The floodgates that Modi opened

Until only a few days ago, never in my lifetime had an Indian Premier visited Kenya. So with Modi set to arrive, a whisker away from Netanyahu’s visit and barely a year after Obama’s, the hype leading up to his visit was unsurprising. A website was set up for people to register for a special community reception to be held in his honour. An emotive jingle was produced, fusing the Indian National Anthem with a patriotic Eric Wainaina tune, which the community radio station played repeatedly. In classic Indian dhamaka fashion, our heartstrings were tugged, and I will admit to being a little curious, if also somewhat bemused by it all. Indians know how to put on a good show, and I wondered what sort of razzmatazz spectacle would be on offer.

But I didn’t go for several reasons. On principle I find Modi’s politics incredibly problematic and this was a State visit. I have absolutely no allegiance to India the state, since my only relationship to India is a cultural one. My heritage is Indian. I hold it dear and am proud of it. But that is as far as it goes. I am a Kenyan voter.

And so when apparently 25,000 people showed up to welcome Modi, majority of whom had brown skin, it predictably raised eyebrows. Just why did the Indian Kenyan community, who traditionally shy away from big public events, show up in such huge numbers? With some help, I compiled an evolving list of theories:

  • Everybody loves a party and the hype leading up to the event emitted the promise of somewhat of a spectacle.
  • People are curious about celebrities, particularly larger than life personalities who share something in common with them, even if it is just skin colour.
  • A sense of cultural nostalgia and the attraction to something from a home that exists only in language passed down and fiercely preserved rituals.
  • The visit represented a seemingly profound statement of acceptance by our Head of State towards a minority that has traditionally felt threatened.
  • The bringing together of all Indian communities which is something that is highly unusual.
  • A sense that Indian Kenyans could participate in a National occasion in a way that was comfortable and relevant, but more importantly in a way they felt they had a right to.
  • The idea that Indian Kenyans had the chance to represent Kenya in this State visit, as if one were welcoming their mother and showing off their new home.

Ironically, I believe Indian Kenyans showed up to Kasarani Stadium in all their Salwar Kameezes and jingling bangles, feeling very proudly Kenyan.

However, it didn’t seem like this to some people who were watching. One tweet in particular inflamed tempers; someone who many admire, respect and appreciate tweeted a rather unfortunate accusation.

‘We know where your heart is’.

Whilst it was irresponsible to generalize in that tweet, there was something interesting underneath. A sense that Indian Kenyans were showing up for India in a way that they don’t for Kenya. Here’s the thing. When you are a visible minority, your presence is as noticeable as your absence. And yes, whilst it can be argued that Indian Kenyans don’t seem to visibly participate in political or civil affairs these days, there is a historical context to this. And we show up in other spaces and in other ways; in business, philanthropy and development to name a few. So it appeared as if our very Kenyanness was being questioned. But there is one thing we often don’t pay acknowledge. There isn’t only one way of being Kenyan. Or of engaging with issues in the country. Or even one type of Muhindi. So Indian Kenyans showed up to defend their Kenyanness on social media.

And I felt so tired.

Until I realized. The narrative is changing. In my father’s generation, Indian Kenyans were told to stop interfering with national affairs. To stop participating. Now, my generation is being challenged. We are being told, you are Kenyan, so why aren’t you participating. We demand it from you. This if nothing else is such a profound affirmation of belonging, because if it was felt that we were not Kenyan, nobody would care and this would have just been another expat event. Underneath that tweet was an invitation and an expectation. Show up for us. Not just to defend your nationality, but for Willie and land grabbing, for injustice and change. Show up and help us do the work that it takes to make Kenya better for all of us.

But the floodgates had already opened allowing a deluge of unresolved resentment and defiant defensiveness to pour out. All of a sudden this was about more, much much more than people showing up for an event. Old wounds got ripped open. Amongst the reasoned responses and kind messages of support, there were accusations hurled. Racism. Discrimination. Classism. Insularity. Big words for a lot of hurt.

And as I read the tweets, it felt like a punch to my stomach. Living in my little bubble where it just doesn’t seem so bad, I had forgotten. But I was reminded that bubbling beneath our bubbles is all this resentment and unresolved anger. And it scared me, seeing people that I know say some things that were very painful. Some were true. Some were untrue. But, I wondered, when people see me, am I painted over with that same brush stroke? How many that I call my friends feel this intense hatred towards brown skin? And how must it feel on the flip side feeling that your black skin incites hatred too?

It made me ashamed. It made me feel anguished that a community I belong to causes this pain. I wanted to apologise, but it was not my place to do so. A part of me wanted to distance myself from this. These things that are being said. That’s not me. And I saw others doing the same. It was so easy to say #NotAllMuhindis. But I had to acknowledge that there were truths, even amongst the misconceptions.

You cannot deny a lived experience. When someone says they feel cold, you cannot say to them, no you do not.

And as I watched the Twitter streets get sprayed with mud, I became intensely uncomfortable. So I listened. Because when I am uncomfortable, it is usually a sign that I need to learn something. Or unlearn something.

 Now that the floodgates have opened again, let’s not build up the wall.

