Indo-African Writers (report from a conference)

My after-Christmas is usually spent in a suit and tie, at the big, 3-day MLA conference — where all the literature professors in North America get together and try to impress one another with advanced theoretical jargon and turtle-neck sweaters in the darkest possible shades of black. For the past six years, the South Asian Literary Association has also had a conference that piggybacks on the main MLA. Everyone calls it the SALA conference (I know, unfortunate acronym; trust me, it’s been noticed before!), and it’s an academic space where no one looks at you funny if you are in a sari or a “FabIndia” khadi kurta.

This year the focus at SALA was on literature of the South Asian diaspora, and the keynote speaker was Gaurav Desai, who gave a talk was closely focused on the literary history of South Asians in East Africa. I won’t say much here about Gaurav’s actual thesis (look for his upcoming book, which is entirely dedicated to the Indo-Africans); instead, I’ll stick to simply mentioning some of the names he mentioned. While Gaurav did make brief reference to some famous Indian Ugandan exiles, like M.G. Vassanji, most of his talk was focused on lesser-known figures, such as Peter Nazareth and Yusuf Dawood. He also gave some helpful leads for others interested in the topic. He mentioned, for instance, Robert Gregory’s 1972 history of “India and East Africa,” as well as Cynthia Salvadori’s We Came in Dhows, which is actually quoted on some Sikh websites for the background on East African Sikhs.

Commentators like Shiva Naipaul (Sir Vidia’s deceased brother) focused earlier on the distance of the Asian community from black Africans before the traumatic exodus of the early 1970s. And indeed, anecdotally, one hears that the Asians in Africa tended to hold themselves aloof from “native” Africans, at least before Idi Amin. Desai argues that there were some members of the Asian community — especially artists, playwrights, and poets — who were trying to envision a sense of shared culture with their black African neighbors.

One name that came up a lot in this regard in Desai’s talk was Rajat Neogy, a Ugandan of Indian descent who started a famous African magazine called Transition. Neogy’s magazine was a freethinking forum for many of the major postcolonial intellectuals in the 1960s and 70s (some of them are named at Wikipedia, while others are named at the Transition website). The magazine went defunct in 1976, when Neogy was arrested by Idi Amin’s henchmen, but it was revived in 1990 by Henry Louis Gates (among the early contributors to the magazine). Transition is now based in the U.S. — as are most of the writers who wrote for the original magazine, not surprisingly.

Another name mentioned by Desai was Peter Nazareth, a writer of Goan and Malaysian ancestry, who actually worked briefly in the Idi Amin regime before getting out in 1973. He wrote a novel about Amin, called The General is Up, that sounds pretty interesting. According to the Wikipedia entry on him, Nazareth now teaches at the University of Iowa.

Finally, Desai mentioned a writer named Yusuf Dawood, who has also written about the mass exodus of Indians from Uganda in a novel called Return to Paradise.

Has anyone read any of these writers’ works?


While on the subject of east Africa, a quick side-note: at the main MLA, I was thrilled to see Ngugi w’a Thiong’o read from his new novel, The Wizard of the Crow on Friday evening. Parody is one of the best weapons with which to battle the sickening corruption of postcolonial dictatorships, and Ngugi wields it with ferocity and charm. I’m looking forward to getting the book.

16 thoughts on “Indo-African Writers (report from a conference)

  1. I have not read any of these writers, although I am eager to read Ngugi w’a Thiongo’s novel, having read good things about him generally. Thanks Amardeep.

  2. This is going to sound like a total cop out, but I think one of the best places to find Indo-African lit is in East Africa and in India. The selection is just so much more varied than it is here in the U.S. [I can't speak for the UK - maybe someone can recommend?]

    On the Salvadori train, I really liked her “companion [history] book” to We Came in Dhows, Through Open Doors: A View of Asian cultures in Kenya. It’s also pretty (lots of pictures). It’s interesting because there’s some discussion of pre-colonial Asian–>Africa migration that is really textured, and for myself, surprising. It’s a rich and really old history, especially on the E. African coast, but sometimes I think the older parts get a bit eclipsed by the history of colonialism in British east Africa.

    And indeed, anecdotally, one hears that the Asians in Africa tended to hold themselves aloof from “native” Africans, at least before Idi Amin. Desai argues that there were some members of the Asian community — especially artists, playwrights, and poets — who were trying to envision a sense of shared culture with their black African neighbors.

    I can’t too reliably speak for the past, but anecdotally, I found this really varied by sub/community, city, and socioeconomic status. My friends in Uganda had mentioned that the aloofness abated post-Idi Amin between desis who stayed, but that they felt it had been creeping back throughout the 90s. I wonder if this is also because of the re-entry of desis in Uganda over the past 10 years? What I found totally flooring is that it was entirely common to see people who had been in Kenya/Uganda for at least 3+ generations who were still walking around in their salwaar kameezaa or in saris and gabbing in Punjabi/Gujarati. There was absolutely 0 integration/assimilation with local traditional clothing, despite a more nuanced adoption of culture and kiSwahili.

