Not Yet Kenyan

I have been trying to write this piece for the last two weeks, and it has been agonising. I wrung my brain, trying to come up with zingy openings that compel you to keep reading, descriptions that cut to the core of how I feel, and yet don’t come across as overly sentimental. I worried about over-generalising, over-simplifying, over-dramatizing. I worried about being politically correct. Most of all, I worried about laying it bare…. or starting to.

You see this one is really important to me.

In reality, I have been trying to write this piece for the last decade.

So I am just going to write it. Ungarnished.

I popped my storytelling cherry a few months ago, and was preparing to tell Trupti’s story from John Sibi Okumu’s Role Play. I usually force my family to listen to me practice. They have perfected the art of zoning out, making grocery lists in their heads, as they watch my face for signs of when to make the appropriate oohs and aahs.

This time was different. By the end, my mum’s face was streaming with silent tears. Trupti tells the story of how her sister was raped by the military, in front of the whole family during the 1982 coup.

It was like that and worse Aleya. So much worse. They went from house to house, forcing their way in. The stealing was one thing, but they raped every woman they found. Every single one. In front of their brothers, fathers, grandfathers. So many of our Asian women.

It is the first time she has ever spoken to me about these things.

‘A respected leader in the community stood outside his house, in only his underwear, wailing, crying, pretending they had stolen everything, just so the military would think his house had already been ransacked, and would leave them alone. Those were not fake tears Aleya. He was protecting his three daughters hiding in the house.’

What does it take for a man to do that? Stripped of his dignity. Forever.

We don’t talk about that sort of stuff. Is that why I sometimes see fear in my grandmother’s eyes when a black man she doesn’t know enters the house?

My friend asked me this once.

‘Why is it if I am alone in a lift with an older Muhindi woman, she shrinks back in fear, as if I am going to attack her?’

He asked me this only after we had become friends. After he had become comfortable enough with me to ask the uncomfortable questions. We both burst out laughing. The idea that he could attack anybody is simply absurd. He has the gentlest soul. The laughter was hollow. The idea was absurd to him. Indeed it is absurd. But imagine. A whole community living like that.

But we inherit our fears, just as we inherit our prejudice.

I have always wondered what happened to make my grandmother so frightened. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t talk about the inherent fear so many women in my grandmother’s generation feel towards black men. This prejudice they then pass on to their daughters, and the daughters after that. It is ok to be friends with black women, but not ok to be friends with black men. Because you never know. The demonization of all black men. The fear of which, the basis we ourselves don’t understand, but we so often blindly adopt.

I am not interested in being politically correct anymore.

I have lived a truly sheltered life. My parents are working class, and have worked tooth and nail for that privilege of shelter. My father does not hide his opinion that I should have settled abroad. That was Plan A. Work hard. Save. Send kids abroad to university. They settle abroad. They live life in a country where they aren’t scared they are going to get kicked out any day.

I messed with the plan. I came back. I gave my heart to Kenya.

There are stories abound of Muhindi families with Idi Amin’s picture on their living room wall, a garland of flowers around the frame, in celebration, because that was the best thing that happened to them, getting kicked out of Uganda.

Memories of the 90’s when a certain politician went mad, and there were anti-Muhindi pamphlets making the rounds. Families advising each other to have a small bag packed. Ready to flee. Just in case.

Uganda was still fresh.

But flee where?

I was born here. My parents were born here. My grandparents were born here and have never even been to India.

I have heated arguments with my father

The problem with us Muhindis, is that we just live in our own bubble and refuse to participate in the country’s governance, and then we cry foul when we are treated differently, when we are told we are not Kenyan.’ I say.

We tried Aleya. We tried. When the country first gained independence, and started being cut up and doled out to relatives and friends, we raised our voices and on the front page of the National Newspapers it said ‘Asians if you don’t like it, get out!’ He says.

So the response of so many from my parents generation? Shut up. Burrow deeper into the bubble. Keep their heads down. Work hard. Make enough money so that their children have a choice.

They set down tentative roots. They made friends. They were buried here, and yes many of them gave Kenya their hearts, but always too afraid to love too much, because they never knew when their love would be stamped on by a steel boot. So they protect us from heartbreak, because they know our belonging here is tenuous. Because they know to give of your whole heart is foolish.

What does it do to a community….to feel that they don’t belong?

I have given my whole heart. It lies nestled in Kenya’s mouth. I have nowhere else. I am alive nowhere else. But it is like having an abusive lover. One that beats you up, humiliates you, taunts you about whether you are worthy of belonging to them. But I love. And for that reason, I can never leave.

