Celebrating Indians in Kenya by Peter Ongera

As part of India@75- (Bharat ka Amrut Mahotsav) independence celebrations, Peter Ongera presents some facts you may not know about Indians in Kenya.

As part of India@75- (Bharat ka Amrut Mahotsav) independence celebrations, Peter Ongera presents some facts you may not know about the Indians in Kenya.

On August 15, 1947, India became independent. India is the second most populated country in the world with nearly a fifth of the world’s population. The current population of India is 1,395,049,909 as of Thursday, August 12, 2021, based on Worldometer elaboration of the latest United Nations data.

 India has the largest diaspora population in the world with 18 million people from the country living outside their homeland, according to ‘International Migration 2020 Highlights’, a report by the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), which says the UAE(3.5 million) the US(2.7 million) and Saudi Arabia(2.5 million)host the largest number of migrants from India. Other countries with a large diaspora population included Mexico and Russia (11 million each), China (10 million), and Syria (8 million). Other countries hosting large numbers of Indian migrants included Australia, Canada, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, and the United Kingdom, the report said.

There are more than three million people of Indian origin in Africa today, and as the wave of independence was sweeping Africa in the 50s and 60s, Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru encouraged Indians living in Africa to fully identify with the African cause for independence, according to the  Mail & Guardian Africa.

By the 1950s, people of Indian descent in East Africa numbered 360,000 and many had joined black Africans in the fight for labor rights and had set up newspapers agitating for greater representation. In Kenya, Pranlal Sheth, Chanan Singh, Fitzval de Souza, and Pio Gama Pinto were leaders in the journalistic campaign for independence. There were others like A.B. Patel, K.P. Shah. J.M. Desai, and Gathani among others who were involved in the struggle for equality.

The earliest accounts of the Indian presence on the eastern coast of Africa are found in the Periplus of the Erythaean Sea, written in the first century AD by an anonymous author. Indian merchants had been plying their trade through the Indian Ocean since the days of ancient Babylon and had even established trading posts along the coast of East Africa.

South Africa is home to the largest population of 1.3 people of Indian descent in Africa, mainly in Durban(“largest Indian city outside India”). Slaves and indentured laborers were the first people of Indian descent to settle in South Africa, working as domestic and agricultural workers in the sugarcane plantations of Natal Colony. Later, they were joined by “free” emigrants, a community of traders who hailed mainly from Gujarat.

Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi first employed non-violent civil disobedience as an expatriate lawyer in South Africa, in the resident Indian community’s struggle for civil rights. Gandhi was 24 when he arrived in South Africa in 1893 to work as a legal representative for the Muslim Indian Traders based in the city of Pretoria. He spent 21 years in South Africa, where he developed his political views, ethics, and political leadership skills, and returned to India in 1914 where he put them into practice on a large scale.

Large populations are also found in Mauritius, where they number an estimated 715,000(60% of the population), and Reunion, at 220,000 or a third of the population.

In Ethiopia, a large number of Indians had been employed from the late sixties on a contractual basis to teach in the country’s schools. But with the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie by Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1974, the new communist regime introduced a policy of “Ethiopianisation” which meant that foreigners were not allowed to teach in Ethiopian schools. Consequently, the vast majority left the country.

The Indian connection with Mozambique dates back to the late 15th century; Vasco da Gama found some Indian traders when he landed on Mozambican shores in 1499. Soon after, Goa in India became a Portuguese colony, and Goans began to emigrate to Mozambique to serve as bureaucrats, soldiers, or clergy. Today, the Indian diaspora in Mozambique is estimated at 20,000.

In Kenya, people of Indian descent number about 100,000. About 32,000 indentured workers were brought in from India – mainly Sikhs from Punjab – to build the East African railway in Kenya in late 1800. Of these 2,493 died during construction; that is, about four workers for every mile of railway line laid, and more than 38 dying every month. Most infamously, 35 victims were snatched off by a pair of man-eating lions in Kenya’s Tsavo national park.

The railway was completed in 1901 and opened up East Africa for trade, and large numbers of “free” emigrants mainly from Gujarat, followed in the years after the Sikh laborers had left after their contracts ended. Only about 7,000 chose to stay set up trading centers deep in the interior. Biashara Street housed one of Nairobi’s first general stores and was lined with Indian “Dukas,” or shops. The street has changed over time but still has a large variety of shops owned by Kenyan Indians.

Mr. Ambu Patel, a devout follower of Gandhi, arrived in Kenya in 1947. He sold books on Gandhi and soon became known to African leaders. When Jomo Kenyatta(Kenya’s founding father)was imprisoned, Patel took his daughter Margaret to work with him in his bookbinding shop. Most significantly, at great risk to his life, he distributed medical supplies and foodstuffs to freedom fighters.

In 1948, Pandit Nehru appointed Apasaheb Pant as Commissioner General of India for East and Central Africa. According to Veteran Kenyan lawyer Sharad Rao, Pant played a strong part in Kenya’s struggle for independence and it was during his term of office that Kenya’s fight for independence intensified. When the British banned the Kenya African Union and sought to hunt down its leaders, he often gave them shelter and even hid them at his own residence.

He also provided moral and financial support, which prompted Colonial Secretary Oliver Lyttelton to remark in a press interview in November 1952 that the Indian Commissioner’s office was acting “far beyond the Diplomatic propriety”. They raided his home and office, in spite of its diplomatic sanctity, and asked and succeeded in having him recalled to India. One other significant achievement by Pant was to organize the first-ever scholarships for African students to universities in India.

Makhan Singh was the first person in Kenya to demand independence. On May Day in 1950, he made an impassioned speech and demanded Uhuru Sasa [freedom now!]. Two weeks after that speech, Makhan Singh was arrested and restriction orders were served on him. He was released in October 1961.

Pio Gama Pinto, described as “A Son of Africa”, in 1954, five months after his marriage was detained. Following his release from detention after five years, he once again immersed himself in the struggle for Kenya’s independence and the release of Jomo Kenyatta. Kenya became independent in 1963 and on February 25, 1965, Pinto was shot at very close range on the driveway while waiting for the gate to open. He was with his daughter at the time.

In 1972, military dictator Idi Amin ordered Indians to leave Uganda within 90 days. Sixty thousand left Uganda almost overnight, which caused apprehensions among Indians in Kenya. Those expelled went to the UK and Canada but the majority remained in Kenya, despite these tensions.

A number of Indians who took up Kenyan citizenship were appointed to senior positions in the Government, recognition unknown in the colonial period. They distinguished themselves in the Police, the Judiciary, and the Civil Service. Kenya’s Indian community has over the years responded to the needs of the Kenyan society and has made notable contributions in all sectors, including education, health, social and welfare organizations. Though their early contribution in establishing schools and hospitals was to provide for their own community, these soon opened up for other races and today the Africans are the largest benefactors of that philanthropy.

Indians are commonly referred to as “muindis” in Kenya were recognized by the government as the country’s 44th tribe on  July 21, 2017.

Written by – Peter Ongera

Peter Ongera celebrates his birthday on August 15, India’s Independence Day. Thought Habitat wishes him a very happy birthday.

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