Letter from Kenya’s 44th Tribe

Dear Kenyan sisters and brothers,

At last we are family. It’s been over a century of feeling like the unwanted bastard son that was dumped on your doorstep. Drenched and shivering from the storm, you allowed us to stay, but in many ways made it clear, we were not to overstep our mark with ambitious designs of being part of the household.  So after resisting to acknowledge kinship with us for so long, the fact that you have now accepted us as one of your own fills me with such warmth. Because how can our Kenyanness ever come into question when now the President has recognised the Asian community in Kenya as the 44th tribe. It still isn’t certain whether this was a declaration or simply an acceptance to consider it, but either way it feels momentous.

Because though we were brought here en masse from 1896, we’ve actually been here for much longer, stretching back to at least the 15th Century, where Vasco Da Gama allegedly used a Gujarati sailor from Malindi to help him navigate this stretch of the Indian Ocean. Yet our part in the Kenyan narrative is often smudged out, with our contribution to the country narrowed down to the railway, where four of us died for every mile built. But since then we have sweated, wept and bled into this land. We started the first independent newspaper and laid the foundation of the trade union movement. Like you, we have fought and worked and stolen and loved and betrayed and dreamed and built and destroyed and imagined right here on this land. But it’s been a tumultuous affair where our allegiance has been frequently tested. In 1963, we were given two years to get Kenyan citizenship and renounce any British passports, or leave. And 20,000 of us stayed. Then in 1965 under the Africanisation programme, all Asians were removed from civil service and blocked from owning businesses in the rural areas. And we stayed. Then in 1967, two Acts were passed that required us to get work permits and limiting the areas in which we were allowed to trade. And we stayed. So now, this new designation as a tribe feels like a recognition that we passed the test of allegiance; an acknowledgement of our belonging in the history and identity of Kenya.

For those of you who follow my blog, you will know that I have written about this idea of belonging a lot. Just last year, a foreign white woman living in Kenya asked my why I was so obsessed with writing about the Indian Kenyan identity. She said it almost with disdain and I suppose she couldn’t possibly understand. But I remember thinking how nice it must be to feel so certain that you belong, so sure of your place, so entitled to this land that is not originally yours. I have never felt that. I have asserted it, but it has been a long complex journey to get to this point. And now, maybe my cousin won’t have to carry her birth certificate, mother’s birth certificate, father’s birth certificate, parent’s marriage certificate, grandmother’s birth certificate, grandfather’s birth certificate and grandparent’s marriage certificate along with her to apply for an ID to prove she is Kenyan. And when they ask her what tribe to fill in on that form, she won’t look at them quizzically like I did. instead she will proudly declare, Asian.

But then I started asking myself what does Asian mean? After all, Asia is not a country. Whilst it is commonly appreciated that in Kenya this term is used to talk about Kenyans of Indian ancestry, who after the 1947 partition, could no longer all be referred to as Indians, does the Asian ‘tribe’ include the Chinese and Japanese and all the other 48 countries in Asia? And how can we be lumped into one tribe, when in India alone, there are at least 645 ‘tribes’. Closer to home, within what you see as the Asian community, we have our very own specific groupings with our own messy ‘tribal’ politics and ridiculous stereotypes, from the fierce warriors to the stingy shopkeepers, conservative traditionalists to the pretentious intellectuals. We brought our ‘tribal’ divisions with us from the Indian subcontinent, along with the zambrau trees that pepper the route of the railway and the chapatis that are now considered Kenyan cuisine. And I wonder in amusement, will we too now dance for the President during National celebrations? And if so, will we lift our shoulders up and raise our hands high to the beat of Bhangra, or will we bend low and clap our hands in Raasra?

I have many questions. What does this mean in practical terms, to be considered a tribe? Is there a provision in the Constitution that grants us certain rights that we didn’t have access to before? Do I sniff politics in the air? I share the #44thTribe status on facebook and receive a mixture of sentiments. A friend remarks that the last thing we need is more tribes, that we should be moving towards a more unified Kenyan identity and away from the deep tribal divisions. I get it. As a minority we’ve watched from the fringes how messy and downright dangerous tribal politics is, and many of us don’t want anything to do with it. But the truth is that language frames mindsets. And tribe is the language of belonging in Kenya. So now, maybe we are no longer ‘other’? I think about what it feels like to be named in the language of tribe. Seductive and familiar, it feels intimate, like we are being whispered to in your mother tongue.

But is tribe Kenya’s mother tongue?

