The Asian question and community’s designation as Kenya’s 44th tribe

This being Kenya, even the most harmless official action must create a huff.

I have been following the chatter (I won’t really call it a debate) about Kenyan Asians being designated as the country’s 44th “tribe”.

I chose to read the gesture as a genuinely well-meaning one, a belated recognition meant to give a long-deserved sense of belonging to a vital non-indigenous minority in our country.

That this recognition was framed through listing them as a tribe is merely one of those peculiarities of our society.


Sure, Kenyan Asians are far from homogenous.

Let’s start with two broad categories which formed after the 1947 partition of the Indian sub-continent: Pakistanis (who are Muslim) and the more plentiful Indians (mainly Hindu, though there is an important Muslim segment like the Bohras).

From the Hindus was birthed the generic Kiswahili colloquial term for Asians – Wahindi.

Kenyan activists who love empty nit-picking were quick to raise issues about where to categorise Chinese, Bangladeshis, and possibly even Koreans and Vietnamese living in Kenya if we confined the new Asian designation to Indians and Pakistanis.


Such are the tiresome arguments that bedevil Kenya.

Everybody knows what you mean when you refer to Kenyan Asians.

The numbers of those who are not of Indian or Pakistani descent are insignificant. They are probably not even citizens.

The Kenyan Indians come in diverse groups.

We make sense of them by their group names like the Shahs (reputed to be the wealthiest), the Patels, the Sikhs, and so on.


Most were from Gujarat and Punjab regions of India.

Their divergence extends to religion, language, and much else. 

As a “tribe”, they are the most economically successful group in the country, far eclipsing the local British colonials whose kith and kin once ruled here.

They might not in the actual sense control the Kenyan economy as is glibly assumed, but they have a disproportionate stake in it.

The late Idi Amin of Uganda, were he to come alive, would grudgingly concede the misfortune he caused his country’s economy when he kicked the Asians out.


Historically, large-scale Indian immigration into the Kenyan hinterland came when they were conscripted towards the end of the 19th century by the British to build the Uganda railway.

How the Kenya name was left out is another story.

But let me digress.

From what I hear, the Chinese builders of the latter-day SGR followed avidly the melodramatic stories about the man-eating lions of Tsavo that had developed quite a taste for the Indian “coolies” building the original railway.

Quite a number of the Chinese doing the Tsavo stretch would get very agitated especially at night upon learning they were stuck in the middle of a game park where lions roamed.


I am not sure they minded the elephants, if you can guess what I mean.

Anyway, when the first railway was completed, many of the Indians chose to remain and open shops in centres where the railway passed through.

They were the pioneer dukawallahs, the patriarchs of the big commercial and industrial Indian families we see today.

Soon, they moved deeper into the countryside where they introduced cash-based small-scale commerce, based on the Indian rupee currency.

Others (Goans especially) were employed as civil servants in the nascent Kenya colony.


African housewives who daily did business with the dukawallahs had an obvious difficulty in pronouncing Indian names.

So they Africanised them. My grandmother had corrupted the name of her favourite dukawallah called Waljee to Wanyee.

No Kenyan African alive today has been immune to Indian influence.

Start with everyday culinary things like chai, chapati, samosa.

Go to any rural shopping centre and notice that the architecture of the typical shop, from the facade to the courtyard at the back, is exactly the way the dukawallahs designed their own.

Unfortunately, there remains a lot of misunderstanding between Kenyan Asians and their fellow African citizens.

I noticed so when local Indians flocked to Kasarani Stadium on July 10 last year to fete visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.


Warigi is a socio-political commentator

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