Get uncomfortable.

Show up.


‘We know where your heart is’. An invitation has been extended.

As always, this exploration is my personal opinion and as such I represent only myself, and certainly not an entire community.

 This is one of a series of posts about being Kenyan Indian. You can read more here:

Not yet Kenyan

Kenyan and Indian

Becoming an African

Indians are racists

Photo credit

32 thoughts on “The floodgates that Modi opened

    1. What Indians are trying to do is to cut links….to not belong….to motherland India.
      They are dissing their great grandparents who for hundreds and thousands of years have live in India
      They are dissing their villages in India
      They are disowning their bloodline in India
      And choosing a new fake identity by the name of African-Indian!
      All for economic reasons!
      For if India was like America, none of them would be here!

      1. Bhupinder – Seems like you do nt know what the word “Muhindis” mean ….there is no shame. Muhindi, Kikuyu, Luo, Kalasinga, Kalenjin etc will remain for centuries to come. These are tribes born and living in Kenya. Try and understand the diverse culture of Kenya.@Allan, i agree with you.

        Mapato – That happens with many. How many Europeans fell in love with Kenya and now call it home after deciding to be a part of this country??. And the Somalis too….. ???Kenyans who have gone to the USA/UK and never looked back??. Learn to see issues positively, Mapato.

  1. If the Queen of England was visiting and all the KCs of Karen and Muthaiga showed up, would “we know where your heart is” still apply to them ?

    Modi’s life story is an inspiring one from a tea boy to President. His visit to the US and to the Facebook HQ last year and the large turn-out there is a testimony to his diverse fan following. Let’s not racialise everything.

    Canadians see no conflict in being Canadian and also celebrating being Lebanese, Indian, Turkish, British etc and waving both flags with pride. When are we going to get over it ?

    1. It would have been ridiculously much more problematic if the scenario you painted happened. If they sneaked in and blended as part of the British community in Kenyan which is largely expatriate it would have gone unnoticed but if they had been a separate Kenyan white delegation…that spark …I pray it never happens.

  2. Indians are as guilty of bad behavior; corruption, nepotism … as much as the rest of us. Hate expressed towards Indians is only because they are a minority and it is “safe” to hate on them as they cant retaliate. We cant set the gold standard for them while in a manner of speaking we live on a bronze one ourselves.

    1. Kipkorir hit the nail on the head _ it is very easy to pick on a visible minority. We don’t see anyone asking why Kenyan somalis are not integrating / marrying Kenyans or giving up their dressing and customs or questioning their business practices.

      Has anyone analysed the statistics for mixed marriages in the asian community and what that represents as a percentage before making blanket statements ? or are we just still hung over yet we have been here for 3 generations or more ?

  3. Just because someone wants to get noticed they open doors that bring in the very tribalism the country is fighting.

    An idiot remark on Twitter hurt many feeling and it was not so much as what he wrote but more on what others commented.

    This same guys has Indian friends on face book. I hope he understands that Kenya is built by Kenyans and not blacks or Browns or whites.

    If an event brings people together we should be proud because it’s a sign of progress. If people keep to themselves then we are in for trouble.

  4. Nice read. You are now speaking the language of our generation. There are so many Kenyans of Indian origin, who were born in this country many generations before I showed up. So what right would I have to claim to be more Kenyan than them? In Kenya people fight for their space. Even those who think they are more Kenyan than others suffer untold injustices, when they keep mum. I am glad the young generation doesn’t care about origins any more. What matters is that we are all here and we have the will to make the necessary changes.

  5. Boniface Mwangi’s comment was stupid if anything, for me personally it did not open any flood gates, people simply dont realise there are two or even three types of ‘brown’ people in this country, firstly, there are those whose forefathers came here and were born and raised here, they are undeniably Kenyan, albeit with an Indian heritage, then there are those who were born in India and have been brought over here to work or come on their own accord, some of them have been here for a long time, they’ve learnt the language and integrated somewhat, however, they are undeniably Indian…and quite proud of it too, whislt Kenyans are quite a patriotic bunch, they dont even come close to Indians when it comes to patriotism. So, I wasn’t at the Modi visit, but I know that bith sets of people were heavily represented and my question is, why not?
    A positive state figure who has achieved wonders in his country in a short time visited a country with a massive diaspora population and they turned up to show their support…so what? So, some political activists and bloggers jump on the bandwagon to play the race or prejudice card and increase viewship…get a life guys.
    You clearly have a love hate relationship with your colour and heritage, its a shame you don’t feel too loved by this country or its people…its a real shame, you will always feel that way in my opinion.

  6. Great, great writing. Broad and honest and sure. You can see for yourself that times – and people – are changing.

    Alot off the distrust and hate we just have to let sure off on both sides. There are black Kenyans so mired in poverty that hate is foremost, and Indian wealth that speaks more loudly outside the country than within it.

    Many of us however, claim Indian Kenyans as our own. We’ve gone to school with them, we’ve worshipped with them (very difficult) and we party with them.

    I’d like to see more of them in the election lines. More white folk too. These are our real treasure. Kenya’s wealth lies in the true diversity of Kenya – if only Kenyans can hang onto the notion that our neighbor is one of us.

