Tag Archives: Kenyan

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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Mumbai Missive 2: Horn Ok Please

One day, perhaps quite a long time ago, Bhaisab, a rather clever Mumbai driver with a curled up moustache decided that really it was quite inefficient to have to come to a complete stop at a junction before entering the road. He had what could be considered a brainwave. If he could find a way to alert other drivers of his impending arrival, he wouldn’t need to stop at all, but could just carry on and they would simply rearrange their driving trajectory to accommodate him. He was very pleased with himself. At first. But what sort of gadget could he invent that would do such a magical thing. As he sat in his car on the side of the road, oiled up head cradled in slightly sweaty hand, mimicking the thinking pose, his mind started wandering. In the middle of a reverie about golden fried, hot crispy jalebis with insides that melted the way he wished his wife’s would she saw him, he shifted his elbow to get more comfortable and just like that…. Beeeeeeeeeeeep! That’s it. He got it. If only he just hooted to let people know he was coming, it would eliminate the need to stop or indicate or even brake!

Bhaisab pleased with himself, twisted the ends of his moustache between the tips of his fingers in glee at the thought of arriving back to his wife earlier each day. Indeed it was a splendid idea and worked just as Bhaisaab had planned for many weeks. Until one Friday evening in a fit of gloating spurred on by more Kingfisher beers than his temperament was used to, he boasted to his colleagues about this marvellous invention. The response was as he had hoped; a thoughtful sea of bobbing heads, in consensus at the ingenuity of the idea. They vowed to try it for themselves. And so on Monday morning, six more drivers put foot to pedal and hand to horn as they navigated the Mumbai roads. More loose lips brought on by more Kingfishers spread this cult of honking and before long the mooing cows trawling the roadside were drowned out by persistent hooting. Bhaisab had not forseen this, and had no idea that he would be responsible for changing the soundtrack of Mumbai forever.

This is my theory behind what led to the ‘Horn Ok Please’ phenomenon that has drowned out Mumbai.

Now, many years later, nobody looks before they enter a junction. Nobody stops. Nobody indicates to show they are changing lanes. Everybody just honks. All the time. For everything. And anything in the way is expected to move itself. Mind boggingly it seems to work. Even if it means that Mumbai as a general populace records the highest hearing loss of any city. Ok, I made that last part up, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

My sister told me about a very interesting conversation she had with a professor at Mumbai who had visited Kenya several years ago. In his opinion, equity of wealth distribution can be evidenced by a variety of wheelers. Kenya was far behind India at that time. We had only four wheelers and two wheelers while India boasted two, three, four and multiple wheelers. So perhaps the recent proliferation of different wheelers on our roads is a positive sign.

Whilst in Mumbai, three wheelers have been my transport of choice. Rickshaws (Tuks Tuks) are the easiest way to get around a lot of the city; being so nifty they squeeze into spaces that defy the laws of physics. But they are also undoubtedly the most unnerving of transport choices. With unbelievable turning circles which they utilise to great effect, performing impromptu U-turns on multi-lane highways, they pay no heed to the huge buses hurtling along at breakneck speeds. At times like those that I wish I carried my own helmet. I have had many a pondering during Rickshaw rides about what a skull hitting the pavement sounds like. Would it be a clean cut like breaking open a coconut. Or would it fragment like when you crack an egg. Is it a dull drawn out thud sound. Or more of a clean short snap.

My favourite part of riding in a Rickshaw is the ability to experience the city in a way that you just can’t in the confines of a car. Life bustles its way into your space and you become a part of this heaving breathing monster that is the city. Red lipsticked Hijras (transvestites) poke their heads through the doorway and threaten to lift up their heavy saris to give you a peek of their package if you don’t part with a reasonable sum of money. To show they are serious, they clap their hands together, their fingers splayed apart and palms smacking together. Passengers in neighbouring rickshaws, close enough to reach out and touch, suss you out with indiscreet side eyes. Smells seep in; the heady thick fragrance of ripe mangoes, the eye watering smell of spices being fried, the sharp odor of sewage that has been sitting around for many days, the occasional delicate jasmine floating its way into your nostrils.

Then there are the Rickshaw drivers. Clad in brown, they wear stoic expressions in even the most hair rising situations, seemingly unmoved by the constant proximity to death. With left legs folded underneath them in a half lotus position, they make matatu drivers look like Sunday School bus drivers. These men are unflappable. I suspect at Rickshaw driving school, there is a module on ‘Developing Balls Of Steel: A Practical Course’. They probably have to go through a boot camp where they are put through a series of tests where their flinch/sweat level is assessed. Staring contests with Tigers. Bungee jumping from Everest. Spending an entire week with their Mother in Laws.