What does it mean to be Kenyan. For me right now, to be Kenyan is to feel helpless.

I watch this inane swoop of alleged illegal immigrants and victimization of Somalis in the name of squashing terrorism, and it chills me to the core. It is illegal. Unconstitutional. Yet I don’t know what to do. I talk about it at the dinner table. It could be us. It has been us before. My father looks me at and says, that is why I told you to stay abroad. That was the plan A. I tell him, Dad, there is no plan A. This is my only plan.

Not yet Kenyan.

I weep with Mohammed Adow.

These are my own personal views. I do not speak for the Kenyan Indian community. I don’t even speak for my family. I speak only for myself.

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145 thoughts on “Not Yet Kenyan

  1. Thanks so much for this post. It was beautiful and incredibly instructive. I lived in Nairobi for 10 months in 2011. I had what can only be described as a hyper-sensitivity to the way I perceived Indian people lived in Kenya and they way they interacted with “Africans”. I once told off a shop owner for the way he spoke to his staff. I felt as if the class divide was too blatant and I “needed” to correct it.
    But my positionality is this: I’m a Nigerian, born in UK and raised in New Zealand. I’ve had Fijain-Indians treat me with disdain until they learn that I am not indigenous Fijian. I’ve had British Indians also treat me with disdain when I visit UK. Lastly aside from my best friend, I’ve had South African Indians demand to know where I’m from, when they first meet me (here in NZ) as if that is their right. And I guess so they can put me in a box. So naturally, I came with my own baggage to Kenya.
    The truth is, I did not know about that part of your history. But now I have perspective and a reason to stop being judgmental and be more loving to your community. Thank you!

  2. Aleya, thanks for this great read. This very issue is something I’ve struggled with for a long long time. To paint a picture, I’m ‘indian’ born in the UK, but grew up in Kenya, my folks are both Kenyan Indian.
    I’ve never really felt Kenyan, I speak fluent swahili, I love the country, the people, some of my best friends are ‘black’ Kenyan, I’ve travelled the country far and wide and I absolutely love the place, but for some reason, I’ve never felt like I belong.
    I personally think the issues lie on the side of the Kenyan Indians, we need to make a lot more of an effort to integrate into the society, there is no effort at present. I’ve just read each and every comment posted above and I have to agree with so many of the things written there. Kenyan Indian’s have not bothered to learn the language, they don’t treat their employees well and they don’t date/marry black kenyan’s (with the exception of a few)… we’ve been here for over 100 years.. you’d think by now we’d be fairly integrated but no. The issue is, that the majority of kenyan indian’s still consider themselves as Indian.. even if they’ve never been there… and I think it’s more Indian from a religious and cultural perspective.
    (One of the main reasons indian’s won’t rent properties out to black people is because a lot of these communities are vegetarian and they don’t want people cooking meat in their kitchens… absurd.. but I promise you, this is the main reason)
    We need to cross over to the otherside, if we’re kenyan’s let us stop being indian’s start speaking the language, why do all the kenyan indian’s know how to speak Gujarati or Hindi but not swahili?? It makes no sense, but they should. When people mix, they will realise, they’re all very similar….
    I understand I’ve generalised a lot above, I myself have learnt the language and integrated a lot but still have a majority of Asian friends… it really sucks and has to change.

    1. Thanks ABC. Why can’t we both though, Indian and Kenyan? But you hit the nail on the head, we don’t make an effort to integrate into society. Unless we start truly caring, and acting upon that caring, we will always feel this way.

    2. Interesting for sure.., I am in South Africa, I’ve met Indians in SA,, extremely proud of SA, very involved especially the older generation.. I have made good friends which I found it amazing.. cause it will be impossible for me to say I can have Indian friend in Kenya.., have never met one who looked remotely friendly unless behind the counter selling me something.., I guess you are right,, Indians in Kenya need to come out of the bubble.., risks and fun will be there .. but atleast let African-Kenyans understand you better.. as of now.., highly suspicious attitude towards each other is the norm .. I am glad of the blog demystifying a community which have no idea about..,

      1. Imagine. We go around this beautiful country so wary of each other..it’s a tragedy. I hope we change it for our kids sake, and for our sake too, because who knows who we close ourselves to because of it. Thanks for dropping by 🙂

    3. I have a question related to the topic of integration.

      Would you, Miss Kassam, if she ever reads this, or any other Kenyan Indian, for that matter, be willing to marry and have children with a Kenyan African? Would you be willing to allow your children to do so?

      1. Ah, you have assuaged some of my misgivings about our Indians. One more question: How widespread is this sentiment at present among Kenyan Indians?

