All Aboard the Lunatic Express

In the 1970s and 1980s when West Indian cricket was at its peak, loyal fans would refer to their team "black washing" the opposing side. In the pubs in England, however, debates would rage as to whether the immigrants from the West Indies ought to support their former home team or that of their adopted country. In Kenya today, an international cricket match between India and Pakistan will provoke considerable ferment amongst the Asians many of whom have never visited the two countries and whose ancestors arrived in East Africa well before the sub continent was divided.

Most of the Asians trace their arrival in East Africa to the turn of the century when some 32,000 "coolie" laborers were brought over by the British to build the Lunatic Express, a railway line connecting the Kenyan coast to Kampala in the interior. Others were prepared to uproot themselves from their ancestral soil and seek their fortune as entrepreneurs in an unknown continent. Almost a hundred years later, however, the Asian collective identity within Africa remains deeply tentative and greatly informed by a mutual suspicion with African people. Colonial practices, and a failure to incorporate Asians as full citizens when independence was achieved in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, has led to the creation of a view of Asians as pseudo citizens and a perception within themselves that this is the case. Furthermore, the almost puritanical caste-bound cultural insulation that they maintained and that is perhaps symptomatic of a wider sub-continental malaise has precluded the full contribution to East Africa's history that Asians have the capacity to make. Asians in East Africa remain despised and are often referred to as paper citizens. Paul Theroux has written of his experiences in the region, "In East Africa nearly everyone hates the Asians." This is a sad indictment of racial legacies of colonialism but, moreover, is a tragedy from the point of view of the relationship between Africans and Asians, two races deeply affected by the shared experience of domination.

Some 20 years after V.S. Naipaul wrote A Bend in the River, the novel remains the best-known English literary work depicting the Indian Experience in East and Central Africa. In the book the lead character Salim is the quintessential Asian entrepreneur who sets off into the African interior of a newly independent country (presumed to be Zaire). Salim is successful selling essential commodities such as sugar, rice, oil and bric-a-brac to the local African communities, making a profit by turning, as Naipaul aptly puts it, two into four.

Salim never feels at ease amongst the Africans nor does he feel that his future on the continent is guaranteed. Local resentment and the constant fear that the "big man" may nationalize "foreign assets" means that Salim sees his position in the town as forever transitory. He regards the local populace as backward but this does not prevent him from sleeping with the local women. Salim always has the option of leaving should the situation boil over, and his uncle and benefactor Nazruddin has a daughter in England whom, it is presumed, Salim will marry.

In fact, for many Asians decisions were not made in such narrow self interest and political indifference as they were for Salim. Upon independence the Asians had three choices: to become British citizens, return to the Indian sub-continent or adopt the citizenship of one of the three East African countries. The majority chose to remain in East Africa.

Colonial East Africa, the Creation of Separate and Unequal

Mahmoud Mamdani has written in The Citizen and the State that Apartheid was the inevitable outcome of the logic of colonial occupation. In East Africa the primary engine driving colonial policy was competition for the control of land. So, to restrict and divide the power and mobility of colonized groups, colonialism created a tripartite racial system that consisted of Asians, Europeans and Africans as distinct races, despite the tremendous cultural variation within each group. Each race was then assigned distinct privileges and restrictions. These racial categories ignored the significant differences between Africans tribes and the fact that Asians themselves were far from an homogeneous entity but were fragmented along lines of class, caste, gender, language and of course, most significantly, religion. And the geographical boundaries for the colonial states were themselves, in most cases, artificial.