Even as they seemingly flaunt all the rules, there does seem to be an invisible code of conduct. One afternoon, our Rickshaw driver perturbed by another driver who was driving perilously close to us, leaned out and said to the man ‘Come on Man. You know what you are doing is wrong. Why would you still do that?’ His tone was not agressive. It wasn’t even angry. It was the kind of tone you use to tell a child that they have to go to sleep before midnight on a school day. This after we had just scraped the side of another car. It struck me as so odd. This almost brotherly guidance and nod to an invisible set of rules.

I wonder how much the traffic behavior of a city reveals the temperament of its peoples.
In Phnom Penh in Cambodia which was just as busy as Mumbai, the traffic had a peaceful fluidity. To cross the street, you went against every Nairobian instinct, and stepped out onto the busy road, walking very very slowly, taking baby steps and not making any sudden moves. The vehicles would then calmly work their way around you. It echoed the gentleness that I found so remarkable in Cambodians, the sense of adjusting yourself in consideration of others around. The philosophy that space is shared and all the lifestyle implications that come with that.

Mumbai with all its madness had an unlikely easy going nature about it. I rarely saw any aggression and it was never personal. Even the honking was less about a middle finger and more about exclaiming that you were there. In a space that is jostling with so many people, I can somewhat understand the need to assert your existence. To say here I am. In among the throng of millions. I exist. Of course, crossing the road in Mumbai requires you to cast away any attachment you have to living, channel your inner Rudisha and high tail it across the road. Or you could just find a cow and wait by its side until it decides to cross the road.

What do you think Nairobi roads say about us as a people?

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#KenyanAndIndian

What is the sound of thousands of Indians rolling their eyes?

This evening sitting in traffic, suffocated by a furious heat, I listened to the news on the radio. There is something odd about being alone in the bubble of your car, right next to someone else in their bubble, both of you listening to the same thing at the same moment. A shared experience expressed privately. As I learned of the identity of the alleged private developers who grabbed the playground of Langata Primary School, I joined thousands of other brown people in Nairobi snorting in their own air conditioned bubbles.

This was my inner monologue.

Seriously? Come on guys. Do they really have to be Indian!? Great. As if suffering through Brother Paul/Pattni wasn’t enough. Why do you need to go out and add another nail to the coffin that is ‘Indians are thieves and stealing this country.’ That’s like a Luhya going to a sushi restaurant and ordering chicken.

Yet for every Pattni there are thousands of Sunny Bindras, Zarina Patels, Farrah Nuranis, Shamit Patels, Nivedita Mukherjees, Shailja Patels, Rasna Warahs, Zahid Rajans.

Predictably, the witty Kenyan Twitter community reacted with breakneck speed, delighting in their discovery of the versatility of the name Singh. A new hashtag was born, which within an hour was trending #NgiluSinghJokes. I have to say, y’all are late to the game. The rest of the Indian community have been making Singh jokes for decades, and I thought I had heard them all, but KOT are amaSINGHly creative.

A lot of people raised eyebrows at the identity of the land grabbers, claiming that Ngilu’s naming of the private developers was unconvinSINGH.

Others murmured apprehension that this hashtag would go too far and end up ostracizing an entire community for the actions of four individuals.  Another hashtag from last year was revived #KenyanNotIndian where Kenyans of Indian origin asserted their patriotism. It says something about us as a society when your gut reaction is to distance yourself as far away as possible from a part of your identity for fear that it will be used against you in some way. I suspect this has some visceral effect on an individual, deep inside where memories nestle. I hear the exhaustion of feeling the need to apologize on behalf of an entire skin colour for the actions of a few individuals.

Africa is a country.

Indian is a skin colour.

But we don’t see other Kenyan communities apologizing for their rogue individuals who have pillaged, eaten and vomited all over the shoes of Kenyans. And yet. The Somali community in Kenya are individually and personally being made to pay a traumatic price for our hypocrisy when it comes to this. Divide and Rule. We learned from the Masters.

Even as I write this, I am exhausted by the issue. Imagine. There is more to me than being a muhindi. Not that you’d know it from reading my blog. It irritates me a little that I find myself consistently drawn to this theme. I don’t want to be just that Indian Chick continuously droning on. But I realised something. We belong. Yet, if you look at the history books of Kenya, you won’t hear our stories from our mouths. There is so very little that has been written and is being written about the community, by the community. We have largely put our heads down and worked away industriously, but where are our voices when it comes to the narrative of this country. So I am claiming this space. I want my story, my existence to be in the cataloging of Kenyan history. Because it’s not just mine, it belongs to thousands. And if I don’t write it, dammit, who will.