      2. I read the entire article and the comments.

        Hmm, very interesting. Judging from what you and others said, it seems like things are changing, even if they’re changing at a very slow pace. Still, it seems like more effort is needed from all parties involved in order to rectify this and other problems and bring our nation into the 21st century.

        I’ve been asking all these questions because I am a Kenyan who is marooned in the diaspora and cannot, for the time being anyway, return home. Is it possible for us to use some other, more convenient venue to continue this discussion, like Skype, email, or Facebook?

  3. I can imagine what that feels like to be home but not home, to love and not be loved back, to be stuck, or lost…

    I am so sorry….

    I am Kenyan and so are you, and we have no plan A or B…lets do something to heal past wounds, lets create a new tribe, let’s have the courage to acknowledge we are not one….until we become one.

    Thank you for sharing…we will get there.

    Lots of love and light.

    1. Antonia, thank you. Your words mean the world. Let’s have the courage to acknowledge we are not one…until we become one. Let’s do something to heal past wounds. That is so powerful. Love and light to you.

  4. Eh…. i guess its time for confessions. See, my first deskmate at Nursery school was Indian. He was called Kassam.
    I was 6 years. I could not tell the difference between European and Indian. All i had been told was that the whiteys had come and grabbed our land and we had fought them back.
    Alas….an opportunity to jenga nchi for me had presented itself…. to fight for my country. First things first….pinched Kassam till he turned red. Breaktimes were reserved to harrass him further.
    Until i went home to tell my dad of my exploits in chasing away the white man.
    It dint go well.
    You see, my grandfather had become very good friends with his Muhindi employee back in the 1920’s and 30’s. When he quit working for them to venture into business, they rewarded him with Sewing machine and educated my dad (now an engineer) my uncle (now a doctor) and my 2 aunts now teachers.
    So my dad told me the difference between Indians and Europeans.

    When i went back to School, i could not find the words to apologise to Kassam.
    But we eventually got along and became friends though i could sense he kind of feared me.

    I got nothing on Indians. I find myself getting along with them well. Dint know this has been an underlying issue…. the 1982 thingie.

    See, you have to let the past go. Let us have sensible leaders from your community like the Meru guy and the Indian lady in parliament….as for Sumra… awache maringo. Humility ni muhimu.

    To be continued…. 🙂

    1. By the way, did you know my surname is Kassam 🙂 Perhaps it was my brother you were pinching…haha. So I agree you have to let the past go, but what if you don’t realise you are even carrying that past with you, that you have inherited it, and it is affecting the way you behave unconsciously? Don’t we have to really find out what that is before we let it go? I don’t know, I am just not sure that we do as Kenyans accept and move on…truly. But I agree whole heartedly with sensible leaders. Kenya could with a lot less absurd, and a whole more sensible.

    2. You cannot just let go of stuff you gave experienced and feared. I do understand the fear that some female Kenyan Asians have occurred black men. I was almost raped but I fought him off and even though that is 26 years ago, I cannot share s lift with a man if it is just the two of us. Fear sets in and the whole episode does a frightening replay. Horror !

  5. Thanks for being open. I grew up in Nairobi from age 9-18. I left in 1993 to go to school in the US but before the embassy bombings and the recent attacks in Westgate etc…

    I always remembered that childhood as diverse and beautiful. Maybe it’s because the first school I went to (Rusinga) was a mix of Asians, Africans, and a few whites. My best friend, who treated me like a brother, was Sikh. Everyone seemed to get on well though sometimes interschool rivalries tilted toward ethnic differences.

    Now I realize that I missed a lot – that there were feelings that were below the surface that never disappeared even though people learned to cooperate and live side by side. It makes a lot of sense that Asians would not feel fully integrated and as I read the comments the experience of other Africans who felt a level of spite from the stereotypical Asian shop keeper does resonate (I would usually get special treatment after I said something with my bawdy American accent… they realized I wasn’t “typical”). I even remember how, as Ugandans, my family was sometimes in an awkward spot as “foreigners” even though we shared the skin color and Bantu ethnicity of many Kenyans.

    But even though these things never went away as an undercurrent and even though in the present a minority of extremists are doing their best to reawaken tensions between ethnic groups in Kenya I hope that with dialog and openness people can get the sense of community. I hope people will stand up for each other, despite ethnic background – whether it’s Somalis being mistreated by cops or whether it’s Somalis going to the cops to stop some nihilist from committing an act of violence.

    I cannot imagine that childhood in Nairobi without my Sikh friend, without bajias, without women in saris and Indian shop keepers just as I can’t imagine it without the Africans. Without the news starting:

    “Today his excellency president Daniel Arap Moi… ”

    Perhaps there were some people who carried burdens of the past but for me, a young kid living in the present, this was Kenya and it was beautiful. As an Kenyan Indian, you are a part of that picture.

