What is the sound of thousands of Indians rolling their eyes?

This evening sitting in traffic, suffocated by a furious heat, I listened to the news on the radio. There is something odd about being alone in the bubble of your car, right next to someone else in their bubble, both of you listening to the same thing at the same moment. A shared experience expressed privately. As I learned of the identity of the alleged private developers who grabbed the playground of Langata Primary School, I joined thousands of other brown people in Nairobi snorting in their own air conditioned bubbles.

This was my inner monologue.

Seriously? Come on guys. Do they really have to be Indian!? Great. As if suffering through Brother Paul/Pattni wasn’t enough. Why do you need to go out and add another nail to the coffin that is ‘Indians are thieves and stealing this country.’ That’s like a Luhya going to a sushi restaurant and ordering chicken.

Yet for every Pattni there are thousands of Sunny Bindras, Zarina Patels, Farrah Nuranis, Shamit Patels, Nivedita Mukherjees, Shailja Patels, Rasna Warahs, Zahid Rajans.

Predictably, the witty Kenyan Twitter community reacted with breakneck speed, delighting in their discovery of the versatility of the name Singh. A new hashtag was born, which within an hour was trending #NgiluSinghJokes. I have to say, y’all are late to the game. The rest of the Indian community have been making Singh jokes for decades, and I thought I had heard them all, but KOT are amaSINGHly creative.

A lot of people raised eyebrows at the identity of the land grabbers, claiming that Ngilu’s naming of the private developers was unconvinSINGH.

Others murmured apprehension that this hashtag would go too far and end up ostracizing an entire community for the actions of four individuals.  Another hashtag from last year was revived #KenyanNotIndian where Kenyans of Indian origin asserted their patriotism. It says something about us as a society when your gut reaction is to distance yourself as far away as possible from a part of your identity for fear that it will be used against you in some way. I suspect this has some visceral effect on an individual, deep inside where memories nestle. I hear the exhaustion of feeling the need to apologize on behalf of an entire skin colour for the actions of a few individuals.

Africa is a country.

Indian is a skin colour.

But we don’t see other Kenyan communities apologizing for their rogue individuals who have pillaged, eaten and vomited all over the shoes of Kenyans. And yet. The Somali community in Kenya are individually and personally being made to pay a traumatic price for our hypocrisy when it comes to this. Divide and Rule. We learned from the Masters.

Even as I write this, I am exhausted by the issue. Imagine. There is more to me than being a muhindi. Not that you’d know it from reading my blog. It irritates me a little that I find myself consistently drawn to this theme. I don’t want to be just that Indian Chick continuously droning on. But I realised something. We belong. Yet, if you look at the history books of Kenya, you won’t hear our stories from our mouths. There is so very little that has been written and is being written about the community, by the community. We have largely put our heads down and worked away industriously, but where are our voices when it comes to the narrative of this country. So I am claiming this space. I want my story, my existence to be in the cataloging of Kenyan history. Because it’s not just mine, it belongs to thousands. And if I don’t write it, dammit, who will.

End of rant.

Back to #KenyanNotIndian. Here is the thing. It unsettles me. Doesn’t fit snugly on my skin. If anything it feels like uncomfortable spanx underwear that you squeeze in to hide the parts of yourself you don’t want to subject to the World’s gaze. Never mind that you can’t breathe and your stomach is spooning your esophagus, at least your lumps aren’t showing.

I am Kenyan AND Indian. It is quite simple really. I don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive. They sit very comfortably together in me. There is no contradiction and one doesn’t take away from the other. My nationality is Kenyan and my ethnicity is Indian.

What does that mean?

My loyalty, allegiance, heart, patriotism and soul belong to Kenya the country. But I embrace and am proud of my Indian heritage.

What does it actually mean?

I would go to war for Kenya (if I believed in that sort of thing), but if I was hit, my last words would come out in Gujurati.

My blood, sweat and tears belong to Kenya. But the sweat probably smells a little like curry.