End of rant.

Back to #KenyanNotIndian. Here is the thing. It unsettles me. Doesn’t fit snugly on my skin. If anything it feels like uncomfortable spanx underwear that you squeeze in to hide the parts of yourself you don’t want to subject to the World’s gaze. Never mind that you can’t breathe and your stomach is spooning your esophagus, at least your lumps aren’t showing.

I am Kenyan AND Indian. It is quite simple really. I don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive. They sit very comfortably together in me. There is no contradiction and one doesn’t take away from the other. My nationality is Kenyan and my ethnicity is Indian.

What does that mean?

My loyalty, allegiance, heart, patriotism and soul belong to Kenya the country. But I embrace and am proud of my Indian heritage.

What does it actually mean?

I would go to war for Kenya (if I believed in that sort of thing), but if I was hit, my last words would come out in Gujurati.

My blood, sweat and tears belong to Kenya. But the sweat probably smells a little like curry.

What makes me Indian ? I don’t really know the answer to this. I can’t trace my ancestry very far and I don’t have a shags. It makes me feel deeply unsettled this. Not knowing my roots. I envy you who have your forefathers buried on soil that has tasted your blood. What’s my lineage? Who were my people? What did they stand for? What was their legacy? What were they known for? When they talked of the Kassams, did they extol us for our virtuous nature or mutter under their breath in disgust? Were we known for our brains or our hands? Were we do-ers or thinkers? I would like to know these things.

A few years ago, I went to India for the first time. It was like going back to the Motherland. Aside from the bizarre sensation of being surrounded by brown people, and for the first time not being the minority, it felt rather comforting. I was curious to see if I would feel a tugging. A belonging. And I did a little. It was in the Indian sensibility. An intangible something I couldn’t put my finger on. Yet, it was clear we didn’t belong. Everywhere we went, Indians asked us where we came from. Which was discombobulating.

But I speak Gujurati (very badly). I cook chicken curry (not very well). I dance to Indian music (terribly). I wear punjabi suits (as often as I can) and the ultimate test; I live in a mad huge household spilling at the seams with family who are always in each other’s armpits.

I mellow out my father’s fiery chicken curry with mounds of Ugali. When I want music that will squeeze my insides I listen to Nyadundo and Nusrat. My favourite sari is made from an emerald green kikoy. My family enthusiastically infuse the Lipala Dance with Bhangra moves.

What makes me Kenyan? I don’t really know the answer to this either. I was born here. Surely that in itself is enough. I have been known to use my mouth to point out directions. My language is peppered with Kenyanisms. Wololololo. Ngai. Ati. Kumbe. Kwani. In fact, half the time, I am not sure whether the word I am saying is Kiswahili or Gujurati, they feel so interwoven. Which is only fair, considering Kenya stole chapatis. Ultimately, I am only as peculiar as the next Kenyan.

And the question in itself is a loaded one. I am no less Kenyan than the Bukusu who would have been Ugandan had the Queen sneezed when she was tracing the borders of East Africa.

I love being Kenyan. The camaraderie, our ridiculous sense of humour…and personal space. The sense that we are in this together. And what an enormous privilege it is to be afforded the opportunity to participate in the shaping of your country. Don’t take this lightly. To be able to make a meaningful impact on the country you will pass down to your children is not something every citizen of the world has.

So here is my challenge to anyone who feels the understandable visceral need to assert your Kenyan-ness. Let it not be a reaction to a perceived threat. If you give a shit, and frankly none of us has the luxury not to anymore, then make your voice heard and your actions felt. Participate in the shaping of society. Actively. Jostle for space. Don’t hold yourself at a distance. Get involved. Participate. Building yourself is not enough. It is time to build the Kenya you want your children to inherit.

Tonight Irungu Hougton declared that there are legacies to be grabbed. Don’t be left behind. As he said, ‘If you can’t do something great, do something small in a great way.’

Let us re-shape the narrative of what being #KenyanAndIndian means.

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Not Yet Kenyan

I have been trying to write this piece for the last two weeks, and it has been agonising. I wrung my brain, trying to come up with zingy openings that compel you to keep reading, descriptions that cut to the core of how I feel, and yet don’t come across as overly sentimental. I worried about over-generalising, over-simplifying, over-dramatizing. I worried about being politically correct. Most of all, I worried about laying it bare…. or starting to.

You see this one is really important to me.

In reality, I have been trying to write this piece for the last decade.

So I am just going to write it. Ungarnished.