  6. Fantastic.
    I haven’t read the comments but I know – I KNOW – they reflect what I’m going to express.

    We love you. We’re changing. We’re not Uganda. And we are sorry for every bit of pain you have been through.

    Most of us are not even listened to… Black as hell.

    Don’t leave us. Keep talking. Every group I have been with are taking about wanting…. Needing… Praying to hear, that a muhindi is standing, a mzungu is running – that the ballot paper reflects us all as we really are – no matter how hopeless it seems now.

    Now is only now.

    I tell you, you keep speaking like this, with so much Kenya in your soul, and you’ll be amazed when you turn around, how many you have carried.

    Prepare to lead.

    Fantastic.

    1. Sending love and light. Kenya is in my soul. It is not going anywhere. We each got to stand up for each other, always, every time. None of us are disposable, ever. We must remember that as all this nonsense keeps happening.Thank you for your kind and are far too generous words.

  7. I am shocked and humbled at the same time, firstly for my ignorance and assumptions, i really thought you Kenyans just weren’t interested in black people. I thought you all saw yourselves as elitist and we were below you hence the bubble. And for that i apologise.
    Secondly, just a thought, i do not think you are Indian…i believe you are Kenyan. You have lived in Africa all your lives you have Kenyan identity and never even been to India. So in my opinion you are Kenyan. Indian should not be a reference point ever. If its a matter of race identification then you are brown people.
    I dont think you should be referred to in anyway which serves to even mildly hint at your race being foreign to Kenya. You are just as Kenyan as any other black or white person. I think with that as a start maybe then it would be possible to see more involvement in the government and leadership to make a proper change in this country. Because when i think of it..you all as kenyans are not well represented at all.
    This is my first ever comment on a blog, sorry for any mistakes.
    I just wanted to share a thought

  8. Hi,

    really an excellent piece. Though the views you have of being unsettled is not unique to you and your community, there are people who carry hard stories to process coming from the past. Some as far back as the second world war when they were moved to camps and reserves. This thus formed the negative opinion and suspicion. The latest is the people who settled in other parts of the Country away from their rural homes and were displaced in 2007. The experience led to people being patient with others, drink water and Pray for your neighbor.

    I Schooled with a mixed group of children in kindergarten a few years after independence and i remember when i would be chased from the swings by a fellow called Stalin with his brother Steve who were descendant from Seychelles, be called a monkey by Zahir Ahmed who was from Pakistan share roti with Mohit, Hitul and his brother vishul and hit on Vadner, Bella, Bindia and Hima in the childish way that kids do. this was before the exodus from Uganda and the attempted Coup.

    I now understand why they all left the Country and live abroad though i still see some of their parents. interesting it also included the European kids and some of the African kids as well of course we are all Kenyan. i look forward to the day they will all return Home and enjoy a cup of Chai as they listen to soft Roger Whittaker music under a Nandi flame tree and talk of Aunty Dova and Madam Julia.

    1. Thanks Mathews. I think with every subsequent generation, the feeling of belonging gets stronger, and it is up the that generation to define their own identity, which in itself is a beautiful thing. I hear your Roger Whittaker, and raise you Daudi Kabaka. Cheers!

  9. to me I do not see much difference between the general attitude of ‘other Kenyans’ to Somalis (arising out of terrorism) and the attitude of Indian women to black men (arising out of the ’82 coup attempt). If you understand why the Indian women have developed the attitude they have towards black men then you should also understand why other Kenyans have developed the attitude they have towards Somalis. You can’t justify one and condemn the other. They both deserve condemnation.

  10. Quite moving. It’s a pity I hadn’t read it earlier. Now I have some insight into why the chasm between Kenyan Indians and Black Kenyans exists. The ’82 stuff was unbeknownst to me. Must have been quite hellish. Got some friends of Indian ancestry and we get along quite well…though I must admit the older women seem wary. I now understand why.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I must admit, the coup may be one of the contributing factors, but not the only reason. Imagine, I myself did not know that much about it…I still don’t. Starting to dig up around my own history now.

  11. I am Kenyan, Black as they can be. When it comes to prejudices, there is no one sitting on a moral high ground. For the sake of this discussion, I would also add that I am a Kikuyu by birth. What really irritates is that the stereotypes flying all over started way before we were born, way before the failed coup. When we talk Kenyan Indians, I have a few friends (Mostly from school) but since we completed school, we rarely talk. There is a divide, unseen to most of us, they are inaccessible. They settled really fast in the workforce, infact they never really tarmacked. Fast forward to the workplace, they get the promotions real fast. Are they smarter, anyone can tell me this.