I dig down a little deeper and discover that the language of tribe was a creation of the colonial regime. Before that, ethnicity was fluid and evolving, with people moving into different communities, working and living amongst, and loving those that were different from them. Becoming one of them. Until the British enforced the language of tribe to divide and rule. To order Kenya. To assign favor and privilege to one group at the expense of another, manipulating us so they could control us. They divided us physically, creating territories that you weren’t allowed to leave, the Asians in one, the Maasai in the other and so on, designating what our worlds would look like, and making it illegal to go into each others spaces, ensuring that we didn’t weep and love together. But they also divided us existentially, limiting what we could imagine for ourselves and contribute to the country. Kikuyu for labour, Maasai as herdsmen, Asians as shopkeepers, making our world smaller So within this historical context, if that’s what it means to be a tribe, I’m not sure that it’s something to be celebrated. Because I don’t want a Kenya in which our world is made smaller, where we are expected to live in certain places and only fulfil certain roles. I want a Kenya where our world is big and audacious and creates space for everyone to thrive.

So whilst I am uncertain about whether I will take up the identity of 44th tribe, I am extremely gratified by the gesture, for it means I am finally seen as Kenyan and that’s all I really ever wanted in the first place.

Yours in sisterhood,


(This is not intended as an official letter meant to be representative of the entire Asian Community of Kenya, but is a reflection from one member of said tribe. Accordingly, any responses to these letter should be directed at me, the author, and not at ‘you muhindis’.)

Photo Credit: c-u-b  

27 thoughts on “Letter from Kenya’s 44th Tribe

  1. My sentiments exactly. I have a mixed bag of ‘feelings’ for this recognition. I finally feel ‘Kenyan’ for whatever its worth!

  2. I loved the little nuggets of history in this post.
    I am uncertain about what this means for now. Seems like an imposed border around my identity. Veiled by yet another label.
    “I want a Kenya where our world is big and audacious and creates space for everyone to thrive.” Yes!

  3. Really loved this Aleya. There is beauty in diversity but this diversity is often used by politicians for selfish gain the same way the British did. The Asian story will always be part of the Kenyan story and vice versa, will we ever be compeletely free of our messy tribal lines…God knows but I hope (and this seems idealistic) for a more unified and culturally aware country. I love the little disclaimer in the end, a perfect demonstration of how we have been taught to see others, as a mass and not individuals.

  4. great article and so well said…mixed feelings too but a feeling of belonging finally..i love kenya

  5. Very thoughtfully put. Indeed it’s a notional nomenclature that affords no new rights as such. And the stereotypes won’t go away with it.

  6. good article but an attitude change is necessary. most won’t shake hands with an ordinary Kenyan… they want no Kenyan to live within their apartments. I’m yet to see why they deserve this.

  7. I happen to be a four generations Kenyan living in India now but my birth place is kenya and am a true Kenyan but when am branded as a muhindi of a second class citizen it hurts the Kenyan ways of thinking are still imprinted hv changed environment around my self here in India to be Kenyan for god sake it is my birth place l my be leaving in my mother land for a decade but Kenya is kenya

  8. Nelson Mandela used to say a country belongs to ALL the people who live in it. Yet in a supposedly contracting, borderless world we are still struggling with banal primordialism. Nonetheless, as a “global African” I recognise that the realities of tribes – both contrived and organic are genuine concerns. Here I am; a Nigerian, working in Pakistan and schooling in the United Kingdom. In Pakistan I have received nothing but love and respect! Ironically, even though Pakistan has a significant black population (the Sidis of Makran and Karachi), I am still a novelty – I am treated differently to Pakistani blacks and other minorities. The truth is that the position of African Asians vis a vis full integration into their societies in Africa is complicated by the positions of African Asians integrating into the Asian societies. Neither Africa or Asia are fulsomely inclusive societies – and being so means minorities cannot get a political voice and so therefore cannot be “included”, these are the insecurities of under development brought about the fear of “want” and irrelevance . In Asia and Africa, to be “included” you have to have power or numbers. It is an inherently weak tenement – but it is there! Aleya, you are a beautiful soul and I am proud to call you my fellow African! However, we ALL have to work at stretching our hands. We cannot wish away the constructs of History, Uhuru Kenyata’s “declaration”, “designation”, “pronouncement” is meaningless because it seems vertical – and inversely so. A conscious effort of bonding at the person level needs to happen. And this will be a percolation rather than a flood. I deeply gratified that the conversation is now in full gear all over Africa. In Nigeria our Asian brothers and sisters though fairly visible in commerce and trade have never been even enumerated in our census. Nonetheless, there is an actively expanding Asian footprint on Nigerian music and cuisine. Ultimately “acceptance” is not a destination we can expect to arrive at. I believe it is a dormant condition in our hearts that is easily awoken. I confidently speak for many Africans when I say we love our Asian,European and assorted brothers and sisters!

  9. This lady has nailed it on the head !! Hats off to her.very knowledgeable in all aspects of Kenya . Of course there will always be traces of racism in every society but this brings home that most of every society has contributed to Kenya in some way or another –well done!!

