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Indian Africa

Adam Michel

The Minorities of Indian Origin in Tanzania

Simeon Mesaki et Fatima G. Bapumia

Texte intégral

Historical background

1Indians were part of Tanzanian society long before Tanzania appeared on the world map as a nation in the 1960s. For centuries, trade between the Indian continent and East Africa was controlled by the pace of the monsoon winds and was at times dangerous for tradesmen. The main trade items that were transported by dhows included cotton fabrics, ivory and spices. Before Arabs occupied the East African Coast where they introduced a new architecture by constructing strong towns and mosques, most Indian traders had a few temporary establishments in African ports. However, if the great sailor Vasco da Gama is to be believed, it is possible that there was a large number of Indians in the two towns of Mombasa and Malindi.

2When Zanzibar became the capital of Oman in 1832, many Indians who were living in Muscat followed Sultan Seyyid Said to Zanzibar where they benefited from his protection. Indians were appointed to key administrative positions like port captains and heads of customs. Once again, Indian communities, especially those that had acquired British citizenship, benefited a lot after the arrival of the British in East Africa. A trade agreement between Seyyid Said and the British gave Indians the right to live in Zanzibar and trade under the protection of the sultan. With the establishment of a British consulate, the number of traders from the Indian subcontinent grew progressively from 2,500 in 1870 to 6,000 in the beginning of 1900.

3Since Hindus were subjected to a religious commandment that prohibited them from crossing oceans, most Indian traders were initially of Muslim faith, mainly the Shia Khoja and the Ithnasheri. Africa was considered an “unholy” and a “dirty” place by Hindus of higher castes. Due to this, they thought that their wives would be better protected if they remained in India to take care of their homes, children and family property. In general, unmarried Hindus who went to Africa usually went back to India to marry, after which they left their wives in India as they frequently travelled to Zanzibar. All the same, it seems that a small number of Indian women settled in East Africa for some years before returning to their mother country to deliver their first baby and remained there to raise children. Being concerned with this situation, the second sultan of Zanzibar, Seyyid Bargash, urged Hindus to bring their wives. It is reported that the Sultan sent his personal ship to welcome the first Hindu woman to Zanzibar, to whom he gave some amount of money. His plan was to welcome Hindu women to the old fort town after installing water pipes and silver taps. This was a double guarantee that no woman would appear in public and would not be exposed to the risks of pollution. While certain Hindu traders in Gujarat were protesting against the prohibition of crossing the oceans in front of the Brahmanes, this encouraged a growing number of Indians towards African coasts (Oonk 2005; Singh 2003). At the same time, Goan colonists also went to Zanzibar as cooks, merchants and clerks.

4With the establishment of the German East African colony in 1885, some Zanzibar Indians settled on the mainland, while others came directly from India to work on the railway construction. Since they were not recognized as British citizens by the German colonial administration, these Indian newcomers were subjected to harsh treatment just like Africans and had to wait for the British protectorate, at the end of the First World War for their economic and social status to improve. In the beginning, Indians were ranked third after Europeans and Arabs because they were managers of small shops (dukawallah). However, business relationships that took place within the transoceanic “Indian network” between retailers, wholesalers, importers, exporters and seamen – sometimes belonging to the same religious community – represented a significant advantage over Swahili and Arab competitors (Oonk, 2005). Merchants from Gujarat, Kutch, Kathiawar and from other parts of western India, including Goan house helps and Punjabi artisans, were useful to imperial mechanics as middlemen and skilled workers in colonial Tanganyika. Although all these immigrants never exceeded one percent of the colony’s total population, their role in the economy of the territory was of prime importance and benefited from the colonial administration’s continued support, which favoured Indians against Africans in terms of trade and access to property. Racial segregation was thus established between Africans, Arabs, Indians and Europeans and it transcended all the important divisions between languages, religions, castes and social classes. The various mandir, khana, wadi, jamaat, mosques and other religious buildings belonging to the Patels, Lohanas, Ithnasheri, Ismailis, Bohras, Sikhs and Goans grew almost without interference with “foreigners”. The trend continued even after the independence of Tanganyika in 1961.

