If you are looking for an alternative take on Kenya’s Indian community, speak to Zahid Rajan, editor of Awaaz, a magazine focusing on historical, political, and cultural issues in the South Asian community in East Africa. The local Indian community traces its roots to the late nineteenth century laborers imported by the British to build the Uganda Railway and grow sugarcane and to the generations of traders who settled along the Indian Ocean coast in Mombasa, Dar es Salaam, and other port towns. The Indian community quickly prospered and became managers instead of laborers (the current issue of Awaaz has a great article on the cultural dynamics that promoted their rapid success). In short order, Indians built businesses, hired black Kenyans to do the work, and banked their considerable profits.
Today, the community in Kenya is perceived, not without justification, as wealthy and aloof. Rajan is critical of what he sees as the community’s lack of engagement with Kenya’s many challenges. “Â“The South Asian diaspora in Kenya is completely nonpolitical,Â”” he says. “Â“It stays behind its security fences in [the Nairobi suburb of] Parklands.Â””
Historically, Indians were engaged at all levels, leading labor unions, participating in the struggle against British colonialism, and building schools and hospitals, but that civic drive was sapped somewhere along the way.
Rajan attributes the Indian withdrawal from politics to three factors: the Â“KenyanizationÂ” programs of the late 1960s that redistributed land, awarded contracts and licenses and reserved government jobs for black Africans; Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972; and a failed coup attempt against Kenya’s president, Daniel arap Moi, in 1982. Fighting during that conflict resulted in significant destruction in downtown Nairobi, where many Indians ran businesses.
Â“”I know Indians who have never been back to the city center,Â”” he says.Rajan sees the lack of engagement as a real problem for the community, something that holds back Kenya’s development as a nation. Kenya is maturing politically, but Indians–a significant component of Kenya’s middle class–are not part of the process. Multi-party elections were introduced in 1992, with Moi’s 24-year presidency coming to an end in 2002. Under his successor, Rajan says, Â“the whole political environment has changed: people protest, there are civil actions. “President Kibaki has made lots of promises but failed to deliver. Kenyans have the right to hold him accountable.Â””
Â“”Indians are willing to build businesses and fund charities,”Â” Rajan says, “Â“but they won’t contribute money to opposition parties. Indians are politically active in the US and UK but not here.Â””
He cites Â“reverse racismÂ” as another cause: “Â“It is somehow not acceptable to struggle against black leadership.Â””
Awaaz magazine has become active in national politics. It began as a newsletter for the Eastern Action Club of Africa, a forum for business people to speak out against racism and unfair business practices after multi-party democracy was established in 1992. Rajan was a printer by training and worked in advertising, so he knew something about crafting a message and designing a media product.
Awaaz has a multi-racial oversight board and strives to be non-communal, exploring diaspora issues but only in the national context. Rajan says the magazine is thought to be Â“too controversialÂ” and Â“too politicalÂ” by Kenya’s business elite, who refuse to support it financially.
The magazine sponsors an Asian-African cultural event called the Samosa Festival (which like all good Indian endeavors is an acronym: South Asian Mosaic Of Society and the Arts). It is also a partner with the Kenya Human Rights Commission on a campaign for the recognition of the Mau Mau movement, the eight-year insurgency that helped win Kenya its freedom from Britain.
Awaaz is a family affair, deeply rooted in Kenyan history. Rajan’s partner in these efforts, and in life, is Zarina Patel, writer, artist, human rights and race relations activist, environmentalist and campaigner for social justice. She is also the granddaughter (and biographer) of A.M. Jeevanjee, the entrepreneur in colonial Kenya who founded the African Standard newspaper in 1902 (now the East African Standard) and the East African Indian National Congress in 1914. There’s a park in downtown Nairobi named for him. Patel also serves as an editor of Awaaz.
Rajan sees Awaaz as a Kenyan nationalist enterprise, targeting the Indian community, though it attracts intellectuals throughout Africa and Europe. It is especially keen to highlight the contributions of South Asians to the development of East Africa.
Rajan laments that Kenya’s Indians are not more engaged: “Â“Indians are global citizens. People here are a hundred years behind.Â””
Images by Preston Merchant
Zahid Rajan with posters from a minority rights campaign he worked on with the Eastern Action Club of Africa