    This feeling of competition for security, physical and financial, will kill us. Cooperation is the key.

    Boniface Mwangi’s comment was nefarious to the core. It suggested treason. Our hearts do not lie that way. If we continue to speak up, Kenya will come into it’s own; a beautiful country filled with all sorts of beautiful people, proudly standing up for each other.

    Run ramshod over hate.

  7. Lol what is the big deal? People can turn up for obama when they themselves have no links with America. Modi is pm for India and being Indian is a matter of ethnicity, not only nationality. So of course, indians at heart will turn up. Does not mean that makes them less kenyans. I know some who are very patriotic towards Kenya and have not even seen India…yet they get backlashed. I on several ocassions despite showing my ID have been asked with sarcasm or is it ignorance “wew ni mkenya? ” lol like all kenyans ought to be black. It is a struggle to belong at times. Some of us were born here, we didnt get to choose our nationality. Our ethnicity always defines us everywhere even in Kenya famously know as muhindi …so sorry if we can not just be less indian to your liking. Peace out.

  8. Kenya is a diverse country with mixed ethnicity. just because people attended PM Modi’s function and to question about them being a true kenyan is heights of stupidity!!! I feel this whole article is more of hatred towards modi than question about being a true kenyan or not. We are here in this country by choice nobody forced us to come here. We are kenyans in all aspects . attending a function which is connected to our roots doesnt make us less kenyan. Dont we attend all the shows performed by indian actors or singers??? Your media company promotes them thoroughly do you even know the local artists here i dont hear or see any promotions about them! Where is your true kenyanism at that time. In this century where countries are globally joining hands for economy and trade its silly to question about patriotism based and events attended.

  9. Loved this. Totally what I was waiting for. Thank you for putting into words what so many of us are feeling.

  10. I am curious about this Kenyan identity people insist exists. What’s the checklist? What is it that unifies us that makes us so? And who is its custodian, who eliminates people based on those points?

  11. what do i say?? Nice read and very interesting. I have never interacted with an Indian on a personal level other than a khalasinger (bet they are Indian and pardon the spelling) while I was fixing an engine block of which he did a bloody great job cheers.
    Any ways, I believe the Indians are as Kenyan as I am only that they tend to keep to themselves and naturally what a person doesn’t know nor understand he/she tends to be suspicious of, and come up with a make belief which is mostly false.
    Thus I guess that those who wronged the Indian Kenyan should apologize and get to know them and understand them especially this our generation, and also the Indians to get out of their “safe haven” and mix more with other Kenyans in unison, love, and peace, and forgive those who wronged them.

    Kind regards,

  12. To the haters on Twitter:

    People need to grow up! Why isn’t such a fuss made when thousands show up to welcome Obama and the Pope? We are still victims of our post colonial western awe and we need to grow out of it like now! India is and always will be a much better example to Kenya then the Western world since our journeys started at the same time and we are in similar phases of development. Embrace that, learn from their democracy and culture, imbibe the good and avoid the bad. And for Christ sake don’t dumb everything down to race. It reveals your own shallow thinking.

  13. That errant comment by Boniface Mwangi (who I otherwise admire) has introduced me to this exceptional writer – thought Sunny Bindra and Rasna Warah were the only ‘Muhindi’ writers of note but this is prose of another kind – heartfelt, penetrating, poetic. Something good has come out of that tweet.

  14. Try being a Kenyan of Indian ancestory living in the UK! But this is something I am unquestionably proud of and even go as far as to label myself as a ‘global citizen’. I relish in all things British with as much fervour as all things Kenyan or Indian.
    The whole brown black white issue is so irrelevant in our new world which is getting smaller and smaller. So let’s not get hung up on whether people feel a fraction more Indian or teensy bit more patriotic or kinda more alien than the other guy! Let’s just celebrate the diversity and if Modi or Kenyatta or the Queen throw a knees up lets jolly well enjoy it!

  15. I went to Kindergarten with Indians and in my town they are part of the community. We should create bridges but let us not pretend that we have any high moral ground to lecture Indians about their attitudes towards other Kenyans when we can’t elect a president from a tribe different from our own.

  16. Eric Wambugu jambo – its Kala Singha ( a name that was given by local Kenyans in connection to Mr. Kala Singh, in the history of Kenya)

    For those who comment negative, that shows what they made of deep inside. The same negatives can be said for them too. Each tribe/community in the world has its own negative people, and that should not be used as a label for the whole lot of them. Those who comment that, are backwards, not fully exposed, and probably jealous.

    A perfect example is the cuisine of each country. You may eat a different food, and without even getting to know the ingredients/benefits of the dish, you comment something bad. But if beforehand you exposed yourself well to knowing what benefits etc it has, you would quietly eat it even if it had “red hot chillies”.

    Bottom line, Haters are everywhere and will remain there always. It wont make a difference to how things move in the right direction. They too are entitled to their random unexposed less thoughtful opinions.

    1. Guris you make a good analysis. Bottom line, haters are not restricted to any one group of people, neither are good people. And all are entitled to theirr opinion

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