Asian Kenyans Seek to Be Declared a Tribe of Their Own
Photo: Adriane Ohanesian/The New York Times
Kenya’s national census used to classify them as “Other.”
Now, Kenyans of Indian and Pakistani descent, many of whose forebears helped build the nation and fight colonialism but who have often been secluded from mainstream Kenyan life, are demanding official recognition for the first time.
The “Other” want to become Kenya’s 44th ethnic group.
That, at least, is the ambition of people like Shakeel Shabbir, Kenya’s first member of Parliament of Asian descent, who supports the fledgling movement to have Asian Kenyans officially classified as an ethnic group. Asians, a term that in Kenya refers to those from the Indian subcontinent, have long enjoyed economic success, but many feel excluded from the country’s political and social fabric, Shabbir said.
Unlike the Kikuyu or the Kamba, the Maasai or the Samburu, Asian Kenyans do not belong to a “tribe,” as the census officially refers to distinct ethnic groups. In politics, too, Asians lack representation. There are only four Asian Kenyan lawmakers in the national Parliament, and Kenya has never had an Asian government minister.
“We’ve been here 100 years,” said Shabbir, whose great-grandfather came from Punjab in India in 1917 to work on a British railway, called the “Lunatic Line” because its construction cost the lives of thousands of laborers, killed by malaria and even lions. His grandfather fought against British colonialists and was imprisoned for sedition against the queen.
“It’s our right to be asking this,” he said. “We need a home.”
Kenya, a country of 45 million people, is a constellation of 43 ethnic affiliations. They represent at best diversity, and at worst the fragmentation of the population into an entrenched form of identity politics — 43 chess pieces that politicians move around the board at election time.
Shakeel Shabbir, Kenya’s first member of Parliament of Asian descent, at his office, in Nairobi.
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On its own, being recognized as a tribe does not normally bring specific advantages except in the case of the stateless Makonde people, whose recognition as Tribe No. 43 swiftly brought them the benefit of Kenyan citizenship.
For Asian Kenyans, there is nothing concrete to gain from being No. 44, Shabbir, the politician, conceded. They already have citizenship and have money, property and businesses to such an extent that they often attract the resentment of Kenyans who are less well-to-do. Asians even managed to persuade the Kenyan statistics bureau to finally classify them properly, in 2009, a step toward official recognition.
What is lacking, Shabbir said, is something harder to grasp: “that we share the dream and the toils of the Kenyan people.”
Sudhir Vidyarthi, a publishing magnate whose ancestors printed newspapers that opposed British rule, said Asian Kenyans, who tended to stick together, had been so isolated from Kenyan society that their only proof of existence was “a 1-acre plot of land that they’re living in with a sign on the gate saying: ‘Beware of the dog.’” He was referring to a sense of insecurity born of the fact that Asians, known for their wealth, are not infrequently singled out by thieves.
Being considered a tribe is “feeling part and parcel of the system,” Shabbir said, even if that ethnically delineated system — at its worst a toxic cocktail of politics, money and fragmentation — is, in the long run, detrimental to a sense of national unity.
Ethnic interests are so entrenched in Kenya that some fret that the country will never build a sense of national identity to match that of neighboring Tanzania, whose founding father, Julius Nyerere, made a big effort to mold 120 ethnic groups into a cohesive society.
Kenya’s ethnic divisions are rooted in colonial Britain’s policy of divide and rule.
Members of the Kikuyu and the Luo, the biggest ethnic groups, worked as administrators and civil servants for the British. Today, they make up a large portion of the country’s elite: President Uhuru Kenyatta is a Kikuyu; his opponent in the presidential election,Raila Odinga, is a Luo.
In theory, Kenya’s constitution requires the government to include employees from different ethnic backgrounds, including in the Cabinet. But the rule is rarely followed.
Reaping the benefits of ethnic affiliation depends on whether your tribe is in power. Proximity can bring you business deals, jobs or school placements overseas for your children. Government employees fear being swept away under an administration from a different ethnic group, sharpening the incentive to hold on.
Politicians “hypnotize their own tribe and calculate which other ones to capture to help propel them into power,” said Ekuru Aukot, a lawyer and the president of the Thirdway Alliance, a fledgling party that aims to dismantle what he describes as “negative ethnicity.”
When tribal affiliation is played at the political level, it gives false hope to people that they are, or will be, better off,” Aukot added, “even if the tribe itself doesn’t even benefit.”
Peter Nderu, a Kikuyu, said he planned to vote for Kenyatta in the coming election. Would he gain something from his re-election? “No,” he said, shrugging. “But he’s a good man.”
Just as Indians on the subcontinent sometimes describe fellow citizens according to caste or place of origin, many Kenyans attach casual stereotypes to those from other ethnic groups.
Depending on how you look at it, the caricature goes, the Kikuyus are either smart or wily businessmen. The Luo are considered intellectuals, but they also “like to fight,” according to Isaac Motuku, who was sitting in traffic in Nairobi. He is from the Kamba, an ethnic group, he proudly said, that is considered “hard working.”
The Luhya wear at least two hats. “We are known to be cooks and watchmen,” said Samson Ogina, a journalist, “but mostly watchmen.”
Asian Kenyans consider themselves hard-working and entrepreneurial. Some Kenyans say they are wealthy and standoffish.
Yet, despite complaining about feeling disenfranchised, Asians have quietly played their part in Kenyan politics, too.
“Asians underwrite ruling parties so much, but they’re not at the table,” Vidyarthi said. “In the end, the man holding the whip owns the bull,” he said, quoting an Indian, not Kenyan, proverb, insinuating that Indians exercised a more subtle form of influence.
Those who oppose the idea of Asian Kenyans becoming an ethnic group say they can exert influence on society without indulging in identity politics. Pressing the interests of ethnic groups, they say, hinders nation-building.
At the Diamond Plaza, a mall in Nairobi where many Asian Kenyans shop, vestiges of India’s own form of tribalism survive, as the soft-spoken Malayali from southern Kerala warily eye business-savvy Punjabis who, in turn, scrutinize their competitors from Gujarat.
Rasna Warah, an author, said being Kenyan Asian meant having three identities: born in Africa, of Indian descent and with a British colonial legacy.
“Asians shouldn’t play the same tribal game,” Warah said. “Either you are a Kenyan or you are not. Where is my homeland? This is all I’ve got.”
© 2017 New York Times News Service