5During the Zanzibar revolution of 1964, over 10,000 Indians were forced to take refuge on the mainland because of violent attacks of which they themselves and Arabs were victims. Most of them settled in Dar es Salaam and there continued their business activities until the implementation of the “Africanization” policy adopted by the new socialist government of Julius K. Nyerere. The Acquisition Act of 1971 had a severe impact on the entire Indian community (Singh 2003). Many Indians then took the option of a new migration, mainly towards the United Kingdom. However, an ad hoc legislation was hastily created in the United Kingdom by the government of Harold Wilson to contain the flood of immigrants from East Africa. Other Indians found refuge in Canada and the United States.

6The liberalization of the economy in the 1990s led to a new influx of Indian traders in Tanzania, mostly relatives of a few thousand traders and teachers who had remained in the country after the political upheavals that led to independence. Taking advantage of new economic opportunities, these new immigrants made life difficult for African entrepreneurs by having networks with corrupt politicians. Being isolated from the African population, they tried to keep their religion and culture intact. Indian Muslims also isolated themselves from Africans. Even contacts with Africans of the same faith were limited, especially with regard to marriage.

7In addition, two other recent technical and political changes brought to light the behaviour of Indian communities in Tanzania and helped to reactivate their Indian-ness. While for some families, the attachment with the motherland was weakened over several generations, the spread of mass media and new means of communication (email, internet) had an effect of “reconnecting” the Indian diaspora with India. While the videos and music from Bollywood were sold worldwide, there were now many Internet sites where the Indian diaspora could share their views, discuss politics and return virtually to the “motherland”. Secondly, against the current and the previous policy of indifference towards “Indians Overseas”, the Indian government in September 2000 adopted a new policy and regulatory framework to strengthen the links between the Indian diaspora and the metropolis. This change in attitude, however, was not unanimous and did not necessarily lead to stronger economic ties with India because many businessmen in the diaspora approached business from a global business perspective by focusing on relationships with other countries (Britain, Japan, etc.), while at the same time voluntarily maligning their Indian correspondents, especially Gujaratis.

A brief overview of communities of Indian origin in Tanzania

8The people of Indian origin living in Tanzania can be classified according to their place of origin in India, religion and social status. Just like in other East African countries, Indians in Tanzania are mostly from the North-Western part of India (Gujarat and Punjab, and secondarily from Maharashtra and Goa). The majority of them are Hindus (orthodox and schismatic). However, Muslims account for more than 40 % and there is also a small minority of Goan Catholics. Other religious communities are also represented, particularly the Sikhs (known locally as the Sing Sing) and some ultra-minority religions such as Buddhists, Zoroastrians (Parsis) and Pentecostal Christians.

9Indian Muslims are divided between Sunni and Shia. The Sunni are divided into five or six socio-professional and socio-regional communities derived from the old Hindu castes (Kokni, Memon, Cutch, Kumbhar, Hajjam, etc.). Other Sunni are represented by the Kadian or Wahab from Pakistan while Shia Muslims comprise the Ithnasheri (Shia orthodox), or the Khoja, Ismailis and Bohras.

10Most Tanzanian Indians speak Gujarati, which also became the commercial language between members of the diaspora. In colonial times, Gujarati was an optional subject in schools in addition to English, Swahili and French. Other indigenous languages are also still used at the family level: Cutchi (a subgroup of Gujarat), Punjabi, Urdu, Konkani, Dalda, Goan. In addition, some immigrants know Hindi, which is a language of wider communication and one of the official languages of India. It is interesting to note that Gujarat has incorporated a few Swahili words such as kabat for kabati (cupboard), madaf for madafu (coconut) and fagyo for fagio (broom). It is also noteworthy that most Indians do not speak Swahili within their families, reserving its use for contacts with Africans.

11As far as its constitution is concerned, Tanzania is a secular state. To this effect, only the main Muslim and Christian holidays are considered public holidays. Tanzanian Hindus have temples and celebrate major Hindu ceremonies such as Navratri (nine days of worship accompanied each night by Dandia Gujarati dances), Diwali (the festival of light marked by the exhibition of lamps and candles in temples and houses, as well as firecrackers), Holi (festival of colours with a procession of devotees around the temple). Other major festivals include the Raksha Bandhan (apology for the brother/sister with a sister tying a coloured thread around the wrist of her brother).

12Sunni Muslims celebrate Eid and Mouloud (or Maulid) in common with the Arabs and Africans. Ithnasheri Muslims observe mourning for ten days commemorating the martyrs of Karbala. The ninth night of mourning, the community organizes a procession around the main mosque.

