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Kenya's Wahindis

The uneasy life of Indians in Kenya



The uneasy life of Indians in Kenya. by - Nilanjana Bhowmick

Nearly a generation ago, Pres. Idi Amin booted Indians out of Uganda with his infamous "Asian farewell speech" on Aug. 5, 1972, in which he accused them of "economic sabotage." Within a matter of weeks, Uganda's Indian population had been decimated from 75,000 to under 1,000.

The Uganda crisis seeped into the adjoining East African countries of Kenya and Tanzania as well. Even though they were not under political threat from local regimes, fearful Indians fled those countries as well, halving their numbers in the region in under a decade.


Thirty six years on, the Indian population in Kenya has grown to over 100,000, roughly their numbers at the start of the 1972 crisis, but still well below their peak of 175,000 in 1962. But even to this day, the ghosts of colonialism and nationalism still linger. Tourists might know Kenya for its picturesque beaches in Mombassa and the rustic game parks in Masai Mara.

But the scene is far from idyllic for Indians, who are looked upon by the Black majority as exploiters who came "and took all the jobs and businesses away." The Wahindis, as Indians are locally known, are most commonly stereotyped as mean and exploitative business people. No matter how long their roots in the country, Kenyan Indians don't quite feel welcome in the country of their birth.

Says Parveen Singh Jandu, a reputed dentist and businessman: "Political uncertainty has been in Kenya and Africa at large for the last 40 years. Most people who have migrated have done so for economic reasons and for the education of their children. I was born and brought up here and I cannot think of leaving this country and settling anywhere else. Although I studied in India, I set up my dentistry practice in Nairobi and subsequently opened the first branch of my restaurant in Nairobi. This country has given me a lot. I personally would never like to leave. Who likes to leave home?"

Jandu is co-owner of a popular Indian restaurant chain Haandi, which has branches all over East Africa and in the United Kingdom. Jandu and his wife Ravinder were both born and brought up in Kenya. They carry British passports, but chose not to migrate and continue to live in Kenya.


The popular Indian restaurant chain Haandi
restaurant has branches all over East Africa
and in the United Kingdom

The history of Indians in Africa is fraught with strife. They were brought to Kenya as bonded laborers by the British to lay the Kenya-Uganda railway. By 1921, almost 25,000 of them had settled roots in the country, sowing the seeds of racial discord with the dominant African community. Under British rule of the Kenyan colony, Indians prospered better than the natives and even won nominal representation on the legislative council, inviting nationalist African wrath following independence.

Sunny Bindra, a management consultant and columnist for the Sunday Nation is a third generation Indian Kenyan. He says that Indian Kenyans who have migrated to other countries have not done so solely to escape racial hostilities: "Many feel a great sense of national pride and a feeling for 'their' country; others seek to make their lives elsewhere. But that is equally true for African Kenyans: there are as many as a million African Kenyans in Diaspora scattered all over the world."

Although the Indian population is heavily concentrated in urban areas like Nairobi and Mombassa, they are also scattered all over the country, as a disproportionately large number of businesses in the country are owned by Indians.

Signs of Indian life are dispersed throughout Kenya. It can be found in the clammy atmosphere of Diamond Plaza, where whiffs of hot jalebi sizzling in sugar syrup, and kebabs frying in ghee hit your nose as soon as you enter. Or the chaatwallah dishing out yummy bhelpuri and sevpuri. Or the too-close-for comfort little shops with their Indian wares, cheesy accessories and clothes. Or the bargaining Asian ladies. You can drive through the country past malls with names like the Sarit Centre or beauty salons called Deven's and feel the Indian presence in every pore of the country.


Parveen Singh Jandu: “I was born and brought up here and I cannot think of leaving this country and settling anywhere else.”

Jandu says: "Economically Indians are the largest employers in the private sector and their economic success has always been a sticky issue with the indigenous population. Politically, pre-independence we had a lot of contributions from the community as Mahan Singh was the father of the union movement and the owner of the first non European newspaper which raised its voice against the colonists. Pio Gama Pinto was a freedom fighter who was assassinated soon after independence. Of late, the Indians have taken a back seat in politics though we actively participate in elections and have a few contestants also."

