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A New View of Kenya's 'Asians'
East Indians, Who Shunned Spotlight, Featured in Museum Exhibit

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 15, 2000; Page A21

NAIROBI—They are known by their nutmeg skin, their relative wealth and their custom of holding themselves apart in a society where they were conspicuous already. After more than a century in Africa, ethnic Indians are still universally known here as "Asians."

"Some of them behave like colonizers, the way they pay Africans," said Festus Muasa, dispensing derogatory stereotypes as well as Cokes from a roadside stand on Museum Hill Road. In Kenya, where the Asian community accounts for much, if not most, of the merchant class, there is open resentment and anger from a black African majority mired in poverty.

"Most of them are businessmen," Muasa said. "They are traders, the ones who are owning most of the companies, the big companies we have."

Fisheries official George Oduor said of the fish processing industry, "The whole area is dominated by them. There is not one African. There was one or two coming up. They collude and make sure you go down."

Asians in East Africa know the anger and resentment only too well. In Idi Amin's Uganda, it led to the expulsion of 80,000 people of Asian heritage. In Tanzania, it fueled the 1980 nationalization of Asian-owned businesses. In Kenya, Asian-owned shops and homes were looted and Asian women were raped in the chaos that followed an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1982.

All of which makes the current exhibition at the National Museum of Kenya all the more striking. "The Asian African Heritage Exhibition" would be groundbreaking in any regard. The Nairobi museum, famed for the archaeological treasures that established East Africa as the cradle of mankind, has never before mounted an exhibit about modern Kenyan life.

What makes the exhibit all the more exceptional is that it is focusing on a community that spent so many years avoiding the spotlight.

"The times are changing, I think," said Pheroze Nowrojee, chairman of the Asian African Heritage Trust. "I think there is a sense that the stereotype is not a fair acknowledgment of the community's role. And conversely, I think the rejection of it is an acknowledgment that the [Asian] community is as much Kenyan as any other tribe."

The exhibit concentrates on history, how Indians came to East Africa and what they have contributed since. Visitors enter it by climbing on a gently rocking replica of a dhow, the triangular-sailed boats built to ride the monsoons across the Indian Ocean. In the 19th century, such boats carried 34,000 Indians to Kenya as indentured servants. They built what would later be called the British East African Railroad from the port of Mombasa to Kampala, the capital of Uganda.

Indian workers died at the rate of four per mile while building the railroad, 28 of them taken by lions, which inspired the 1996 film, "The Ghost and the Darkness." When the railway was completed, thousands of Indians farmed vegetables on the less desirable land, not the land reserved for British settlers. Others went into business.

At the time, black Africans still lived as subsistence farmers and herders. It took them most of a century before they demanded control of the territory Britain had dubbed Kenya. But the demand of "Africa for Africans" left unresolved what British colonialists had characterized as "the Indian question."

"Nationalism had a very racist component in it," said Sultan H. Somjee, the National Museums of Kenya ethnographer who curated the exhibit. "If you talk anti-white, anti-Asian, you're a good nationalist."

The prejudice was inadvertently reinforced by the Indians themselves. Intensely focused on family and community, "the Asian is the eternal 'other,' " wrote the author Shiva Naipaul after visiting East Africa in the 1970s. Naipaul, a native of Trinidad, where Indian immigrants had assimilated, was struck by how "the Indian in East Africa brought India with him and kept it inviolate."

Asians agree. "Over the decades Asian Africans have become a complex minority seen from the outside as living a self-centered life," Somjee, a fourth-generation Kenyan, said in a curator's essay on the exhibit. The evidence is the fabric of daily life in Nairobi.

On a Saturday in Westlands, an affluent neighborhood dominated by ethnic Indians, supermarket aisles course with sari-clad Asians clutching the latest issue of India Today. In the parking lot, black Kenyans wait in the front seat of late model Peugeots they might get $150 a month to drive.

In a country where per capita income is below $300, driving for an Asian family is considered a good job. But, for many, it also limits their economic activity, which Somjee said is no fault of the Asians.

"Of course Asian Africans are always accused of being a closed society," Somjee said. "But what did this closed-ness contain?"

The answer, he said, is the very components of "civil society" so crucial to the struggling democracies of the Third World. Unable to rely on either British colonialists or post-independence governments for protection, the subgroups of the Indian community--Sikh, Ismaili, Goan, Hindu--turned self-reliant, building welfare organizations that all Kenyans have come to depend on.

And indeed, when a terrorist bomb exploded at the U.S. Embassy in downtown Nairobi on Aug. 7, 1998, the Kenyan government was unable to muster a single trained disaster response crew to bring order to the chaos. But within hours, Asian businessman had cranes and loaders at the site. Thousands of victims were taken to M.P. Shah Hospital and Aga Khan Hospital for emergency care.

"Not all of them are bad," said Oduor, when reminded of that day. "Not all of them are bad."

Nowrojee, a civil rights lawyer, insisted that Kenya's Indian community is no more economically exclusionary than other ethnic elites that have thrived here: The Kalenjin of President Daniel arap Moi; the Kikuyu of founding father Jomo Kenyatta. Yet, in Kenyan media and everyday conversation, Indian businessmen or "tycoons" are far more likely to be labeled "Asian."

"I think of 'Kenyan Asians' like 'German Jews,' " said Somjee. The region's recent history of persecution underscores that concern, he said.

Inside the museum, Elaine Adema showed that education can change attitudes. A black student at Aga Khan Academy, she said she hears derogatory references to Asians, "but I ignore it because it doesn't help my life."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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