Asia in Africa
With a past stretching further back than the Europeans’ and a vital role in the continent’s development, Asians from a variety of countries and cultures have firmly entrenched themselves in Africa
by Steve Shelley
Conventional history attributes the ‘discovery’ of the African continent to a small number of hardy nineteenth century European explorers. But the ‘shock and awe’ of the colonial carve-up has masked the real story. The truth is that Livingstone, Burton, Stanley and others followed trails which had long been in use by Arab traders. And their expeditions were outfitted and provisioned by Indian merchants. Without the Asians, Africa may never have been opened to the world.
Waves of immigrant traders had been settling the Swahili coast for two thousand years before Europeans ever heard of it. Egyptians mapped the East African coast. Chinese and Indian vessels sailed with the monsoons bringing porcelain, cloth and beads, returning with ivory and amber. Sunni Muslim exiles from Persia came to escape the internecine strife which followed the struggle for supremacy after the death of Mohammed. While Europe went through its dark ages, the trader civilisation of the Swahili coast flourished for a thousand years.
The first European to pass this way, history tells us, was Portuguese sea captain Vasco Da Gama. In 1498, he found a thriving settled nation of stone built city-states stretching from Sofala in the south all the way to the Lamu archipelago. The Indian Ocean sea trade was so well established that Da Gama was able to recruit an Indian navigator from Malindi to guide him to Calicut in the south west Indian state of Kerala. History nevertheless credits the European with the ‘discovery’ of the sea route to India. The Portuguese went on to subdue, occupy and systematically destroy these Swahili cities but the ethnic melange and vibrant culture was so well entrenched that it has endured till the present day.
East Africa’s Changing Face
No one quite knows when Indians first came to East Africa but it looks like almost every other immigrant group found them already in residence, their warehouses stocked and shops open for business.
In reality, of course, no one is simply ‘an Indian’. With a diversity of castes, faiths, languages, diets and geographic origins, the description may include Parsees, Shahs, Khans, Ismailis, Bohras, Gujeratis, Hindus, Sikhs, Tamils, Bengalis, coolies, dukawallahs, people who won’t eat pork, people who won’t eat beef and people who won’t eat either. And the word ‘Indian’ of those days now encompasses people of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Goan origin and not just the ‘Hindoos’ of the colonial diaries.
In 1698, the Sultan of Muscat took control of Zanzibar. In starting the island’s clove plantations, he encouraged an influx of Indians who increasingly took control of imports and exports. The first official Sultan of Zanzibar was Majid bin Said who inherited the sultanate and moved to Zanzibar following a family feud in Oman. Majid appointed an Indian as his port officer responsible for collecting customs duties, as had been his father’s practice back home. The occupier of this post in 1856, when Richard Burton came looking for porters and provisions, was a Gujerati called Ladha Damha, whose clerk went by the name of Ramji. While Ladha continued to remit his dues, he was permitted by the Sultan to engage in trading of his own and established a monopoly on ivory, of which Zanzibar became the world’s premier supplier.
Indians, under the generic name of ‘Banyans’, controlled trade in every sort of commodity and were indispensable to both Arab and European adventurers as suppliers of victuals and trade goods on credit. To all intents and purposes, Banyans financed most of the inland expeditions of the nineteenth century.
Burton, like other caravan leaders before and after, was as much interested in commerce as in exploration and much of his diary is taken up with daily complaints about the extortionate rates levied by the Banyans and the monopolistic practices imposed by Ladha. In an appendix to his book, The Lake Regions of Central Africa, he lists in detail the prices, quality and availability of goods, including ivory and gum copal, for export, and the types of beads and cloth most in demand for trading with the indigenous people. Nearly all the types of cloth listed came from India, including the woven kikois we nowadays so closely associate with the East African coast.
By the time of the notorious slaver Tippu Tip, who assisted Stanley in his 1871 expedition, the Indians were so well entrenched that it was impossible to operate without their financial support. The Banyans distributed their goods by means of a chain of storerooms, called ‘gurayzas’, secured in the basements of walled ‘caravanserais’ which were located at strategic points on the routes inland. Ratu Bimji earned a grudging respect as the ‘Ivory King’ while Taria Topan, another influential Indian merchant, was later knighted by the British
A Kenyan Story
In Kenya, the story of the Indians took a slightly different path. Although the towns of the Lamu archipelago, Malindi and Mombasa were significant trading ports, they did not serve as starting points for up-country expeditions in the same way as Tongani (Tanga) and Bagamoyo to the south. Routes inland risked passage through the dreaded Maasailand. For several centuries, a fear of the warlike Maasai kept what is now Kenya cut off from coastal and overseas trade. Only after Joseph Thomson’s 1884 expedition did the Kenya routes become passable, and by then talk was turning to colonies and railways. For the former, Sikh battalions were brought in to enforce the peace, while for the latter vast numbers of labourers would be required.
It’s something of a forgotten story amid modern preconceptions of the colonial ‘invasion’ of Africa that it was during the very period when British ventures into India were at their height. That colonial experience directly influenced the expansion into Africa. The British East India Company had traded in the Indies since the mid eighteenth century, establishing fiefdoms in Bengal and Burma. As early as 1824, indentured labourers - one step up from slaves – wer recruited from India to tend the sugar fields of Mauritius. But under the ‘British Raj’ – fullblown colonial rule from 1857 - the Indian government began to exercise some restraint over this exploitation of its citizens.
