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From The Cradle Of Mankind

From The Cradle Of Mankind

January 11, 2012

Indians returning home to the Cradle of Mankind - Africa.

Little light is shed on the vast Indian diaspora’s African avatar. Kenyan; precisely speaking. This is the land, where our great ancestors evolved out of the Homo erectus species, and hence referred to as the Cradle of Mankind. Growing up in Kenya was clearly never like living in the Western-media stereotyped, war-toned, and poverty stricken Africa, at all. Instead, it was a potpourri of global cultures, traditions and values; a near-perfect cosmopolitan setting.

Ironical to global perceptions of a hauntingly disturbing land, Kenya is home to over a hundred thousand “Kenyan-Indians”. However, they assertively consider themselves fully Kenyan; and with pride. Majority hail from the Gujarati community, and have an established presence spawned over five generations, dating back to the times of British colonial rule. They were brought to work as labourers on the famous Kenya-Uganda railway line, colloquially known as the Lunatic Express. It was hard labour, often at the cost of their lives. The infamous man-eating beasts along the way ate some up while others died of harsh conditions. Post construction, the chunk that survived, with that typical Indian perseverance attitude, started a new lease of life here itself and subsequently brought in many of their kith and kin from India to join them, while a few migrated to the West. Setting up shops (dukas in Swahili) becoming general merchants (dukawallas), the community bloomed and prospered.

Carrying on that tradition, proudly, Gujaratis form the majority diaspora with a fair number of Sikhs, South Indians and other prominent ethnic groups from the Indian subcontinent. They enjoy great social status and arguably form the economic backbone of the country. Most prominent business houses with a pan-East African presence are owned and run within family interests (quintessentially Indian) and have been successfully bestowed from one generation to another, growing in leaps and bounds. Culturally, no stone is left unturned. Come Diwali and skies light up in splendour. Over fifty Hindu temples (with various incarnations of Gods from up North to down South) and cultural centres are abuzz with melas and satsangs. Schools even hold “Dandiya Ras” and “Rangoli” design competitions. Similar enthusiasm is seen in the Gurudwaras over Vaisakhi, mosques over Eid and communal halls over Onam. The latest SRK flick would launch to a full house in a modern multiplex in Nairobi the same Friday night that it launches in B Town. There’d be a lengthy line of traffic almost every evening in front of Diamond Plaza (Nairobi’s quintessential Little India) to grab a plate of mouth watering Paani Puri, shop for Chaniya Cholis for the family wedding weekend, or get the latest pirated Bollywood release. And by the way, two dedicated radio stations, also smitten by the Kolaveri phenomenon, keep the crowd info-tained well in time. My school was filled with people from all parts of India, both students and teachers, not to mention the Indian management. Honestly, in their growing up years, my friends in India haven’t faced such large-scale national integration. It may be a slightly different story now thanks to the Indian media’s outreach.

Scenic Nairobi is blanketed with greenery and a chilly but pleasant climate. Clean, modern and ample infrastructure, like winding roads through the hill ranges and beautifully crafted homes more than just pleases the eye. In fact, it’s the only city in the world to have a full-fledged national park within a fifteen-minute drive from the city centre; biodiversity kept intact. Nairobi, being one of Africa’s largest economic powerhouses, is home to the UNEP global headquarters and a number of other prominent NGOs. This brings in a huge expat population from Europe and the US, who eventually settle down here. They compromise on nothing, hence the swanky rich and highly scenic estate houses, high end cars, international shopping and lifestyle brands, great schools, star hotels et al.

It’s truly amazing to see how the Indian diaspora shines, pioneering in yet another corner of the planet.

