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We should never accept violent targeting

Mahmood Mamdani always makes sense. He is a rare voice of reason in East Africa, where unadulterated vitriol and uneducated diatribes are often the norm when discussing this thing called ‘The Asian Question’.

When something as shocking as Kampala’s April riots disturbs us, it is soothing to read an insightful reflection by so thoughtful a man. In particular, Professor Mamdani’s ‘long view’ – from colonial times to the present day – provides perspective and context to a younger audience.

The good professor’s robust analysis of the background to the riots did not disappoint. Yet it left me more than a little perturbed. I struggled to understand this disquiet: much of what Prof. Mamdani asserts about the short-sightedness of the ‘Asian Community’ in Uganda is almost identical to what I have written about South Asians in Kenya, right here in the pages of Awaaz:

“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.”

That was in my first contribution to this magazine, early in 2005. I went on to point out the things that we Asians in Africa do that cause so much resentment: living in cultural ‘islands’ behind high walls, excluding all ‘outsiders’; making all transactions with black Africans with our wallets rather than our hearts; remaining a thoughtlessly visible economic target of a resentful majority; observing the horrible headline corruption of the small number of ‘robber barons’ that besmirch our collective reputation – without ever raising a voice of condemnation; indulging in stupidities like importing ‘rockets’ into an already volatile workplace.

So we would appear to be on the same page, the Professor and I. Yet I remain nervous, and it is about this: there have been many pages written by many thoughtful people about the Kampala riots, but almost all have tried to place the event in context in order to explain it. An ugly mob goes on the rampage, supposedly on an environmental issue, and targets Asians in Uganda’s capital city. Terrified shopkeepers are forced to take refuge in police stations; one unfortunate Asian motorcyclist is cornered and savagely stoned and beaten to death. Two ‘protesters’ die at the hands of the police.

I am aware of the bigger issues at play here. How the Ugandan government is colluding with a rapacious Asian investor to hive off vast tracts of an ecologically important forest; how there is a decades-old racial history that lies behind this riot; how opposition politicians fuelled racial hatred with a forest as an excuse.

But in our search for explanations, why are we forgetting to condemn? To pluck out an innocent bystander and kill him simply because of his colour is an act of racism, pure and simple. It doesn’t matter how much context and reasoning we provide: it is unforgivable to run around in hate mobs killing people. Why is no-one saying that very simple thing?

Yes, I can ‘understand’ why it is so easy for Ugandans to hate the South Asians in their midst. Yes, I can ‘understand’ that the ‘brown’ community has made many errors of judgement in its history. But I refuse to understand that that it is somehow OK for us to be seen as vermin that must be eradicated from African societies, by whatever means necessary. I fear we are in danger of appeasing and placating our African brethren to a ridiculous extent.

Here’s some more context. Asians in Africa did not colonise anyone, impose hegemony or grab ancestral lands. Asians in Africa did not install cruel and racist systems of apartheid. Asians in Africa did not invent corruption nor bring it to these shores. Asians in Africa have not denied anyone the opportunity to engage in business. Asians in Africa have not caused all the economic mismanagement, incompetence and plunder that have impoverished the average African. Asians in Africa do not run around in mobs killing people. Asians in Africa are not genetically predisposed to be corrupt and greedy.

So why all the hatred, and why all the self-consciously defensive stances being taken by so many? Why do we feel we have to keep apologising, and struggling hard to understand things like the compulsory expulsions from Uganda in the 1970s, the brutal violence meted out to Kenya’s Asians in the abortive coup of the 1980s, and now the Kampala riot? In every case, we look to forgive and forget, to brush the matter under the carpet, to not cause more ripples.

Enough of all that. Let it not take a distinguished academic like Prof. Mamdani to provide understanding of this issue: let every shopkeeper, industrialist and housewife make an effort to confront the problem of how we live in Africa amongst Africans, head on. Let us all face up to the quite idiotic mistakes we have made as a community in a land that is not ancestrally ours.

But there are some things we have no reason to apologise for. Let’s not apologe for our cultures and our accents. Let’s not apologise for the fact that we are in the main a community of businesspeople who combine dogged hard work with shrewd commercial sense. Let’s not apologise for the fact that we are enterprising and self-sufficient. Let’s not even apologise for having money, when we have made it through our own efforts and initiatives.

Modern societies are made up of a mosaic of communities. They are vibrant because of their diversity; open-minded because of their experiences of different cultures. That we are diverse in East Africa should be a cause for great celebration, not fear and resentment. Brown Africans in these lands have much to be proud of. They also have much to regret. So do Black Africans and White Africans. There is no reason whatsoever for Asians to be picked out and targeted. We have to confront the problems of our nations and our times just like our fellow inhabitants do. We have to engage in the issues of politics and development as Africans, not as immigrants.

We must participate and integrate. We must become part of the fabric of African-ness. But we must never accept the derisory attitudes and latent violence that keeps haunting us. To accept that you deserve casual brutality is to participate in your own extermination.

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