adopted city for the first time, I will hold a mini-lecture on the pronunciation, meaning and genesis of my name. What usually follows is a variant of this question: “why did you move to England?”

Ten years ago, I might have found it strange that an adult would, like my older sister did with my siblings and I, change his or her name in order to be accepted by others. Not so much now. Whenever I meet or hear of Asians and Eastern Europeans who anglicise their names or adopt new English names upon arrival in the UK, I identify. Such migrants simply want to assimilate, to get on with their lives without a constant reminder of their outsider status, to access employment and other opportunities without having names that create additional barriers. After all, we are social beings: we want to belong, we want to be accepted, and we want to be seen.  



It is just over twenty eight days before my visa expires. I read an online article about research by the University of Manchester whose results reveal that black people, Asians and other ethnic minorities in England and Wales are now more likely to be educated to degree level than white British adults. I make the mistake of scrolling down to the readers’ comments section. A number of the comments range from combative to down-right offensive but one of them takes the cake: the commenter challenges the validity of the research by suggesting that black Africans and other ethnic minorities have lower IQs than white people.  I wonder who this anonymous commenter is, and what is behind the venom and the fear that is dripping from his words. Do I really want to bring up my son in a country where his intellectual capacity will be judged on something as superficial as the colour of his skin?

Feeling disillusioned with British media, I click on the Daily Nation’s website. Two suspected terrorists have attacked a church in Kenya’s second city, Mombasa, and left over ten people injured and four people dead.

It occurs to me then that whether I leave or stay, England, Kenya and every other country on earth has its own unique set of challenges and forms of prejudice. Racism, sexism, tribalism, nepotism, insecurity, conflict, environmental challenges, poverty, political incompetence, corruption, multinational greed: is there a country in the world that is not struggling with at least one of these issues?

So perhaps what matters more than anything is not where my son grows up, but how he is raised. Wherever he ends up – Kenya, England or somewhere in between – I can only hope that he grows to be as wise as the market woman who recently had this to say about Abdul Dawood, Meru’s first MP of Asian descent:

“We did not vote in colour; we voted in development.”

This is part of NLP's Immigration series

Nkirote Laiboni grew up in Meru and Nairobi, got enlightened in San Jose, Bangkok and Manchester, and is currently seeking a place to call home. Nkirote is the co-founder of Environmental and Social Justice Monitor (ESJM), a social enterprise that aims to support artisanal and small scale miners in Kenya to mine safely, responsibly and sustainably. Twitter: @nkirotelaiboni. 

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?