I popped my storytelling cherry a few months ago, and was preparing to tell Trupti’s story from John Sibi Okumu’s Role Play. I usually force my family to listen to me practice. They have perfected the art of zoning out, making grocery lists in their heads, as they watch my face for signs of when to make the appropriate oohs and aahs.

This time was different. By the end, my mum’s face was streaming with silent tears. Trupti tells the story of how her sister was raped by the military, in front of the whole family during the 1982 coup.

It was like that and worse Aleya. So much worse. They went from house to house, forcing their way in. The stealing was one thing, but they raped every woman they found. Every single one. In front of their brothers, fathers, grandfathers. So many of our Asian women.

It is the first time she has ever spoken to me about these things.

‘A respected leader in the community stood outside his house, in only his underwear, wailing, crying, pretending they had stolen everything, just so the military would think his house had already been ransacked, and would leave them alone. Those were not fake tears Aleya. He was protecting his three daughters hiding in the house.’

What does it take for a man to do that? Stripped of his dignity. Forever.

We don’t talk about that sort of stuff. Is that why I sometimes see fear in my grandmother’s eyes when a black man she doesn’t know enters the house?

My friend asked me this once.

‘Why is it if I am alone in a lift with an older Muhindi woman, she shrinks back in fear, as if I am going to attack her?’

He asked me this only after we had become friends. After he had become comfortable enough with me to ask the uncomfortable questions. We both burst out laughing. The idea that he could attack anybody is simply absurd. He has the gentlest soul. The laughter was hollow. The idea was absurd to him. Indeed it is absurd. But imagine. A whole community living like that.

But we inherit our fears, just as we inherit our prejudice.

I have always wondered what happened to make my grandmother so frightened. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t talk about the inherent fear so many women in my grandmother’s generation feel towards black men. This prejudice they then pass on to their daughters, and the daughters after that. It is ok to be friends with black women, but not ok to be friends with black men. Because you never know. The demonization of all black men. The fear of which, the basis we ourselves don’t understand, but we so often blindly adopt.

I am not interested in being politically correct anymore.

I have lived a truly sheltered life. My parents are working class, and have worked tooth and nail for that privilege of shelter. My father does not hide his opinion that I should have settled abroad. That was Plan A. Work hard. Save. Send kids abroad to university. They settle abroad. They live life in a country where they aren’t scared they are going to get kicked out any day.

I messed with the plan. I came back. I gave my heart to Kenya.

There are stories abound of Muhindi families with Idi Amin’s picture on their living room wall, a garland of flowers around the frame, in celebration, because that was the best thing that happened to them, getting kicked out of Uganda.

Memories of the 90’s when a certain politician went mad, and there were anti-Muhindi pamphlets making the rounds. Families advising each other to have a small bag packed. Ready to flee. Just in case.

Uganda was still fresh.

But flee where?

I was born here. My parents were born here. My grandparents were born here and have never even been to India.

I have heated arguments with my father

The problem with us Muhindis, is that we just live in our own bubble and refuse to participate in the country’s governance, and then we cry foul when we are treated differently, when we are told we are not Kenyan.’ I say.

We tried Aleya. We tried. When the country first gained independence, and started being cut up and doled out to relatives and friends, we raised our voices and on the front page of the National Newspapers it said ‘Asians if you don’t like it, get out!’ He says.

So the response of so many from my parents generation? Shut up. Burrow deeper into the bubble. Keep their heads down. Work hard. Make enough money so that their children have a choice.

They set down tentative roots. They made friends. They were buried here, and yes many of them gave Kenya their hearts, but always too afraid to love too much, because they never knew when their love would be stamped on by a steel boot. So they protect us from heartbreak, because they know our belonging here is tenuous. Because they know to give of your whole heart is foolish.

What does it do to a community….to feel that they don’t belong?

I have given my whole heart. It lies nestled in Kenya’s mouth. I have nowhere else. I am alive nowhere else. But it is like having an abusive lover. One that beats you up, humiliates you, taunts you about whether you are worthy of belonging to them. But I love. And for that reason, I can never leave.

What does it mean to be Kenyan. For me right now, to be Kenyan is to feel helpless.

I watch this inane swoop of alleged illegal immigrants and victimization of Somalis in the name of squashing terrorism, and it chills me to the core. It is illegal. Unconstitutional. Yet I don’t know what to do. I talk about it at the dinner table. It could be us. It has been us before. My father looks me at and says, that is why I told you to stay abroad. That was the plan A. I tell him, Dad, there is no plan A. This is my only plan.

Not yet Kenyan.

I weep with Mohammed Adow.

These are my own personal views. I do not speak for the Kenyan Indian community. I don’t even speak for my family. I speak only for myself.