Although Europeans created the colonial racial hierarchy that relegated Africans to subordination, African hostilities were directed much more against Asians. Asians, like Africans, were precluded from the highest privileges such as owning lands in the fertile highlands that the Europeans had seized from the Kikuyus. But in the British colonial state commercial activities were closed off to Africans but not to Asians. Asians constituted what sociologists refer to as a "middleman minority", an ethnic group that occupies an intermediate niche in the economic system as traders, shopkeepers, moneylenders and professionals. In a sense they provide the necessary apparatus in societies where such formal structures do not exist and Asians played a similar function to the Jews in Europe, Chinese in South East Asia and the Syrians and Lebanese in West Africa. But by being placed immediately above Africans in the racial hierarchy, Asians were in more direct contact with Africans than Europeans and they occupied the intermediate positions in the occupational hierarchy to which Africans aspired. As supervisors of African labor, shopkeepers selling daily necessities or merchants purchasing African agricultural products, Asians came to be perceived by many Africans as responsible for their exploitation and domination. In addition, a tripartite salary structure created income inequality, whilst in the Legislative Councils set up before independence to appease the calls for greater representation, each race was allocated one-third of the seats, in complete disproportion to their respective numbers. Colonialism therefore set the seeds for the resentment that was to plague relationships between Asians and Africans.

The role that some Asians were to play in the pre-independence struggle suggests that their positions in East Africa may have been different. The trade unionist Makhan Singh had begun to organize workers, particularly Africans, in an attempt to press for better conditions and pay. When resistance to British rule took on a more militant and dangerous role with the organization of the Mau Mau, a group of lawyers, led by the Asians A. Kapila and J.M. Nazareth, began to represent people who were detained under the draconian detention without trial provisions that the colonial rulers rapidly enacted. When the future President Kenyatta was arrested, Kenyatta's family moved in with J.M. Nazereth's in the capital city of Nairobi for security reasons. Such activity was admittedly not widespread amongst Asians, who remained politically conservative. Asians were divided as to how much representation should be given to Africans on the Legislative Councils. In addition Asians were reluctant to teach their skills and crafts to Africans.

East Africa Gains Independence

The position of Asians changed, in some cases radically, in the newly independent countries of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The move to Africanize the economies in all three countries soon after independence, particularly at the expense of the Asians, appeared to confirm the fears of those like Naipaul's Salim who forever felt their position in East Africa as vulnerable. This vulnerability was further compounded by the ambiguity of their relationship with the sub-continent, and with Britain whose subjects Asians had become when brought to East Africa.

During the period prior to independence the Indian government had lent its support to the numerous political groups set up in East Africa by Asian immigrants pressing for greater representation, equality of rights and independence. Soon after independence, however, the Indian government's focus shifted towards support for the African governments that assumed power. India courted, in particular, the governments that sought to shrug off colonialism and were seen as partners in the Non-Aligned Movement which formed the cornerstone of India's foreign policy. In addition, there was perhaps a sense that the Asian immigrants in East Africa had a limited loyalty to India since many had left some time earlier and had established permanent ties in the countries they had moved to. There was also a vague sense that the East African Asians were more westernized, particularly since many had begun to prosper and would not look to India as an attractive economic prospect.

The positions of the successive British governments regarding the question of Asian citizenship were to become problematic. Prior to and even after independence Asians were classified as British subjects. Upon independence many Asians chose to adopt the citizenship of the newly independent countries. In the case of the Ismailis and other Muslim communities, the leadership actively encouraged this. Others maintained their British citizenship perhaps as a precaution. It can be argued that at this point the absence of the need to make a concerted choice actually had long-term significance in regards to the manner in which Asians were to identify and align themselves.

When all three East African countries began in various degrees to debate and implement policies of Africanization a number of Asians chose to leave for Britain. In 1968 the influx of Asian immigrants from East Africa began to draw criticism from both ends of the political divide and created a rare unity of response in British politics that resulted in the Immigration Act of 1968. The Act deprived Kenyan Asians of their automatic right to British citizenship. The legislation was retroactive which meant that it deprived a class of citizens of an already existing right. Even the right-wing commentator Auberon Waugh, writing in the conservative Spectator, remarked that it was "one of the most immoral pieces of legislation ever to be passed." The social commentator Nicholas Deakin wrote that the legislation "provided for the retrospective deprivation of rights of a group of citizens, in defiance of solemn obligations."

