Tag Archives: #Identity

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,

Aleya

(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  

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.