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Kenya’s Asian Community becomes the 44th ethnic group

Kenyans of Asian heritage have been granted official recognition as the 44th tribe. The country is now witnessing the cementing of an intermingling with the Asian community that has existed since the 17th Century.

Despite a long standing presence in the country and their involvement in the socio-economic and political life of the country, Asians in Kenya; this includes people from origins in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan; are finally receiving validation as an integral part of the social fabric of the country as the 44th tribe.

This is after a successful petition earlier this May by the community but a five year struggle by activist Farah Manzoor.

President Uhuru Kenyatta declared, “I do hereby recognize, proclaim and order, 1. That Kenyans of Asian Heritage constitute a Community that is one of the Tribes of Kenya; 2. That from now henceforth the Community of Kenyans of Asian Heritage is Kenya’s 44th Tribe.”

Acting interior cabinet secretary Fred Matiang’i made the announcement noting the community’s sense of civic duty and their contribution to the socio-political advancement of Kenya. “The Head of State acknowledges that the Kenyan Asian’s contribution to Kenya has its roots at the dawn of our Nation. On consideration of the petition, His Excellency the President opined that the petition merits action. In this regard, we are gathered here this morning to honor the requests by handing over the presidential proclamation that grants the community their wishes,” he said as quoted by Daily Nation

Complicated History

The presence of the Indian diaspora in Kenya can be traced back to the 17th century and from the 1890 to 1914, there were more Indians in Kenya than white colonial settlers. They controlled wholesale and retail trade of goods and some worked as semi-skilled workers such as clerks to support the settler government.

With British colonial rule being established in India, and then later in East Africa, the migration of Indians to Kenya received a newfound impetus. Consequently, the community was intricately involved in the nationalist uprising in Kenya and made several robust contributions in ensuring the country’s independence.

Photo Farah Mannzoor/Facebook

For example at the first session of the Indian Congress held at Mombasa in 1914, the Indians passed a resolution demanding equal rights for all and a common roll. The settlers were deeply disturbed at this demand. Embittered by the oppressive government legislation aimed at them and Africans, the Indians boycotted from 1919 to 1920 all government organizations, including the Legislative and Municipal Councils. There were no African representatives in those councils at that time.

Additionally Two Indians stand out more than the others for their direct support to Mau Mau — Ambu Patel and Pio Gama Pinto. Ambu Patel, a devout follower of Gandhi, arrived in Kenya in 1947. He sold books on Gandhi and soon became known to African leaders. When Jomo Kenyatta was imprisoned at Maralal, Patel took his daughter Margaret to work with him in his bookbinding shop. Most significantly, at great risk to his life, he distributed medical supplies and foodstuffs to Mau Mau fighters.

Read: Swahili: Tanzania’s identity or handicap?

While the Asian contribution to development of Kenya is assessed principally in economic and political terms, it is important to appreciate that they opened up and expanded their activity to the remotest parts of Kenya and contributed in the education, health and welfare sectors.

In a report published by the New York Times, Shakeel Shabbir, the first Member of Parliament in Kenya of Asian origin, said Indians in Kenya have for long enjoyed economic successes, but many feel excluded from the country’s political and social fabric. Supporting the movement demanding tribe status, Shabbir noted that while there is nothing concrete to be gained from becoming the 44th tribe since the community in Kenya is in any case economically well off, the recognition would give the Indian diaspora a sense of shared identity with the Kenyans.

Race Relations

And for the other 43 tribes this summation by Shakeel Shabbir is the crux of the matter.

Since colonial rule a racial pyramid like structure evolved, with Europeans right on the top who had exclusive access to the fertile highlands, Indians in the middle working as traders and Africans on the bottommost rung, a system oiled and lubricated by the colonial myth of European superiority over Africans. During this time the process of the dispossession of Africans of their land by white settlers and Asians led to landlessness and economic marginalization of Africans, who in turn blamed white settlers and Asian immigrants.

This set-up has allowed the Asian community to flourish economically and build themselves as a group. Whereas this in itself is not a problem, the fact that many of the amenities they have built as a result of this are exclusively for the Asian community, is. By going to different schools, creating family businesses, populating only certain areas and building alternative places of worship for Non-Hindu Asians they have cut off integral points of intersection with other Kenyans. Sound familiar? It mirrors the colonial era where Africans were forced to live in their own spaces, separate from Asians and white settlers, go to their own separate schools, attend religious services in their own separate religious grounds, and lead their lives in their own separate residential quarters where the standard and quality of life was low, poor, and abysmal

On the other hand it is important for Asian to politically become a recognized part of the country as in the past the community has faced persecution by African leaders. For example many Asians fled from Uganda to Kenya to escape persecution by General Idi Amin Dada who singled them out for blame for Uganda’s economic and political problems. This persecution was one of the factors that led to the immigration of such a large number.

Former Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi

Also in 1982 Former President Daniel Arap Moi said that Kenya’s large Asian community was ”ruining the country’s economy” and that Asians found guilty of hoarding or smuggling currency would be deported. ”Instead of Indians using their advanced knowledge in business to help Africans improve their profit margins,” he said, ”Asians in this country are ruining the country’s economy by smuggling currency out of this country and even hoarding essential goods and selling them through the back doors.” The community is therefore trying to safe guard themselves and their families from any further persecution or possible disenfranchisement as further showcased in their treatment during the 1982 coup and more recently in the blatant destruction and cessation of property due to “expiring leases”.

But 44th tribe or not the race relations between Asians and Africans is still in a very sad state. The opinion of many Africans is that, while they acknowledge, recognize, and appreciate Asian contributions to the development of the country, many especially those in lower income brackets still perceive relations as that of servant- master. And it will be sometime before any negative work experience isn’t followed by the question, “Kwani unafanyia Muhindi kazi,” “Is it that you work for an Indian?”

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