A year later, following cabinet minister Enoch Powell's notorious speech where he asserted that letting immigrants into Britain would lead to "rivers of blood" flowing down British streets the Immigration Act of 1971 further restricted citizenship to subjects of the Commonwealth who could trace their ancestry to the United Kingdom. The British journalist O'Brien noted at the time that "race relations in East Africa suffered as a result because the occasion vividly demonstrated the Asian sense of insecurity. Thus whilst the Indian government chose to play a less active role in the status of Asians in East Africa the British government deliberately sought to exclude them from taking up British Citizenship."

Perhaps the combined policies of India and the UK would have shaped Asian loyalties towards a greater affiliation with their adopted African countries but the policy of Africanization precluded this. The formulation of deliberate policy to deny full participation of Asians in the economy marked a clear break with the mere hostility that was the result of colonialism. Admittedly, the new governments had to deal with the economic inequalities created by the tripartite racial system. In addition, they found themselves having to govern disparate tribes and peoples in states that had been created by the colonial powers. Race was therefore both economically and politically sensitive and could be used to garner support, and African leaders embarked on the policy of Africanization as a means of ensuring short-term popularity. This policy turned out, in the long run, to be symptomatic of weaknesses on the part of the newly formed African governments that would in time affect African citizens as well. But more immediately, this policy drove a wedge between Asians and Africans and crystallized the mutual suspicion that helped shape Asian identity into a permanent state of uncertainty and alienation.

Tanzania was the first of the three countries to be granted independence and has managed to maintain the best record with regards to race relations. That it was able to do so is a testimony to its first president, [the Socialist] Julius Nyerere, who was able to recognize the threat that the colonial structure had created: "because of the situation we have inherited in this country, where economic classes are also identical with race, we live in a dynamite that might explode any day, unless we do something about it." There were struggles in 1961-64 over decisions of citizenship, over the inclusion of Asians in Parliament, over whether racial categories should provide the basis for staffing the state bureaucracy and more generally for public policies addressing economic inequalities. But despite racial conflicts and the continued salience of race in daily life the government refused to recognize race as a legitimate category for expressing public grievances and garnering popular support. This ensured that racial animosities were controlled and that the role of Asians was far more participatory and inclusive than elsewhere in the region, making Tanzania today a model for racial and ethnic harmony that has proved so elusive in the region and the continent as a whole.

The most dramatic example of the opposite policy occurred in Uganda where in 1972 Idi Amin gave the country's 75,000 Asians 90 days to leave. His actions were prompted by a need to shore up public support and to set himself apart from the previous President, Milton Obote, who had backed down from expelling the Asians. In fact the expulsion of Asians was simply the beginning and, during Amin's regime, various other groups were successively targeted and marginalized, ultimately leading to a protracted civil war.

The developments in Uganda had a precedent in the region that is often forgotten. Soon after independence in Zanzibar the latent hostility present between Zanzibar's Asian and Arab elites and the African population would explode. Political parties became divided along ethnic lines and Africans, suspecting electoral fraud, rioted following the elections in 1963. In January of the following year, a revolutionary group, supported by most of the black population, seized power in a bloody rebellion. Zanzibar's last Arab sultan fled the country along with large numbers of Arabs and Asians.

The potential for racial violence was thus already imprinted upon the minds of the minorities in the region. The dramatic picture of Asians leaving, and losing all but a few of their belongings overnight would create an indelible imprint on the minds of Kenyan Asians, producing a fear that they have never quite overcome.

In Kenya during the 1960s the Kenyatta regime passed a series of legislative acts that would severely restrict the participation of Asians in the creation of the new nation state and relegate them to just being entrepreneurs in the major cities. Various acts were passed by parliament that prevented Asians from holding high positions in the government and civil service as well as preventing them from owning businesses and property in the rural areas and in the non-major urban centers. Earlier, under colonialism, Asians had multifarious roles despite their middleman minority status. Goans, Sikhs and Brahmins had been heavily involved in the civil service, whilst other groups had found their way as doctors and lawyers. Africanization therefore stifled the potential roles that Asians could have played in contributing to the newly independent Kenya. Instead, it confined them to large cities and, ironically, compelled them to work in commerce and industry, in ghetto communities (albeit wealthy versions) that served to keep them isolated. Tragically, in areas where Africans had little experience, such as the civil service, Asians were marginalized and prevented from making the contribution they may have.