  3. can’t too reliably speak for the past,

    Sorry, I think may brain totally collapsed; I meant “I can’t speak too reliably for the past.” Please excuse the moment of Yoda.

  4. What I found totally flooring is that it was entirely common to see people who had been in Kenya/Uganda for at least 3+ generations who were still walking around in their salwaar kameezaa or in saris and gabbing in Punjabi/Gujarati.

    Camille, I always found it beautiful that the African desis held on to their culture and languages so well. In college, I knew a Punjabi Muslim from Kenya…FOURTH GENERATION away from India. He was an Arain. He often made the point that he didn’t know whether to call himself Indian or Pakistani, since his ancestors were from what later became Indian Punjab, but all the Arains and other muslims from that region migrated to Pakistani Punjab in 1947 (which was well after his ancestors left for Africa). YET he was comfortable in his own skin, and spoke beautiful Punjabi (also ironic since most Pakistanis of his background and generation are better in Urdu, a development which never took place in Kenya). He also spoke fluent Swahili and English. And I don’t think he was inherently such a remarkable person…but he came from remarkable circumstances.

  5. turtle-neck sweaters in the darkest possible shades of black

    And I thought that was just art historians.

    This an a FabIndia comment – Amardeep: are you a closeted fashionista?

  6. That’s great, thanks for the info. Have to read the Indo-African writers sometime. I had blogged about the tendency of Indian Africans to stay apart from brown Africans here. I came to the conclusion that it is due to the caste system in India allowing for separate culture for groups of people. This view is just exported along with the people. In western and African societies, there is an expectation to integrate rather than form your own community.

  7. Thank you for the post Amardeep! Finally, someone who chooses to share the relationship between Asians and Africans in East Africa truthfully.

    I plan on checking out Transition magazine.

  8. Very thought-provoking post here! I’ve never read much about, or known, any desis from Africa, but am VERY curious to know.

  9. I was born in Nairobi. My father chose to return to India with the family. While growing up, we constantly used Swahili words in our daily Indian life. As I grew older I have tried to extract from my parents some sort of narrative about the Indian, in our case Goan, experience in East Africa. So much of my father’s productive life was spent in a place I know so little about. And as we grow older it grows more urgent. I am waitng for the definitive novel about the place and people. So often, I have offered my father to spend holiday here in the U.S. , but he says he’d rather visit East Africa. I think the place has changed too much for it evoke any sort of fond memories for him, or maybe it hasn’t. Meanwhile, as my mother always said – Eat your boga.

  10. Neale, so much has changed, but so much hasn’t…yo should definitely take a trip with your parents to Kenya sometime…it’s the bestest country in the world…not that I’m biased or anything :P

  11. must agree with neale.. we use swahili a lot in our gujuswahili mix… and kenyandesi is right..east africa (tanzania, kenya and uganda) are awesome places to visit..

  12. “I’ve never read much about, or known, any desis from Africa, but am VERY curious to know.”

    Considering the number the gujaratis in north america, that’s quite strange, since the majority of the gujus I kow have roots in africa..a few goans and tamils too… maybe it’s more of a canadian thing?

  13. amardeep, thanks for this post! i was invited to read at SALA, but although it would have been great to be there…i was glad to be able to spend time with family and not be anywhere near MLA (too many memories of interviews in hotel rooms and the crazy big room. eek). Fab India, though. I would have liked that.

    thanks for sharing re: gaurav desai and more work about indians in east africa. my mother’s family is from there and i have long been interested in learning more about their experience there.

    finally, gaurav desai is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a conference at st. olaf in june…it’s on “literatures in english” and on curriculum development and changes…why we teach what we teach; the relationship between global literatures and ethnic literatures. i’m excited about it–have you heard about it? i’ll be presenting with a colleague…think about going if you are free…

    other teacher/professor types should check it out–go to the st. olaf website or google st. olaf and literatures in english.

  14. Just a point of correction. MG Vassanji was born in Kenya, raised in Tanzania, educated in the US and currently writes from Canada. No links qualify him as a Ugandan Asian. Lets not mix these facts. Google Peter Simatei, Dan Ojwang, Danson Kahyana and JKS Makokha for more on Asian African literatures or what you may under a misnomer call South Asian literature from East Africa.

    Jomo Kenyatta Pattni Nairobi

  15. Dear Amardeep, Thanks for the report. Seeking more information on Indian Writers in Africa. Am searching the met but would really appreciate all the help Noor