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Kenya ‘Damu’?

Awaaz has done a great deal to set the record straight about South Asians in Kenya. For too long, we were the ‘in-betweens’, the ‘unmentionables’ who were expected to know their ‘place’ (the duka). Eloquently, methodically, Awaaz has been filling in the missing gaps in Kenya’s modern history. Its achievement cannot be overrated, and it is an honour to be asked to write in its pages.

We, Kenyans of South Asian origin, have a great deal to be proud of. We almost single-handedly built up the commerce of this country, from dusty dukas in desolate places, to huge industries spanning the continent and the world. We played a noble role in the country’s struggle to throw off the yoke of colonialism. Today, we are Kenya damu – an integral part of the nation’s development and evolution.

Wait a minute: what’s wrong with this picture? If we are so unambiguously a force for good in this country, why are we viewed with such suspicion? Why do we have to take it upon ourselves to continually prove our worth to the country? When the rabble-rousers stand up to do their poisonous routines, why is the common Kenyan so ready to believe them? And why, oh why, do sections of the educated elite also believe that Asians need to leave this country?

We could put it all down to racism, and bemoan the fact that the both the wazungu and the wafrica detest us irrationally. That would be the easy answer, and it is the one we have clothed ourselves in for generations: the righteous victims of cruel bigotry, the industrious folks whose true worth the world cannot see. We can keep waving the victim flag if we like, but we’ll be waving it on the plane out of here.

If we want to have a meaningful future in the land where our parents and grandparents were born, it is time to face up to some issues very squarely. There are things we have done that are utterly misguided and have caused much of the hatred that comes our way. If we don’t own up to them, we will remain the victims of self-delusion.

Consider the way we live. Think ‘Parklands-Westlands’, and you have defined the geography of Nairobi’s Asian community. We concentrate ourselves in narrow confines, producing dense patches of Asian-ness on the map. Once upon a time, we were spread from Kibos to Kerugoya, from Nakuru to Namanga. We pioneered the commercial opening up of the country. We were part and parcel of the social fabric of Kenyan communities. As resentment grew and economic opportunities faded, we receded with the tide, ending up in islands of safety and comfort.

This ‘island mentality’ is our greatest mistake. We live amongst ourselves, surround ourselves with things Asian, and follow our own rituals and practices to the exclusion of outsiders. Our contact with the African majority around our ‘island’ is formulaic: they are our customers, employees, and suppliers; they are the politicians we must keep happy to secure our future; they are policemen, bureaucrats and regulators who get in the way of our business and demand bribes; they are the beneficiaries of our occasional largesse; and they are the unfathomable masses surrounding us with their impenetrable stares and the whiff of latent violence.

I exaggerate, do I? Sit down and make a list of the black Africans you would list as your friends: those with whom you have a bond that has nothing to do with economic gain. Short list? I thought so. This, frankly, is no way to live in a country where we came as immigrants and have established economic dominance. It is downright foolhardy. It is a tragedy waiting to happen.

When I was in school in the 1970s and 1980s, it seemed, briefly, that all of this isolationism would die out with my generation. For the first time, Africans and Asians were sitting in the same classrooms and schools and beginning to understand each other at first hand. How long did that last? By the 1990s we had ‘elevated out’ of the public education system, and were busy building academies that were exclusively Asian. How many kids do you know who attend a multiracial, multilingual school? Only the children of the very rich, who populate the classrooms of privilege. Do any of us have our finger on the pulse of the ordinary Kenyan? Hey, our kids don’t even drink in the same bars, let alone do anything of meaning together.

Wait a minute, you say? Why pick on Asians? What about the wazungu who have ensconced themselves in Karen and Laikipia, the oldsters still living out their colonial fantasy lives, their offspring preoccupying themselves with infantile motor rallies and rhino charges? What about the expats who arrive here every year and spend the first few months trying to befriend Africans and worrying about the ethics of having servants, and then retreat deep into Gigiri, surrounded by uniformed cooks, gardeners, askaris and nannies, blissful in expatriate cloud-cuckoo land? What about the Africans themselves, who live in tribal ghettos as a matter of nature?

What about them? They are all building unsustainable lives, castles on sand. A nation must be more than a series of islands. There must be a common core: of values, cultures, and beliefs. It may be a patchwork quilt that we knit: but there must be threadwork binding the whole thing together, and those threads have to consist of something more than just the coarse strings of commerce and personal gain. The challenge of integration applies to all Kenyans, no doubt; but let that not be a reason for inaction on the part of the Asians. Let us, for once, stand up to be counted as a community. We have had our visionary individuals: the Jivanjees, Rattansis, Singhs and Pintos lit up the skies of Kenyan history; but they are gone now, and it is time for the community – every man, woman and child – to feel and act Kenyan.

The danger is, when someone says ‘integrate!’ the community hears ‘inter-marry!’ That is a fallacy, and one that has stood in the way of meaningful amalgamation for decades. Inter-marriage should be a personal matter for individuals; integration is another issue altogether. It is about the heart, not the loins. It involves recognising the common glue that binds us to this soil. It means regarding those with whom we share the soil not only as equals but as friends. It requires that we get involved in partnerships and joint ventures that go beyond patronage and mutual exploitation. It asks that people share their culture and explain its nuances – and take delight in their differences – knowing that underlying the different skins is our common humanity.

It does not require a dilution of anyone’s culture. We are descendants of Asia and are proud of it. We celebrate our songs and languages. We rejoice in our dress and our way of life. But crucially, we should not wish to lock this culture away behind high walls. We should not wish to hide our ways from anyone. We are Kenyan as much as we are Asian. The African sun has baked us for generations. Our attitudes, cuisine and language have blended with those of the people we found here without our even knowing it. We are unique – so flaunt it! But do it with an open heart and with the eyes of tolerance, not of chauvinism.