And, of course, following a pattern common to the other states that started playing the race card, the Kenyatta government soon started targeting groups other than the Asians. The government began to quickly put broad restrictions on political activity, banning all political parties and passing draconian laws that prevented participation in the political process by large number of African groups besides the Asians.

The Current State of Flux

Much has been written of the economic strength of the Asians which has often been seen as being disproportionate to their numbers. Much of the resentment between Asians and Africans has been predicated on this factor. A survey by David Himbari found that 80% of the top hundred companies registered with the Kenya Association of Manufacturers were Asian owned. There is no doubt that Asians, particularly those from the trading communities of North West India, are skilful entrepreneurs and industrialists. This has been of considerable significance to the perception of Asians and their own cultural traditions. The success of Asian groups has come to be seen as predicated on work discipline, extreme thrift (often seen as avariciousness), strong introverted community based relations and institutions and a hostility towards other races, in particular the Africans.

Michael Chege has pointed out, though, in his study of race as a variable in the political economy of Kenya, that during the first two decades of independence the economy grew across the board as a whole. Manufacturing and trade, where the Asians were concentrated, accounted for 20% of the GDP. Agriculture, where Asians were precluded from contributing, accounted for over 50% of the GDP. Perhaps the concentration of Asians in the urban centers gave them a more prominent and distinct role.

In the last two decades the role Asians play in Kenya is once again coming under increasing scrutiny and criticism. Asians have begun to be closely identified with the corruption that has tainted the Moi government and that has led to a deterioration in Kenya's economic condition. The 1990's saw the exposure of a number of highly publicized scandals. The culmination of these was the Goldenburg saga which involved the vice president (then minister of finance) and an Asian businessman who received some $455 million under a scheme to encourage exports when in fact little or no exports actually took place. There is no doubt that the scandal involving what amounts to 12% of the country's GDP has had enormous consequences for the country and the Asian community. Ironically, this also marks a change from the earlier half of Kenya's post-independence history during which Asians had very little access to the structures of state power and the system of patronage that has contributed to the country's problems today.

On another note, since the liberalization imposed upon countries by the international monetary institutions, the opening up of the economy has arguably hit Asian industrialists the hardest. In addition, liberalization has coincided with corruption so that importers have been able to flood Kenya with goods, often avoiding tariffs and taxes and this is putting serious financial strains on Asian industries.

Corruption has also led, in recent years, to the influx of illegal Indian immigrants who possess few skills and in fact are competing for jobs with Africans in an increasingly tight market. Immigration authorities have granted permits in return for bribes. This has caused further hostility and heightened tensions between the races. With the advent of multiparty politics a number of political groups and parties have sought to galvanize public support by criticizing the roles the Asians have played, and many even today call for the expulsion of the Asian communities.

The dilemma that the Asians find themselves in currently is that they have neither the political nor institutional capacity to counter such sentiments. The failure to address and transcend the role imposed upon them has made it difficult to overcome hostilities and counter the poor image that the Africans, in particular, have of Asians. As an example, Asians have proved to be large contributors and providers of social services, building hospitals and schools. But this role in the processes of nation building has been underplayed because of the lack of representation on the political level, in the media and elsewhere. The cloak of isolation whether imposed or assumed has neither protected nor served any of the races well.

Asians are in clear need of articulating a new identity for themselves in East Africa. They trace their ancestry to the sub-continent and have not managed to escape the divisive traditions of religion, caste and class that plague Indian society. Even intolerance towards the African people may derive from this history. Furthermore, this lack of unity and direction has precluded effective leadership and the articulation of the concerns and difficulties that Asians have faced. The divisions that plague the sub-continent have continued to inform the psyche of Asian groups in East Africa. If the game of cricket inspires such antagonism then it comes as no surprise that these inherited beliefs and ideas have precluded the creation of a single political voice to articulate the views of the Asians.


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