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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  

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