  10. Much Appreciated Aleya…Identity And Diversity Are The Beauty Of Any One Society…Welcome All

  11. Don’t fool yourself Asians will never be accepted as equals. Every time there is a problem they will blame the ‘muhindi’ I left Kenya for Canada in 1967 and never looked back. I am an Architect and after independence worked for an office that built houses for Odinga senior, Tom Mboya, the minister in Machakos and others and saw them becoming millionaires at the cost of the people blaming ‘muhindis’ for the ills of the country, Pio Gama Pinto was murdered by Kenyatta who he helped gain independence, his brother had to flee the country or he was next and these two gave the Africans the shirt of their backs. So my friend live in hope and I sincerely wish you all the luck.

  12. My favorite Kenyan Author of Indian Descent…( or my favorite kenyan muhindi)..now that you are accepted, we need to work on an appropriate tag to simultaneously include you and separate you..because that is what tribe in Kenya has become….( a sense of belonging, and separateness)..
    I really began to appreciate the Indian influence our culture, when shopping for spices in a Harare, Zimbabwe market, and this white lady condescendingly asked if i knew how to use the Pilau Spice…( thinking that i was a local, black , and of limited cuisine such as ugali, nyama)…. I wanted to slap the white of her face, and tell her that Pilau is my national dish!!!! and my kikuyu dish of weddings and all things memorable. But couldnt blame her arrogance/ignorance for only Indians purchase her overpriced spices…
    Indian culture and language is soo central to East African life, that we do ourselves a disservice to relegate the indian community to Biashara street and Parklands…. The heros who so long ago left their shores to start life in a dark and savage continent( as it was known), not only came to love it, but shaped it and its people…
    My history and yours are intertwined by all those who gave their life for independence, and those who continually make Kenya their home, and contribute to its well-being. You may be more Kenyan than me( who knows when our bantu/nilotic/cushite ancestors really landed on this beautiful land….

  13. What Romano has said up there, in reverse. As a Kenyan, I would also be glad if the Asian Kenyan tribe would honestly integrate with local tribes. That most of our Asian brothers and sisters in private sector would at least treat employees as real brothers in its true sense and spirit rather than as lesser people.

  14. Separation is the greatest Illusion ever.We have all along been connected ,this isn’t a fragile disposition though, we are one ,even in the drainage of mere recognition. I plant an acacia seed today.It will take long to bring a feasible shade though. Under that tree we will all rest….because we all have a single network of mutuality.

  15. Great read. I am Kenyan as I read this, I realized (to my shame) how come I have never even remotely wondered what tribe the Kenyan Indians (or Asians) would ID with. It is as if I never considered them fully Kenya, even though I know of the history and they are as Kenyan as Kenyan comes.
    thanks for writing!

  16. I attended the function of the handing over of the petition to His Excellency, and he was not only exceptionally welcoming but gracious to the idea. However, he pointed out the very fact that this is a matter of distinctly distinguishing those who are the rightful Asians, as they needed to have a specific time period set for those who migrated and have generations behind them . I do not quote him word by word per say. So although it was presented, nothing has been declared yet.

  17. “I dig down a little deeper and discover that the language of tribe was a creation of the colonial regime.” I completely agree with this statement.
    I just discovered your blog and I really like it!! looking forward to reading more from you!!

  18. Indians come from India
    Africans come from Africa
    A Gazette notice cannot make someone an African
    You should be celebrating your origin where for thousands of years (Not 3 or 4 generations) have lived and are buried
    Indians have also been in Russia longer than Africa and they are not called Russians
    Please accept your country India your people Indians and stop running away
    If it looks sounds behaves like a cat it is a cat
    Nothing about all of you makes you African or Kenyan
    You are Indians to the bone

  19. Your write up also touches on the other us, we who are born “half Kenyan and half others” for example I get to find it hard when stopped and asked to produce my I.d card then interrogation begins. I am a half Korean and Kikuyu you can imagine with my Asian looks and Kikuyu names what hell I go through which I believe there is a bigger group going through what I do. But thanks for this letter

  20. We are no family no thanks. A piece of paper called gazettement can’t simply make a group of people a tribe.
    Why are the British who did not go back to Africa asking to be called the 45th tribe. It’s simple it’s because they know where they came from and proud of their British roots.
    Here is you guys simply forcing yourselves on Africans as a new tribe simply because you don’t want to be associated with your shit hole motherland India
    An African born and bred in India say to diplomat parents do not claim to be Indian they come back home for the passports
    So please spare us this forced belonging you are Indians from Pakistan and India. That is where you come from and where your ancestors are buried. We hope one focused leader will revoke that stupid Gazette notice done for political reasons.

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