What makes me Indian ? I don’t really know the answer to this. I can’t trace my ancestry very far and I don’t have a shags. It makes me feel deeply unsettled this. Not knowing my roots. I envy you who have your forefathers buried on soil that has tasted your blood. What’s my lineage? Who were my people? What did they stand for? What was their legacy? What were they known for? When they talked of the Kassams, did they extol us for our virtuous nature or mutter under their breath in disgust? Were we known for our brains or our hands? Were we do-ers or thinkers? I would like to know these things.

A few years ago, I went to India for the first time. It was like going back to the Motherland. Aside from the bizarre sensation of being surrounded by brown people, and for the first time not being the minority, it felt rather comforting. I was curious to see if I would feel a tugging. A belonging. And I did a little. It was in the Indian sensibility. An intangible something I couldn’t put my finger on. Yet, it was clear we didn’t belong. Everywhere we went, Indians asked us where we came from. Which was discombobulating.

But I speak Gujurati (very badly). I cook chicken curry (not very well). I dance to Indian music (terribly). I wear punjabi suits (as often as I can) and the ultimate test; I live in a mad huge household spilling at the seams with family who are always in each other’s armpits.

I mellow out my father’s fiery chicken curry with mounds of Ugali. When I want music that will squeeze my insides I listen to Nyadundo and Nusrat. My favourite sari is made from an emerald green kikoy. My family enthusiastically infuse the Lipala Dance with Bhangra moves.

What makes me Kenyan? I don’t really know the answer to this either. I was born here. Surely that in itself is enough. I have been known to use my mouth to point out directions. My language is peppered with Kenyanisms. Wololololo. Ngai. Ati. Kumbe. Kwani. In fact, half the time, I am not sure whether the word I am saying is Kiswahili or Gujurati, they feel so interwoven. Which is only fair, considering Kenya stole chapatis. Ultimately, I am only as peculiar as the next Kenyan.

And the question in itself is a loaded one. I am no less Kenyan than the Bukusu who would have been Ugandan had the Queen sneezed when she was tracing the borders of East Africa.

I love being Kenyan. The camaraderie, our ridiculous sense of humour…and personal space. The sense that we are in this together. And what an enormous privilege it is to be afforded the opportunity to participate in the shaping of your country. Don’t take this lightly. To be able to make a meaningful impact on the country you will pass down to your children is not something every citizen of the world has.

So here is my challenge to anyone who feels the understandable visceral need to assert your Kenyan-ness. Let it not be a reaction to a perceived threat. If you give a shit, and frankly none of us has the luxury not to anymore, then make your voice heard and your actions felt. Participate in the shaping of society. Actively. Jostle for space. Don’t hold yourself at a distance. Get involved. Participate. Building yourself is not enough. It is time to build the Kenya you want your children to inherit.

Tonight Irungu Hougton declared that there are legacies to be grabbed. Don’t be left behind. As he said, ‘If you can’t do something great, do something small in a great way.’

Let us re-shape the narrative of what being #KenyanAndIndian means.

Photo Credit


134 thoughts on “#KenyanAndIndian

  1. I am Kenyan AND Indian. It is quite simple really. I don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive. They sit very comfortably together in me. There is no contradiction and one doesn’t take away from the other. My nationality is Kenyan and my ethnicity is Indian.”
    This sums it up neatly.

  2. “I would go to war for Kenya (if I believed in that sort of thing), but if I was hit, my last words would come out in Gujurati.” and “I am no less Kenyan than the Bukusu who would have been Ugandan had the Queen sneezed when she was tracing the borders of East Africa.” Absolutely hilarious and absolutely spot-on. I really enjoyed reading this!

  3. Am proud of you for having learnt ao much of indian stuff … India is so diverse and if you visit for te first time being an indian i can say its as good as one small solar system amongst many others in the galaxy !!! Lovely writing !! :))

  4. Reblogged this on Madein1991 and commented:
    I think this article is applicable to the thousands of Indians now leaving everywhere but India due to the British/Indian slave trade. As someone who’s family comes from Fiji and prides themselves from that, we recognize our Indian heritage but not sure why, and not sure what makes us Fijian either…

  5. I don’t know why identity has always been such a controversial topic, we don’t have to be one thing, we don’t have to belong to just one group of people and it’s such notions that shield us from really progressing as a nation. Something very important that you said in your blog,, Indians in Kenya have been a part of our history but there’s an erasure of this,since building the railway, it’s like a subtle ignoring of how they’ve been here since then of some sort. Very true, you opened my eyes to something I hadn’t thought about. Thank you.