The first labourers for the East African railway project arrived in Mombasa in 1895, under the protection of the Indian Emigration Act. This ensured they would be paid wages that were time based rather than tied to the completion of any specific task. Indolence quickly enjoyed precedence over productivity. The engineers in charge were already frustrated by delays at the Tsavo River caused by the depredation of a pair of lions who managed to consume, according to different sources, anywhere from 28 to 135 Indian coolies. When the Indians’ three-year contracts came to an end, a sense of panic set in due to the slow progress of construction. Nevertheless, as the new century dawned, some 18,000 Indian labourers were working on the line at any one time. The grand total of Indian workers brought in between 1896 and 1903 amounted to 31,983.
Once the project was completed, several thousand remained, many to become tradesmen, craftsmen, or to take up a profession. But it was the traditional occupation of retail and credit that most fell into. Having built the railway, thousands of Indian family dukawallahs set up shop along its length and beyond into the far hinterlands of East and Central Africa.
Growth of a Nation
Some years ago, in Kisangani in the Congo, I happened upon an Indian run shop whose owners claimed their family also ran the Tesco supermarket in High Wycombe in England. Many Indians settled too in Uganda and prospered so well that in 1972 Idi Amin jealously expelled 90,000 of them. Many came to Kenya.
Settlers in the fast growing Kenya colony had become accustomed to the pool of readily available, experienced, low cost labour and they exhorted the government to encourage further immigration from the sub continent. An envoy was dispatched to Calcutta in 1906 for this express purpose, while the Mombasa Chamber of Commerce put out feelers into the Indian commercial community. Deputy government commissioner John Ainsworth noted that, “fully 80% of the capital and business energy of the country was Indian.”
It would take a very long time for this to change. In subsequent years, Indian families built up their businesses with singleminded dedication, isolating themselves in suburbs and estates such as Parklands and Kizingo, which even now are considered Asian areas. Nairobi’s Biashara Street still provides the most accurate stereotype of a traditional Indian business - inflexible hours, rigid lunchtime breaks, closure for holidays and family events, saree’d lady behind the glassed-in cash register, bespectacled ‘sahib’ unloading a truck out back, hired staff conspiring to give under-the-counter discounts.
Fast Forward a Hundred Years
Rajiv has just returned from his internship in London to set up a new clinic. Dev has been appointed financial controller at his father’s factory in the industrial area. Salim is getting a group together for Friday’s all-night rave at The Barn. Rani is looking for a new husband since the other one took off to Canada for training and has never come back. Meera is back from Dubai, living on Embassy and Smirnoff till she can get a job. The Kesavjees are agonising between Kenton and Aga Khan Academy for their studious son. Mr. Murthy is off to Mumbai to source brand lookalike goods for his new supermarket. Billy has won a contract to build a hotel for an Italian near Malindi and Ronnie has just gained his flying license.
For a people that number less than 1% of Kenya’s population - and even that with other non-indigenous ethnic groups Indians (‘South Asians’ as they must now be called) are everywhere. Their factories and godowns dominate industrial areas across the region and the list of business sectors in which they are key players, is as long as the yellow pages itself, and includes advertising, air freight, aviation, banking, building, casinos, civil engineering, flower farming, film production, forex bureaus, hotels and tourism, IT, manufacturing, motor trade, printing, restaurants, shipping and shopping malls.
The Aga Khan’s business empire (operated by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development) is one of Kenya’s largest conglomerates encompassing hotels, media, banking, packaging and horticultural processing as well as non-profit activities in education and health care.
A Part, But Apart
The legacy of Indian investment is plastered across the city: Purshottham House, Rahimtulla Towers, Sarit Centre. And something resembling the monopolies of old is still maintained as a stranglehold on wholesale, retail, construction, hardware, household goods and building materials. But without India, Kenya would have no kikois, no chapattis nor samosas, few spices, no chai, no temples, no curry houses, and it might be hard to find a tyre fitter.
Any discussion of a coherent ethnic group would be incomplete without a mention of its stereotypes - rally drivers, whisky drinkers, family picnics in a convoy of ‘people carriers’ - but behind the respect and reputation gained by the Ismaili community lies a history little known outside their world. This sect arose from a schism in Shia Islam, originating in Persia and Pakistan, which identified Ismail as the legitimate successor to the prophet Mohammed. They were called Nizari Ismailis, otherwise known as Assassins.
It was from the direct successors of this group that the position and dynasty of the Aga Khan was created. The present Aga Khan, Prince Karim El Husseni, Aga Khan IV, is recognised as the forty-ninth hereditary imam of the Ismailis and is revered almost as if he were a prophet himself. His income from voluntary contributions alone has been estimated to exceed a hundred million dollars a year. Kenya hosts a substantial number of Bohras too, a sub-sect of Ismaili Shia Islam with its heartland in Gujerat.
The 2009 census suggests there are around 100,000 Kenyans of Asian origin. In spite of their undoubted influence, and aside from one or two ill-fated ventures, Asians continue to be conspicuously absent from Kenyan politics, though human rights and constitutional issues have not infrequently benefitted from the wisdom of Asian advisors behind the scenes.
The success of the Asians can be attributed to sheer hard work coupled with a powerful sense of community unknown in other sectors of the population. But Indians and Pakistanis are no longer the only Asians in town following the recent influx of Chinese labourers. And it seems that emigre Somalis are now filling the niche of the rural village dukawallah across much of East Africa.
For thousands of years, Asians have settled in Africa as part of the vast Indian Ocean trading network. They may no longer come on dhows, but come they still do. As a group they have had a disproportionate impact on the growth and development of the continent and the trade pipeline to India flows ever more strongly.
The present generation may have more options than did their parents’ and they show little hesitation in making their own life choices. It’s no longer automatic to move out to the UK or Canada - a conscious return home to Kenya is just as probable. The mass evacuations of Parklands in the face of politically inspired violence seem to be a thing of the past but it remains to be seen if the policy of communal isolation will continue into the next generation or whether a greater integration into the wider population might prove a more lasting strategy.