Zahid Rajan, editor of an Indian magazine AwaaZ says: "The South Asian community has played a sterling role in the anti colonial movement with individuals like A M Jeevanjee, Pio Gama Pinto and Makhan Singh playing sterling roles in the struggle for 'Uhuru' (freedom). Other individuals like G L Vidyarthi, Pranlal Sheth, Achhroo Kapila and others played anchoring roles in the fields of journalism and law."

Today, the more affluent Indians live a very sheltered life in Kenya. Many retain security guards and burglar alarms at home, fearful for their personal security. News reports of Indian businessmen being robbed or killed, or Indian houses being burgled are not uncommon.


Whiffs of hot jalebi sizzling in sugar syrup,
and kebabs frying in ghee hit your nose as
soon as you enter Diamond Plaza

Like elsewhere in the Diaspora, Kenyan Indians struggle with their identity. Kiran Pacchu, a fourth generation Kenyan Indian, says, when Kenya plays India in cricket, she always roots for Kenya, as "that is my national pride." However, she also recognizes that to a majority of African Kenyans, she is just a Wahindi. "It's great to be a fourth generation Indian Kenyan.....though sometimes there has been an identity clash, because you don't know where you belong and neither the Kenyans nor Indians accept us as their own. For example, when I went on a trip to India, the local Indians from Punjab saw us as foreigners and when in Kenya some African Kenyans feel we are not true Kenyans. Even though I have never lived in India and have no sense of belonging to the country... Kenya is my home and always will be."

Many African Kenyans complain that Indians have never assimilated. Bindra says Africans share the blame: "Black Kenyans have been equally disdainful of Kenyan Indians and their culture. So, a mutual distance has grown."

Interracial marriages between Kenyan Africans and Asians seem taboo. Most Indians are unwilling even to comment on the subject. Rasna Warah, a columnist with the Daily Nation, who is married to a Kenyan African, wrote in a column: "All marriages are hard work, but inter-racial marriages are even more hard work, because their survival depends not so much on cultural norms and expectations, but on pure determination. What I have learned is that such marriages will not survive if race is the only criterion for the selection of a partner. When someone is marrying you because you are of a certain race, be sure they are not marrying you for who you are, but for what they perceive to be the benefits of the union. That is why such marriages rarely last. Furthermore, if the marriage is between an Asian and an African, the stigma is so great that you would need an iron will to keep the marriage alive."

The Indian identity is often centered around Hindu temples, Sikh gurudwaras and Muslim mosques. Nairobi boasts six Swaminarayan temples and the Ramgarhia Sikh community of Kenya runs several gurudwaras. Indian religious groups, such as the Hindu Council of Kenya, are active in social development projects. The Sikh temple Trust in Makindu, one of the poorest districts in the country, organizes several welfare projects and the dentist Jandu conducts free dental clinics for locals.

Makindu Gurudwara, the biggest Sikh temple, lies along the Mombassa-Nairobi Highway, welcoming locals and tourists alike, dishing out hot food in the langar 24 hours a day. African Kenyans, Indians and white expatriates frequently drop in on their way to Mombassa, to worship or admire the beautiful views of Mt. Kilimanjaro seen from the top of this Gurudwara.

Call it a sign of religious tolerance or economic necessity or social integration, but the sight of local Africans, donning a Sikh turban to serve langar in a gurudwara is incongruous. One such waiter, who did not want to be named, said, "I really don't mind wearing a turban as it is their custom. It is my job and I have to do it as best as I can."

AwaaZ's cultural arm, South Asian Mosaic of Society and the Arts (SAMOSA), celebrates the "The Samosa Festival" in November, showcasing South Asian music, drama and performances.

Says Rajan: "It has showcased the South Asian community within East Africa through a series of exhibitions, discussion forums, concerts and dance performances. The vision is to make the Samosa Festival, with its emphasis on cultural fusion, become an item on the world cultural calendar, to be mentioned in the same breath as the Zanzibar International Film Festival, the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and the North Sea Jazz Festival."

Some day perhaps. But it will be a very long time before Indian Kenyans are fully embraced by the country of their birth.