Photo credit: Angela Sevin


  • Mana
    04.03.13 08:21 PM
    Yes it is true that Desis have opinion and many times may not be charitable.One good lady in Southern Africa had very strong opinion against certain Indian castes.She won't partake tea with them under some flimsy excuse-Tuesday or fasting or something else.She had various sets of tea sets according to the caste as it is still prevalent in certain small places in India.But the same lady used to in a ecstasy if a white person used to shake her hand.She would say Oh the whites are not racist.But actually she was a big to discriminate.In Southern Africa the Desi boys and Africans used to go to same school.In Portuguese colonies the bias was less as compared to British colonies.
  • Anonymous
    03.02.12 08:21 PM
    Very good post. Now, let us try to understand why black people are discriminated against in Kenya and other parts of the world. The UK does have racism and have a mix of people. So does Kenya. Why is it that racism and other problems are pointed out in other parts of the world-the answer is reuters. The strongest media in the world which makes the west look good and the rest look bad. Why is it that everyone in the world wants to go to the west-because it is currently better. And why is it better? The answer is brain drain. Only people who are succesful and acn afford to go to the west go there and these people are generally better educated hence less racism is brough in. Now that background questions are answered, I want to inform you of the ROOT cause of what you call racism in Africa. Firstly, it is not racism but racial AND social driscrimination. Now, the root cause is the government. Let me explain. A government that does not care about its people will never produce happy people. In the USA nd UK they excellent healthcare, the NHS in Uk,free education, adaquate sanitation AND clean water for all, strong measures against racism. African and Indian countries have corrupt governments and fail to meet the standards. The examples I can give are countless but for starters the post election violence in kenya, laundering of aid money in India and the failure to provide AID prevention programms in south africa. This is my point of view and I may not be completely correct but I want to know what you think. Stop mindlessly blaming all people of the same ethnic group for racism because that itself is racist and ask where your tax money is going.
  • sudeepth
    17.01.12 06:53 PM
    You could not have written it better. I miss Kenya and the good times we all shared!!!
  • Vivek Iyer
    Vivek Iyer
    14.01.12 09:33 PM
    Thank you Rebecca!
    Indeed, Africa never lets you fall out of love with it!
  • Rebecca
    13.01.12 07:40 PM
    This is definately an article i can relate myself with,being from Kenya myself. As far as racism is concerned,it is sad that the Africans not only face racism in the west but also in their OWN COUNTRY! Indians need to remind themselves of this fact and give the Africans their due respect!
    Great article Vivek! I still miss Africa so much! and yes,nothing like Diamond plaza and bumping into someone or the other from school,which always happens there! I also miss "The pearl of Africa", Uganda!! It is one place that will always be close to my heart!!!
  • Vivek Iyer
    Vivek Iyer
    12.01.12 08:09 PM
    @ Harry: Thank you. Well, I specifically did point out that life was tough for Early Indians in Africa esp. considering they detached from their families and came merely for hard labour under colonialism. But I do agree with your latter views!

    @ Shirish: In accordance with your views, I'd like to "EMPHASIZE" that presently there is a lot in that the Indian community in doing to benefit the country, at both micro and macro levels. However, about the only thing they can't do is run the govt. if at all there is an idea of bringing up radical reforms to the benefit local population.

    @ Maya: Thank you! I haven't read much about this either. Though, there are some books about the colonial rule that mention a little bit of the Indian community back then. You could perhaps pitch a trip!
  • Maya Parmar
    Maya Parmar
    12.01.12 06:12 PM
    Thanks for this piece. It is great to know there is interest in this area. I am working on Gujarati East African identity formation in Britain for my doctoral studies at the University of Leeds. There is certainly not enough cultural discussion about this diaspora since the 60s and 70s (especially about double movement), so it is good to see debate generated.
  • shirish patwa
    shirish patwa
    12.01.12 02:59 PM
    Dear Harry,neither I have authority nor an intention to decide who started the racial discrimination.What I propose is that though the past is not in our hand,the present is,and for future we can decisively plan.We Indians wail at the top of our throats if we are discriminated against but gleefully do the same thing.New day is new beginning.Let by-gone be by-gone.Let the entire populace,irrespective of race,rise from the ditch most of the African countries mire in.Our forefathers might have faced lot many challenges but how long should we nurse the grudge in our bosom?The hate and venom nursed will do no good to anybody but love and smile do!
    11.01.12 10:58 PM
    Very true in most things you said, but early life of Indians in africa was not easy as you described it. It's only when you ask the old generation before you, then you know the hardship they all have faced.

