The Kenyan-Indian Connection

Nairobi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta after their press statements at State House in Nairobi, Kenya on Monday. PTI Photo by Kamal Singh (PTI7_11_2016_000128B)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta after their press statements at State House in Nairobi, during the PM’s visit to Kenya. PTI Photo by Kamal Singh

The day before yesterday therebout, I chanced upon a post by a local media station on Facebook, claiming that the Kenyan-Indians had requested to be recognized as the 44th tribe of Kenya. So I was curious to read the comments and the vitriol that spewed from Kenyans could not be masked in the comment section. I’m not sure if the Indians among us read those comments and what they felt about it.

As I have already mentioned before on my blog for the sake of my foreign readers, the Indian community came to Kenya in the 1890s to aid in the building of the Kenya-Uganda railway. Many opted to stay and bring their families after it was completed. So when we are talking about the Asian community, as we like to refer to them in Kenya, we are talking about 3rd and 4th generation Indians who only know of Kenya as their home.

It may surprise you though, that the Kenyan-Indians upheld their culture and still practice many if not all, of their Indian cultural practices to date. It may surprise you further, that many Kenyan-Indians have chosen to get married to their fellow Indians and stick to their close knit way of life. To the other Kenyans, this tends to come off as snobbish and probably racist?

It’s not something we openly talk about but when given a chance, Kenyans can really talk ill about the Asian community. This was evident in the many comments I scrolled through on the Facebook post. Many of the bitter complaints arising from the kind of treatment metted unto them while working for Indian bosses, who have a reputation of being hard to please and too harsh for their liking.

In essence, I think Kenyans would really appreciate it if their Indian brothers and sisters chose to intergrate with them. I also think that the foreign culture of Indians in general greatly confuses them. It is a culture that is rich and Kenyans would love to understand it but fail miserably at it, with the level of silent suspiscion between the two groups that simmers just beneath the surface.

My childhood best friend in the 8 years of primary school happened to be a Kenyan-Indian. I have equally worked for an Indian boss. Therefore, when I talk about the Asian community, it’s not out of bitterness or a need for vindication. It’s basically to bring issues to the fore, that have for a long time been swept under the carpet yet they affect our Kenyan society.

Trust me, there are many Kenyans of African descent who have worked for Indian companies and bosses and have a long list of complaints regarding unfair treatment. But why is this so? Methinks colonialism and ancient Indian culture played a huge role in contributing to this kind of sour relationship between the Kenyans and Kenyan-Indians.

During colonial times, of course the Black Africans were at the lowest on the tier. As a result of their skin color and culture considered primitive by the colonialists who had their own hidden agendas, the Black Africans were looked down upon and suffered many injustices as a result.

The Indians were of course lighter with silky hair and therefore not really prejudiced against as much as the Black Africans were. They were of course not considered to be of the same level as the European colonialists, but they were placed somewhere in the middle, above the Black Africans.

It should also be noted that the Indian coolies who came to offer labor in building the railway line, landed in Kenya at a time when colonialism was just taking root. Coupled with their ancient caste system that grouped individuals in society according to their social standing, it was inevitable really for the Indians not to look down upon the Black Africans.

By Independence, the enterprising Kenyan-Indians already had a presence in many economic spheres. Not so for the Black Africans in Kenya who had been long suppressed by the colonial system. Indeed one of the first president’s agendas was to eradicate illetracy among mainly the Black African community.

It is however unfortunate that the preceeding generations of the Asian community in Kenya, held on to what their forefathers believed in and passed it down to their own children. The Indians chose to stick to the familiar thus limiting their interaction with the other Kenyans in society.

At my time in primary school, I would still see Indian kids from different classes, opting to form a large group of friends despite their age differences. The memory is still vivid in my mind when my Indian friend once tried to include me in one of these groups.

One Asian girl in particular, carried on speaking in Gujarati despite my apparent lack of understanding and my friend’s obvious struggle in communicating back in the same language, thus opting to reply in English. It was the last I would agree to tag along. However, there were and are still those Kenyan-Indians, who do not mind interacting with the Black Africans as was evidenced by my friend back then.

I think the thing that irks many Kenyans the most though, is the fact that we have heard of stories where if an Asian got married to an African, he/she would be considered an outcast by his/her family. This was quite evident in the My Bukusu Darling saga, where an Indian girl in Western Kenya fell in love with her father’s employee, an African and moved in with him.

It was evident that her parents did not agree nor approve of it and many Kenyans doubted the union would last. It is not everyday we get to see an Indian marrying a Kenyan of African descent. True to the majority’s doubts, the union between these two individuals did not successfully weather the family storm. Quite soon enough, the marriage broke.

This and many other misplaced beliefs between the two groups is what makes genuine interaction nearly impossible. Over time, Kenyans have equally developed an attitude toward the Asians, that further hampers hopes of the two groups integrating.

When a Kenyan walks into an Asian owned business/company as an employee with a set mentality that he/she will be mistreated, then justified acts of sternness by the Asians present, will be interprated as acts of cruelty. It is what fuels the constant whines and complaints about difficult Asian bosses and causes others to steer clear of the Kenyan-Indians.

As for the Kenyan-Indians, the mentality that an African cannot be trusted to do a good job, be a good friend or an upright individual, is what creates that level of suspiscion that you can almost feel, when sometimes interacting with an Indian. The superiority complex that still makes a section of Kenyan-Indians, to view themselves as better and of a higher social standing than the Kenyans of African descent further stretches the divide.

The Indians in our midst are an enterprising lot that have greatly contributed to the Kenyan economy. However, some of these backward mentalities, religious and social stances that we stubbornly hold on to, are what makes Kenyans be wary of the Kenyan-Indians and harshly criticize their suggestion of being recognized as a tribe.

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