Forty years after winning self-determination, this country is in great trouble. In reality there is only one island: populated by ‘haves’ of all colours. A fomenting sea of ‘have-nots’ surrounds this island of privilege. We Asians live conspicuously on Have Island, and are perceived (wrongly) to be its most prominent inhabitants. Kenya is one of the most unequal societies in the world, and history tells us repeatedly that severe inequality is not sustainable. If sensible measures are not taken in time to improve access to economic opportunity for more people, the result will be inevitable: bloody revolution. And when that happens, we are the most visible (and most resented) economic targets. If you have any doubts about that, cast your mind back to August 1982, when one day of chaos was enough to give Kenyan Asians a forewarning of what lies in store when trouble really starts.

If you think I’m scare mongering, read World on Fire by Amy Chua, a Harvard professor. It sets out, systematically and chillingly, what happens to ethnic minorities who are economically dominant anywhere in the world. It has happened to the Chinese in Malaysia, the Jews in Germany, the Lebanese in West Africa. It is waiting to happen to the Asians of East Africa. The symptoms are all there: increasing restlessness and violence in society; crime spiralling out of control, the security forces powerless to contain it; the tendency for any small event to turn into a major conflagration in minutes; the growing hostility towards the ‘haves’. The bell has been tolling for a while, but is anyone listening?

It need not end in tears. We need to shed the baggage of the past and embark on a new way of thinking. The Asian community, with its economic power and philanthropic traditions, needs to lead the way. We need to get involved in systematically building the productive capacity of the poor in this country. We need to go far beyond the food handouts at temples and donations at children’s homes made by bored housewives (with cameras flashing, of course). We need to do something sustained and methodical. The Asian Foundation’s setting up of the City Park Hawkers’ Market was a shining example of the type of thing that is needed. But an integrated pattern of initiatives is necessary now, with a common aim: to give the poor people of the country the means to earn an honest living. We have the money and the skills: all we need is the time and the heart to do it.

We also need to avoid the mistakes of the past. What were we doing in the 1990s, when the robber barons were plundering the country at will? At the forefront of this pillaging was a clique of very nasty Kenyan Asians. Did we condemn them? Did we shun them? Hell, we turned them into heroes. We welcomed them to our weddings as guests of honour. We told admiring tales of their net worth. We were fawning in their presence. We are still paying for it today, for these are the recognisable attributes of Brand Kenyan Asian: Goldenberg, Mahindra, London Taxis; scams, scandals, greed and gluttony. It is an image and stereotype that none of us can shake off with ease now. That is precisely the sort of abject idiocy that we must consign to history.

And what of the ‘rocket’ phenomenon? What exactly were we thinking then? We imported thousands of low-skill workers from South Asia to become our clerks, cooks, salesmen and supervisors. What message did we send to the unemployed local masses with that one? For a supposedly very astute fraternity, our folly and lack of foresight can be astounding. We have to live in the reality of our setting. If skills are lacking, we must spend the time and effort needed to develop them locally. That is the only sustainable method. Those who do not believe in the competence and trustworthiness of the local populace need to leave. Let them live in a place where they feel they belong. It’s as simple as that. We can’t foist our prejudices on to the country in the form of ridiculous and ill thought-out schemes.

If we were part of the fabric of this country, we would have been more thoughtful about the famine that afflicted this country last year. We would have looked beyond the camera calls on the lawns of State House where our assorted moneymen presented cheques that amounted to a laughably small proportion of their net worth. We would have organised our own relief efforts and got involved with management on the ground (we’re doing it now for the tsunami relief effort thousands of miles away, which is telling). And our community leaders might have advised us to forgo blowing our millions on our annual firecracker frenzy at Diwali, and instead make a major multi-community donation to the famine effort – in cash, kind, time and skills. But where are those leaders, and who the hell is listening? Nothing should get in the way of a loud and juvenile good time, after all – regardless of the setting in which it’s taking place.

There is a mutually reinforcing mechanism at play here. The more we are resented, the more we isolate ourselves. The more we isolate ourselves, the more we are resented. It does not need a genius to work out that this will end in an explosion. It’s no use saying that it’s a two-way thing, we aren’t solely to blame. We aren’t. But let’s stop being part of the problem, and start leading the way in devising the solution. The era of cushy living without responsibility is over. If we belong here, we have to take responsibility for the state of the country, and do something about it.

Awaaz‘s last issue profiled Sugra Visram, a woman clearly ahead of her time. She became the first South Asian woman MP in East Africa in Uganda in the 1960s. Now eighty years old, she is clearly still an incisive thinker. Her advice to us: to mix socially and economically with all ethnic groups; to give economic opportunities to the young; to support mothers and children; to integrate with the majority; and to be careful not to pass our prejudices on to our children.

Wise words. Pay heed. Some already have been doing this, for generations: they have fused their livelihoods and their hearts with those of the people in whose midst they live. But they are few and far between, a few gems glittering in the veil we have thrown over ourselves. More need to come out. After a century of enriching this country, most of us still cannot speak the national language properly. Most of us have already made arrangements for our children to make their lives elsewhere. That is damning.

Is it already too late? If the next generation is already moving on, will we have a meaningful presence here in years to come? You tell me. But, if we wish to have an ‘Awaaz’ after another century has elapsed, we have to see the writing on the wall. Open-minded seva is part of our heritage and should be part of our very nature. To ignore that is to sign your own post-dated exit voucher.

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