Citizen or noncitizen, it's all the same. One day we'll all have to pack up and leave--if, that is, they give us the chance to pack up."
With that statement in Shiva Naipaul's "North of South" travelogue on East Africa, a lawyer summed up the future he saw for his prosperous, but frequently reviled, community of mainly Indian and Pakistani origin who nervously call Kenya home.
President Daniel arap Moi recently added to the nervousness of those who trace their ancestry to the Indian subcontinent, and hence are known here as Asians. He accused Asians of smuggling and hoarding and threatened to deport them even if they were Kenyan citizens, as more than half are.
The Asians, brought here at the turn of the century by the British to build a railway from the Indian Ocean to Lake Victoria, have prospered despite British and African hostility. Their numbers have declined from about 180,000 at independence in 1963 to an estimated 80,000. This occurred under pressure to take Kenyan citizenship and fears that Kenya would emulate the wholesale expulsion of Asians carried out by neighboring Uganda under dictator Idi Amin in the early 1970s.
Moi's remarks, however, elevated the problem to the level of the presidency just six months after he chastised a member of parliament for attacking the Asian community.
"Every time an attack is made, the Asians feel insecure and send more money out of the country," an Indian said. "Millions of shillings probably moved illegally out of the country because of Moi's speech."
Analysts here often compare the plight of the Asians to that of the Jews in Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries, both having great economic influence without any political power.
The Asians make up less than half of 1 percent of Kenya's population but a recent survey estimated that they control 24 percent of the country's $4 billion gross domestic product--even though they are virtually excluded from agriculture, the largest sector.
The survey estimated that Asians control three-fourths of the country's retail business firms, 60 percent of the construction sector and 55 percent of manufacturing. Half of the country's doctors and a quarter of the attorneys are thought to be Asians and they also are estimated to control 40 percent of the insurance and transportation spheres.
On the political side, however, there is one Asian member of parliament, none is in the Cabinet and few are high-level civil servants.
Most analysts feel that the Kenyan economy, one of the most sophisticated in black Africa, would collapse rapidly if the Asians were to leave en masse. That realization on the part of the Kenyan government is probably their best protection.
A number of analysts, Western, Asian and African, agree that Moi most likely was using the Asians as a scapegoat for Kenya's declining economy when he launched his attack in February.
The country is suffering from a huge deficit, a high inflation rate and an acute shortage of foreign exchange. Pay for civil servants was delayed for almost two weeks in the period during which Moi lashed out at the Asians.
In a speech that included mimicry of the Indian English accent, Moi charged: "Instead of Asians using their advanced knowledge in business to help Africans improve their profit margins, Asians in this country are ruining the economy by smuggling currency out and even hoarding essential goods and selling them through the back door."
"From now on," he added, "anybody found hoarding or smuggling will be punished severely. If he is an Asian he will be deported immediately, regardless of whether he is a Kenyan citizen or not, and if he is an African he will have his business license canceled."
After panic swept through the Asian community for two weeks, Moi revised that, saying businessmen who cheated would be treated equally whatever their origin. But he gave examples of illegal dealings that most Africans associate with Asians.
The widespread allegations of corruption in the Asian community touch a sensitive nerve.
"You can't have Asian corruption without African corruption," said an Indian, in a remark that was frequently echoed even by Asians who openly acknowlege that their compatriots engage in illegal activities. Like other Asians interviewed, he declined to be identified.
"There's not a single Asian trader who is an honest dealer," said a young woman who is an executive in a firm owned by her Indian-born parents. She said the Asians were doomed no matter what happens to the economy. "If it gets worse, we'll be the scapegoats. If it improves we'll be seen driving in more Mercedes and living in larger houses."
Few Asians attempt to soft-pedal their wealth. A businessman casually mentioned at lunch that he had built a four-bedroom "cottage" as temporary housing for his new wife while plans proceed on a $400,000 house that will take two years to complete.
"The Asian," another businessman said, "has no platform from which to defend himself. He never has and he never will."
As a result, many Asians have found it convenient to have an African business partner or to pay a "commission" to Africans who can get import licenses that are difficult for Asians to obtain.
Asians also are major--although silent--contributors to political campaigns. Still, "the Asian is never sure he's a full-fledged citizen," the businessman said. "That's why he has to get money out of the country."
It is estimated that well over half of Asian income in Kenya finds its way to Western developed countries. A few days after Moi's speech, an Indian was arrested at Nairobi's airport carrying more than $30,000 in foreign exchange.
"Only a stupid Asian would do that," the young woman said. Most get money out, she said, through companies they maintain overseas and by over-invoicing imports.
As a hedge, many Asian families have split citizenship. The men usually take Kenyan citizenship to aid in business activities but their wives often maintain British passports.
It is estimated that of the 80,000 here considered Asians, 45,000 have Kenyan citizenship and 17,000 have British citizenship. Most of those groups have never been to the Indian subcontinent. About 10,000 are Indian nationals, and the rest of scattered nationalities, mainly expatriates on temporary assignment.
They are far from a unified community. Perhaps half are descendants of Hindus in the Indian state of Gujarat and another quarter are Sikhs. The others are divided among Ismaili followers of the Aga Khan, Moslems of Pakistani descent, Punjabis and Goans. There is little contact among them or with Africans.
"We will stay as long as we feel safe making money here," the British-educated woman said, but "I don't know of any Indians who would marry Africans to stay. Very few have African friends."
She added, "We don't belong anywhere. I could never fit into society in India. I don't feel at home here and I'm uncomfortable in England." Many feel that independence simply meant that they changed British masters for African masters and were given no credit for their role in Kenya's liberation.
For most Asians, however, it is a matter of living for the day. "It's okay another few years for me," a businessman said, sounding remarkably like a white in black-ruled Zimbabwe. "But there is no future for my children. I'll educate them outside and hope they make a future somewhere else."