    I am now an IT manager here in Nairobi. Regulations states that I must get at least three quotes for any equipment or services I require. What happens is that I will get quotes, some from friends, family, anonymous sources etc. They don’t matter, eventually, the supplier will be Indian, they do not need to quote.

    Anyone heard of being discriminated yet you are a perceived majority? Yes it happens. Just ask any black person. We may not have shouted about apartheid the loudest, but we had our own from the same Mzungu. We (black) still feel treated as second class in our own country.

    Thanks to their majority and existence within the city and around, the Kikuyus are also treated with disdain. Most people fear that a kikuyu will either lie or steal from them. To give a piece of history, Kikuyus own very little amount of land in this country. All the other land percieved to be in their hands is held by a few individuals (mostly collaboraters with the british during the colonial times. They were in business or government so they managed to buy the land from fleeing whites at independence) while the most are still living where they were squeezed into small plots.

    Way forward, we need as a country to build a new identity. A new Kenya. The more we continue saying, Asians are this, luos are that, we shall never feel like we own our land. Lets start treating each other with respect as one.

  12. You cannot just let go of stuff you gave experienced and feared. I do understand the fear that some female Kenyan Asians have occurred black men. I was almost raped but I fought him off and even though that is 26 years ago, I cannot share s lift with a man if it is just the two of us. Fear sets in and the whole episode does a frightening replay. Horror !

  13. Thanks for the insight. Back to the x generation, they need to shape the future by renouncing negative reinforcement. Every Kenyan post independence has interacted Cordially with multiple cultures in school, work and in social settings eg birthdays, marriages and funerals.
    The political elite however have shamefully dissected our nationalisim and herded us Willy-nilly into tribal cocoons. The perpetual bickering over resources and hateful aspersions on entire communities for the sins of a few has produced the impasse we are all trying to bridge. The irony is that as we wail collectively at injustice we secretly individually yearn to join the ranks of the criminal plundering few. We should celebrate our diversity and integrate the best for the nation. Corruption should be a treasonable offence…jacked it again….trade you nyama choma for biriani.

  14. Look, seriously, Indians were NOT the only goddamn people to suffer in the 1982 coup! For crying out hoarse, stop framing things as though they can never do wrong and they are just trying to come-of-age in this inky sea of black Africa! Gah! That’s it, I can’t read anymore of your sentimental pot pourri.

    1. Love the way all the trolls who write nasty stuff hide behind fake names.

      Learning of another human being’s perspective is what this is about, if you do not want to please find similar minded people and enjoy yourself.

    2. I think you are being unfair. Chanyado did not just present her point of view, but also encouraged others to do the same. Rather than attack her, you should have shared your opinion of the coup, tribalism and racism, just as everyone else has.

      By penning the article and giving us the opportunity to air our comments, the author is actually encouraging us to explore the root of the motivations that underlie people’s behavior, in my opinion. I do not think the intention is to justify certain behavior, but to understand the logic behind it. Such understanding can be cathartic.

      By attacking Chanyado, you are undermining both the underlying ethos of this article and of the blog as a whole. Your comments should advance the cause that the author has so graciously initiated.

  15. have had several dreams about me marrying a muhindi girl….the stories have read above have made me see some sense in my dreams since i have never talked to a muhindi gal…reason??i had a mentality they “hate”

  16. Just came across this blog randomly. I have tried to figure out why the Indian community in Kenya is a close knit community, I honestly thought it was a spark of racism, until I did a semester in India, then I met incredible friends who proved that not all Indians are “racist”. Now I get the history behind the closeness. A sad history to be precise.. I once ran into an Indian couple in Delhi, walking with a West African friend of mine, the couple guessed that I was from Kenya, Nairobi to be precise! We immediately struck a conversation, in Swahili, and they spoke about how much they missed home (Kenya) and the joy in their eyes as they spoke about Nairobi! As we walked away, my friend asked me a strange question, “why would they say they are Kenyans, this is clearly their home?” And I had to explain that the only home they have ever known is Kenya, and we embrace them as our own. So yes, you are Kenyan, atleast to some of us, home is not your origin, it is where your heart is, and if your heart is here, this is your home 🙂

  17. I think people should stop this nonsense and celebrate their different backgrounds and identities.
    An African can never be Indian!
    An Indian can never be African!
    We are different! And their nothing wrong with that!
    Get your Indian passport! Go visit and look for your blood line. It is not here in Africa or in Canada! Painful but true!

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