  6. I am an American, well more like Indian American (not Native American, but Indian from India) so when I was a teenager, I was going through crisis of “where do I fit?” But eventually outgrew that. Though when I visited Kenya for the first time in my life last year, it was shocking that people were so “in their own communities” outlook instead of helping each other. It was really shocking and then I realized that is unfortunately due to 1) ignorance 2) lack of knowledge 3) bribery. Though I hope that barriers break and instead of labeling “Indians” or “Somalians” & ect

  7. Kenyan, IndianKenyan, KenyanIndian,MuhindiwaKenya,KenyaMuhindi,KenyanMzungu,MzunguwaKenya, etc etc.What matters the most,we all belong to only ONE RACE, on this beautiful Planet, the HUMAN RACE.
    Kersi Rustomji. ex- Kenya.Australia

  8. Beautiful piece. I went to school in Nakuru with the Singhs and Patels and never once wondered how they must have felt about their identity. Identity is a little bugger alot of us never seem to get right though. Kenyans are so peculiar like you pointed out. One might be Kikuyu but as long as they didn’t grow up near Mt. Kenya or be able to trace their roots there,then they are made to feel less than…

  9. I did not have time to read this whole thing but I can understand what you are saying. My husband is Kenyan and spent about 5 years in america where even different skin tones in the same culture or race are sometimes divided. It is all over the world. You must be the change you wish to see and make your own history. We are all beautiful and unique.

  10. The asian community in Kenya is generally perceived as snobbish and non inclusive despite major contributions in academics, industry, cricket, and obviously cuisine. The x generation may change this through intermarriage but tutagoja. Kenyans are generally quite hospitable, a unique global phenomenon. Pole dada… am jacking your blog.

    1. This is true…and yet there is a historical context behind it. I guess one of my big issues right now, is that a lot of us as the younger generation in the asian community do not interrogate this, and so we blindly adapt attitudes that our parents or grandparents had, that simply do not make sense any more, without deciding for ourselves what our role is in this Kenya that is as much ours. I wrote a little more about it here:
      And thank you for the jacking – I am loving the comments 🙂

  11. -our ridiculous sense of humour…and personal space. – great post..

    I have always been very curious/interested/intrigued by Indians in Kenya, I listen to Eastfm but there is not much mixing going on. I would have liked to have a muindi best friend growing up, visit them and see how their mothers prepared curry…. but there was always that gap…
    It was only in Asia I got invited into an Indian homestead.

    You blog is different.

  12. Early in 1969, Gordhandass Shah, a resident of Kenya for thirty-five years and holder of a British passport, was told by the government that under its new Immigration Act he was no longer able to continue working in Kenya, and that he should leave the country within three months. Being a British citizen, he contacted the British Embassy to make arrangements for moving to England. He discovered at the Embassy, however, that because he was not a white British citizen, there were severe restrictions on his right to enter Britain, and that in fact it would not be possible for him to go there in the foreseeable future.

    There are numerous stories of this kind. I tend to acknowledge that Indians have fought to be Kenyan. The legal history of Indians (I use this in place of Kenyan Asians because we so rarely differentiate) fighting to be acknowledged as Kenyan must be held true. We must also hold true that for many Kenyans Indians are an illegitimate presence. The insularity of Kenyan Indians is a response to the non-integration more than their own racial prejudices.

    However perhaps being from Meru my experience of Indians was skewed too early. I must acknowledge that my experience of Indians changed dramatically when I moved to Nairobi. In Meru Indians construct their difference culturally rather than racially where as I feel the reverse is true of Indians in Nairobi.

    The anti-blackness in Nairobi is racially coded language. etc etc
    I have much to say but not enough still. Everything is jumbled up in my head, a collection of experiences I can at the moment not articulate. Language fails.

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