I can’t quite remember the first time someone asked if I was a Walalo. I know I was too young to be bothered by it, but not too young to feel the term didn’t quite sit right with me. As I grew up, I heard it at the salon as the lady braiding me would talk about my Walalo hair, and I heard it from the kids at school who didn’t know my name but wanted to ask me to play with them. And even occasionally from my mum’s distant relatives when they talked about my dad’s side of the family.
Walalo holds the history of Somalis in Kenya. It distinguishes Somalis from Kenyans, continuing a process that lies at the heart of Kenyan history and identity. While Somalis arrived in Kenya prior to the politically dominant ethnic groups, the Kenyan state has treated them like outsiders. Attempts by Somali-dominated regions to secede soon after Kenya attained independence in 1963 were met with violence by the Kenyan state, during the so-called Shifta Wars. Since then, regions with significant Somali populations have been subject to multiple massacres by the state.
Even Somalis born and raised in Nairobi experience discrimination. Most frequently, young men are profiled and harassed by the police, who will detain them in holding cells until friends and relatives can bail them out. Perhaps the best example of this discrimination was when Kenyan security agencies held a “vetting exercise” in 2014, ostensibly to weed out undocumented Somali immigrants. The government turned one of Kenya’s major sports stadiums, the Moi International Sports Stadium, Kasarani, into an open-air prison, and detained hundreds of people. Even though family members of detainees carried birth certificates, national IDs, and passports to prove their kins’ nationality, the detention persisted for several weeks. Most detainees were released following organizing efforts by human rights organizations and public outrage on social media, but we got the message loud and clear: Walalo citizenship and Kenyan citizenship are two entirely different things.
My father is Somali and my mother Kamba: he comes from a politically minoritized community while she belongs to one of the politically central communities; while his citizenship is always questioned, hers is unassailable. A majority of the Akamba people ascribe to Christianity while most Somalis are muslim. My father isn’t present in my life, but I look like him: my hair, my skin, my teeth. But perhaps the biggest burden I have is his name. His name means I have to fake a laugh anytime a guard or interviewer or superior sees my identification and asks me jokingly, “wewe ni Al-Shabaab?” Based on my name and appearance, I am assumed to belong to or support Al-Shabaab, presumed an enemy of the state.
When people ask if I’m Walalo, I never know what to say because it doesn’t sound like something I should own. When men catcall me using the term, I’m not sure if I’m mad because I feel harassed or because I feel harassed AND offended. Accepting the term Walalo would mean accepting all the stereotypes that come with it. It would mean I was born in Somalia or Dadaab refugee camp and somehow snuck into Nairobi. It would mean that parts of me silently aspire to one day be an Al-Shabaab commander’s wife. It would mean that my love of Islam had to be apparent in the way I dress and talk, in the places I visit and the company I keep. On a lighter note, it would mean that my family owns an electronics shop on Nairobi’s Luthuli avenue or Eastleigh neighbourhood.
I turned eighteen a few days before finishing high school, so my first task upon getting home was to get a national ID. It’s a legal requirement that all adult Kenyans have a national ID, but beyond the legality of it, getting one would allow me to drive and drink. I was looking forward to the drinking. The requirements for getting an identification card are simple: present your birth certificate and copies of your parents’ identification at your local chief’s or district commissioner’s office, get your biometrics taken, go home with an interim ID, and return to the office after two weeks to collect your identification card.
My mom dropped me off at the DC’s office on a slow Monday morning, and I joined the long queue extending outside the office into the mercilessly hot sun. Most people on the queue were on their phones, some were trying to powder their faces to keep the sun from melting off their make-up, and others were lost deep in thought. Few of us were making small talk. As the line moved, I started observing what was happening inside the office so I could get a better idea of what to expect. There were three desks: at the first, a clerk would verify your documents; at the second, biometrics were taken; and, at the third, interim IDs were issued.
After hours in the sun, it was finally my turn.
“Wewe ni Walalo?” the clerk asked. I didn’t want to say yes, but I couldn’t lie to his face when he could see my name and my fathers’ place of birth, so I kept quiet. “Itabidi uende vetting,” he said. I was dumbfounded at first, then I gathered my thoughts and asked him why I needed vetting. He said they needed to prove that I was Kenyan.
As calmly as I could, I pointed out to the clerk that I had complied with the legal requirements: I had provided my birth certificate and proof of my parents’ identities. He was unswayed. Finally, in a fit of desperation, I told him that even though my father’s citizenship may have been questionable, my mother was Kamba. That didn’t work: I was clearly clutching at straws and my last name and features worked against me.
The clerk sent me home with a list of additional documents I would need to prove I could be legally Kenyan, to counteract the Walalo in me. The documents included a complete history of my schooling, from primary through high school, including letters of admission, leaving certificates, and academic transcripts; my parents’ complete employment history, including letters of appointment and termination; and my immunization card. All the requirements were absurd, but the immunization card was especially absurd, as the last time I received an immunization I was six years old. My saving grace was my mother’s extreme organizational skills and her hoarding tendencies.
I went back to the DC’s office with everything. It still took three months of almost weekly visits and interviews to finally get my hands on that little piece of plastic. The clerks would look at my documents, and then send me back for more. More copies of the same documents, more transcripts, more letters of employment. The evidence never seemed to be enough. They would set appointments with me and then be away from the office when I arrived. They would ask me questions few children born in Nairobi would know, like my parents sub-clans. On two occasions, my mother came down to the DC’s office and read them the riot act.
Of course she and I both knew a bribe would ease the process, but we had agreed we would not be extorted. It was simply a matter of principle.
Meanwhile, my peers got their identification in two weeks and raved about how surprisingly efficient the process was.
Months later, after many delays and false promises, I finally got a call to pick up my ID. I had received several such calls before, only to rush to the DC’s office and return home empty handed. I delayed going by a week. When I finally left the District Commissioner’s office with that piece of plastic, I was numb for a while and then relief swept over me. I realized a part of me had already accepted that I may not get one. It was only after a security guard at a building asked for my identification a week later that I felt happiness. I don’t think anyone has ever been prouder to whip out their purse and pull out an ID than I was that day.
Three years later, my brother turned eighteen, and it was his turn to go to the DC’s office and jump through the same hurdles. His process was tougher, because Somali men are often stereotyped as potential terrorists. His vetting process took 6 months. Worst of all, we had it fairly easy compared to a lot of other Somali young men and women, many of whom go into their mid-twenties without identification.
As I went through the process of getting a national ID and then witnessed my brother go through an even more difficult process, I understood how the term Walalo describes a relationship between Somalis and the Kenyan state. It is not simply a descriptive nickname—it names, instead, a series of obstacles. In fact, it names Somalis as obstacles to Kenya’s idea of itself. I lost all sense of the term as benign.
I hear the word Walalo less and less these days, and that makes me truly happy. My paternal grandfather passed on last year after battling lung cancer. As a child though, I enjoyed watching him lose his marbles whenever the word Walalo was mentioned. He would use his walking stick as a cane to chase off and beat anyone he heard using the word. As children, we found it funny, but as adults we understood. The Kenya he grew up in—the Kenya of massacres, discrimination, and profiling—didn’t leave much room for anything other than bitterness, much less tolerance for the word Walalo. Many non-Somali people of his generation and my parent’s generation are also ditching the term. Maybe it’s just fallen out of fashion. Whatever the case, I’m glad not to encounter it as often as I used to.