    The segragation of people was first introduced by British in east africa, where everybody went to diffrent schools. white had their own schools, Indian had theirs ( my father went to one ) and africans had their own and I think that's continued from then on, and nothing much has changed since.

    The way we Indian treat Africans in Africa is bad, but we are not the only guilty party in this equation. If we Indian were treated like Africans then it would be uproar regarding this.

    The kind of discrimination that black person faces in this world from every body, it's not right. I think this will never change because by the time you realise, that this is wrong, it's too late, and next generation will start new, and circle of life will carry on.

    Most schools in Africa are private, This is where you have to pay fees to send your kids, and most Africans can't afford to pay this ( those who can will not, due to devide ). Thus will have to send their kids to normal schools.

    This devide is also present in UK, where you can't send your kids to schools that are church run, despite they are tax payer funded. I call this discrimination, because if you are a different colour, you will most likely be not christian, but what I found, that I did not like, was that most of the candidate, did not even go to church, all you needed was a letter from your local church priest to say you are christian for to go there.

    I only wrote this, so rest of you know that, who has created this devide in Africa, that is still present today and they weren't Indians.

  • Vivek Iyer
    Vivek Iyer
    11.01.12 09:21 PM
    @ Sunil: The established Kenyans there do have a little bias toward the so called "Global Indians". Though culture is maintained, most of the Kenyan-Indians aren't so passionate about India or returning to India. A second home for them is mostly the UK. Though with India's recent rising, this attitude is slowly but surely changing for the good!
  • Vivek Iyer
    Vivek Iyer
    11.01.12 09:06 PM
    @ Shirish and Sunil: Though my post was to highlight on the positives of a different NRI experience (being in Africa) other than a widely known western one, you’ve still got a great question! Yes. Sadly, there is racism – both ways (I could write a whole article on that). You see, Indian-run companies collectively make the largest employers. When the same was the case in Uganda, local Ugandans too faced a brutal regime under Idi Amin and the economy collapsed completely. So many locals and the government are skeptical about carrying out an Idi Amin version 2. Adding to this is a great amount of political and tribal tension within the locals. Talking of racism, Indians are looted, mugged, beaten and rarely killed, but not randomly. It mostly happens in an organized way, like if the Indian employer mistreats a Kenyan worker in a terrible way. It’s quite possible to stay safe, and out of that dirty game.

    @ Sunil: Glad to know that you’ve seen life in Africa :). Indians set up the schools in cities at -least a decade ago when most of the local population was in villages. Though still strong today, these schools are now liberal – they’d admit anyone academically eligible. There are a number of schools which have a great diversity of Indians, Africans, Europeans and all (I was in one such school also) but why Indian schools continue to go strong is due to the India-centric cultural values that they tend to offer, which the others apparently don’t. Indians, I suppose, still like it that way.

    @ Deepak: Thank you!

    @Writerzblock: Thank you! Sadly, the continent is quite understated in almost every possible way.
  • Writerzblock
    11.01.12 07:29 PM
    Nice article. Didn't know there was such a strong Indian community in Africa.

    Shirish and Sunil Deepak: Very intrigued by your comments. Eager to hear the response!
  • Sunil Deepak
    Sunil Deepak
    11.01.12 06:43 PM
    Like Shirish above, I am also curious about the Indian African divide. If Indian kids go to school in Africa, why don't they go to schools with African kids and why must they be all from India in a class? From my brief visits to different parts of Africa, I have come back with a few troubling images of racism of Indians towards Africans.

    Another area that I want to know more is the differences of the new global Indians moving to Africa from those whose families had come here century ago - how are the two different?
  • Deepak
    11.01.12 03:54 PM
    Kalakkal Article :P
  • shirish patwa
    shirish patwa
    11.01.12 11:26 AM
    It is very painful when you are displaced from your home merely because you don't belong to the majority race.Indians faced the same trauma during Idi Amin's tenure.But the Indians' too need to introspect.Whether they too were looking down upon the local Africans?Whether they too were exploiting the poor Africans?Let them start a fresh beginning,let them assimilate with that country in a manner like a sugar in water!

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