Tag Archives: #Identity

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.

Listen.

‘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

Becoming an African

In the underground tunnels of Montreal I start becoming an African. I join other sandaled tropical brethren as we roam the belly of the city, there where it is warm and heated, where buskers play rhythms that awake the taste of nostalgia in our mouth. Where the sun doesn’t reach us, but the heat doesn’t leak out. It is the winter of discoveries. It is colder in Montreal than Siberia. Snot freezes. It is possible for it to be too cold to snow. If you leave the house with wet hair, your locks can snap off like a dry twig.

And like other shivering Africans, I discover that downtown Montreal is connected by a sprawling of tunnels, so when the city grows icy tentacles, us Africans descend beneath, emerging only at our destination, rarely venturing beyond its radius. Except of course when Angelique Kidjo comes to town. I miss home. I need to feel home.  Benin will do. I can’t find anyone to come with me, so I bundle myself up and head to the wrong end of St. Laurent. It is -40 degrees Celcius, and it looks like God pressed the fast forward button on the city. Everyone moves quickly, dashing into heated shops every few blocks to warm up, before continuing their journey. Only their eyes are visible. I know I am moving because objects keep getting closer, but I can’t feel my legs. I enter the club, peel off my layers, my body tingling as it adjusts to the temperature, and I sit down. There are fifty other people in this club. For Angelique Kidjo. I feel ashamed. I must show her how she is loved. And I do. We do. She whips us up into a frenzy of movement, dancing on chairs, tables, falling into each other’s arms. For the first time in months, I feel hot.

My new friends introduce me as their African friend. I am from Africa. Ergo I must be African. It sounds odd. At home, in my community, the term African is often a crude non-derogatory reference to mean black. It has never occurred to me that I am an African. My British Prep Schooling has determinedly erased any possible idea of an African identity in me. I have not had a single lesson on African or even Kenyan history, literature or geography. Instead I sang ‘Hip Hip Hoorah for the Jolly Good Fellows’ after a Rounders match, before we settled down to cucumber sandwiches. This is criminal. It is unacceptable for a child to be educated in a country and be taught nothing about that country. I don’t care what the educational system is. So when my Canadian friends ask me to take them to an African restaurant, I have no idea what to order. Ethiopian Restaurants save me from shame.

Even in this cold white city, I feel less African than the West Africans. They are so loudly African. Everything about them yells African. Their accents, their clothes, their music, their mannerisms. Us Kenyans are much more discretely African. I feel a little like an imposter. As if I should apologise to my Canadian friends for not being African enough. I don’t really even count as the token African. Maybe the token ethnic person.

But the cold binds us together, us Africans from the East and West. The university sets up a room for us. They warn us about the depressive effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder, aptly named SAD. Something to do with not getting the light that our bodies are used to down at the equator. We are to visit this room every morning and sit under these alien-esque lamps. The room gives me that desperate feeling I get from Casinos. And it is still cold. I discover a more elegant solution. Granted, the receptionist looks at me a little strangely when she hands over the bright orange goggles. Perhaps she doesn’t see many people my skin colour frequenting the tanning salon. I strip off my clothes, put on the crinkly paper underwear, lie down and lower the lid of the tanning bed over my body. And I feel it. Warmth right into my bones. For the first time in months. With my eyes closed, I imagine that I am at the beach in Mombasa, ignoring the beach boys and sipping on Madafu. My family never quite understand why I seem to come home from winter with a full body tan.

During the day, I join other Africans at our African Development Class, rolling our eyes at the saviour complex that is stinking up the lecture hall, unaware of our own that seeps out like a silent fart. We Nkt! over a new awareness we have of white privilege, for now, we remain ignorant of our privilege. At night I seek comfort in the dodgy African club where I am guaranteed they will play Magic System’s Premier Gaou at least once in the night. My brown Kenyan ass shakes to lingala. I feel home. I go every week, until one day a fight breaks out, and jagged beer bottles fly across the smoky room oblivious to who they hit. That night I crawl out of the club on my hands and knees, avoiding what looks like blood on the dance floor.

I can’t find any Kenyans to be Kenyan with. So I will be African with the Africans.

Then I go back home. I stop being an African. I go back to being a Kenyan.  I behave like a Nairobian.

Years later in a shop in Mumbai, the greasy attendant refers to me as an African, and it throws me off. I had forgotten that I am. His words remain with me as I sit in traffic watching young couples huddle by the ocean, their silhouettes in the smoggy haze betraying a physical intimacy that I am surprised to see in public in India. The streets look oddly familiar. As if you could be in Kisumu, where when you cast your eyes above the first floor, the buildings still have a certain colonial patina that has yet to be painted over by mobile phone branding. My sister remarks that so much of the greenery reminds her of Nairobi. We wonder what traces our forefathers have left of themselves in the landscaping of Kenya. I remember my grandfather telling me about how the Jambura or Zambrau trees can only be found along the railway line, where Indian workers and traders planted them to remind them of home. He tells us this story as he buys Jambura by the bucket load, marinating them in a sprinkling of salt, and delighting in the sweet tart flesh of this purple berry.

As the sun sets in Mumbai, we wander out on to the crowded beach. On the other end of the Ocean lies Kenya. I wonder what it must have been like for my forefathers getting on the dhows that would take them to a foreign land. In a time when the world was still unfamiliar. When they had no idea what life would be like where they were going. What would the houses be like. What language did the people speak. What did they eat. Back, when google did not exist. What did my ancestors carry in the bags that they clasped close to their bodies as they boarded the boats for the journey that would last months. Did they think they would ever see India again? I sometimes forget they were economic migrants, looking for a better life for themselves and their children. And so it makes sense that when they arrived in this new land, they tried their best to re-create the sense of home they left. They were not interested in being Kenyan. Or African. They were just Indians in Kenya simply looking to lead a better life.

And so I imagine my forefathers would be rather amused by this discovery of mine.  That I am an African.

I also think they would have gotten a kick out of the fact that Chanyado has been nominated for Best New Blog in this year’s Kenyan Blog Awards. There are only two days left to vote, so if you haven’t already, please do vote here, and spread the word. You don’t have to be Kenyan to vote. Of course I would be utterly delighted if you voted for Chanyado. It would be nice to win.