Indian communities in Kenya: brief histories and sonic samples

Peoples of Indian descent have been present in East Africa for a very long time. Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama encountered Indian merchants on the African coast in the late 15th century, and even managed to hire a Gujarati-speaking sailor in Malindi – part of modern-day Kenya – to help him continue his journey onwards to Calicut (in today’s Kerala). It seems overwhelmingly likely that various merchants, explorers, and diplomats had been crossing the Indian Ocean for many generations before Vasco’s arrival – and they would continue to do so in increasing numbers over the next few centuries.

The advent of British rule saw a sudden explosion of Subcontinental migration. The British East Africa Protectorate, established in 1895, saw the colonisers implement a deliberate strategy of encouraging (chosen) Indians to move there, calling for it to become the ‘America of the Hindu’. The overseas branch of the British East Africa Association chose to base itself in Bombay, and began systematically sending thousands of Indians to present-day Kenya and Uganda (it seems that Goans, Gujaratis, and Parsis filled many colonial administration roles, while Punjabis often worked as police, soldiers, and guards).

The rupee even became Kenya’s national currency for a while, with over 30,000 indentured (or ‘enslaved’) labourers being paid meagre wads of them to construct the Ugandan railway: a massive enterprise plagued by cruelty, negligence, and terrifying natural hazards – not to mention the famous ‘Tsavo man-eaters’, two freakishly large and ferocious lions who killed up to 135 victims between March and December 1898, many of them railroad labourers who had been forced back to the tracks by their overseers.

Other peoples of Indian descent fared better under the whims of the British authorities, many of whom explicitly placed them higher on the ethnic ladder than Black Africans. Various racist, sub-colonial initiatives sought to create a ‘loyal class’ of Indian settlers, who would help the whites govern by keeping control of trade and business relations – a drive which offered up astonishing riches to those in the right position who wished to play ball.

Despite being born in Karachi, Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee was the first Kenyan resident to establish a national newspaper, and soon after became the first non-white to be elected to Kenya’s Legislative Council (…aided, it is fair to assume, by the fact his company had won the contract to build the railways – it is said that by 1904 he “owned half of Mombasa, and the greater part of Nairobi”).

Resentments and tensions with the region’s original inhabitants continued to grow and sometimes boil over, exacerbated by colonial actions such as the awarding of five legislative seats to Indians in 1927 (the British had eleven…and the Africans zero). Many of Indian descent became active in Kenya’s independence struggle too – including Makhan Singh, the ‘father of Kenyan trade unionism’ (pictured above).

But the stark reality remained that racial inequality was rife on many levels. At the time of Kenya’s liberation in 1963, Asian communities owned almost 75% of the country’s private urban wealth, despite being a tiny minority of the overall population.

The new president Jomo Kenyatta’s populist, nation-building rhetoric regularly featured strident, broad-stroke criticism of this racial-economic inequality. Before long he turned to confiscating assets owned by Asian communities, as well as restricting their permissions to trade – leading many, fearing that worse was to come, to leave in large numbers, including (as citizens of the Commonwealth) to London and Leicester.

Between 1960 and 1980, the Asian population of Kenya more than halved (and many of those who stayed did so through combining economic clout with governmental compliance, allowing them to stay relatively immune to ethno-nationalistic persecution).

But despite this rapid change, old legacies of inequality still persist today. Indo-Kenyan communities suffer from far less economic deprivation than the nation as a whole, and their members continue to occupy a per-capita-outsized proportion of power positions across Kenyan business, politics, arts, and beyond.

Indo-Kenyan music: Communities will naturally bring their music along with them, creating new offshoots and branches in its evolutionary tree. Indian classical sounds have taken a particularly dense, winding path around the world over the latter half of the 20th century – in fact, many of Britain’s Hindustani classical musicians in Britain are of (or were taught by a guru of) East African heritage.

Notably, Darbar Festival was founded in memory of Bhai Gurmit Singh Ji, a revered Sikh tabla teacher who moved to Leicester from East Africa in the 1970s. There are many other Indo-Kenyan sonic meeting points too. To highlight just a couple…

● Indian taarab is a curious Kenyan subgenre that sets Swahili lyrics to melodies and articulations drawn from Bollywood film tunes – which themselves derive from Hindustani classical ragas and associated light-classical genres. Leading exponents of the Indian taarab style include Chaganlal Keshavji Pithadia, as well as the late Juma Bhalo, both of whom take a freshly poetic turn to distinctly Indian chanting:

● Jain temple heroics: In the immediate aftermath of the tragic Westgate Mall shooting in 2013, where al-Shabaab militants killed 62 civilians, various local communities rallied to demonstrate solidarity and brotherhood with one another.

The nearby Jain temple received international praise for its response, immmediately setting up an emergency medical centre and bringing victims and volunteers food from their homes. They also wasted little time before launching a free 24-hour music and dance ceremony, open to all, seeking to bless the souls of the departed and wish them safe passage into the afterlife.

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