13It was previously reported that Indian Christians were mostly Goans and that Catholics were predominant among them. However, among Hindus, there have been conversions to Pentecostal Churches and Assemblies in recent years. Some of these prayer meetings are held in houses where prayers are conducted in Hindi or Gujarati languages.

14Hindus living in Tanzania recognize the division of society into castes that correspond to the existence of groups or sub-community groups that are statutory and socio-regional in nature. (Brahmins, Lohanas, Patels, Kumbhars, etc.). Although compliance with membership in respect to castes seems largely confined to older generations, adherence to each ones caste is generally revealed during religious ceremonies and marriage. While trading castes are mainly divided based on geographical origins (Lohanas, Patels, Bhatias, etc.), artisan castes are only based on the professional criteria (soni: goldsmiths, suthar: masons; mochi: shoemakers; dhobi: laundry workers; kumbhar: potters ; varan: hairdressers, etc.). Each community (jati) has its own facilities including meeting rooms and a temple where religious ceremonies and other rituals, including weddings and funerals services, are held.

15Relationships between different jati generally go beyond the borders that are strictly defined by religious norms. This is probably a consequence of migration, loosening of dogmatic tests and the occasional need for all castes to rally against possible threats against Hindus in general.

16A part from the Brahmins and a very small number of kshatryia, merchant castes (or Vaishya rank) are the ones that are of higher social status in Tanzania. Some of them have property that range from key industries to big businesses (processors, wholesalers and supermarkets). Artisan castes have generally kept their traditional activities since their arrival in Africa (which can be traced to three or four generations). Very few of them have had access to intellectual professions (doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.). However, the current generation is more critical of the traditional family occupations. This generation openly contests caste differences and claims the right of access to higher education and respectable professions. Furthermore, the current generation rarely considers caste differences a factor as far as marriage is concerned. According to them, the days of marriages arranged by parents are gone. It is true that today, boys and girls meet daily in schools, colleges and at receptions as well as during community events. They say that they inform their parents about their partners’ choice without worrying about caste affiliation.

17On their side, Indian Muslims reject the principle of the caste system because, according to Islamic principles, all Muslims are brothers before God. Yet, as earlier mentioned, a look at their subgroups reveals that they have maintained status based categories that are similar to castes. Sunnis are thus divided into subgroups such as hajjam (hairdressers), kumbhar (potters and sculptors), suthar (masons), sunar (goldsmiths), luhar (blackmiths), without forgetting the sayyed (a superior group whose members claim to be descendants of Prophet Mohammed). Divisions comparable to those of Hindus also exist on the basis of geographic origin between Cutch, Damania, Kokni, etc.

18Goans are from South-Western India and the majority of them are Catholics. This explains why there are no formal divisions based on status in this community. However, it is unlikely that they mix with other social groups, particularly in relation to marriage.

19Tanzanian Indians, in general, have a great attachment to the strength of family ties. The residential model is the extended family whereby a married girl goes to stay with her husband’s family that comprises of three and sometimes four generations (grandparents, parents, married sons, their wives and their children, sons and unmarried daughters). An interview carried out in a family with a grandmother, her son, her daughter in law, a married grand son, his wife and four children reveals continuous attachment to the extended family:

“My mother’s house was no different from this house”, said the daughter in law. “We all lived in a three room flat, with our parents and grandfather and grandmother and my two sisters and two brothers. Some times our cousins came from Arusha and they also stayed with us. I like staying in the house with many people. We cook together we watch movies together and we go shopping together, there is nothing to hide, yah some times I feel like I want to be alone with my husband or watch certain kind of movie with him but we can’t if the whole family is there. Some times I feel like going out with my husband only but that doesn’t happen a lot, because we have to go with my sisters in law.

20The extended family residential model is certainly the most prevalent among Tanzanian Indians, though it is not totally exclusive model of the nuclear family. However, couples living away from the husband’s parents continue to maintain strong ties with the generation of ascendants by visiting them at least once per week and making food offerings. Most respondents said that it is not common for the sons to move away from their parents’ houses even when they are adults, especially when the house is part of the family property with a shop or a whole sale business on the first floor. Indeed, the son or sons are supposed to inherit their fathers’ activities and the house while girls leave to get married. However, among rich Indians in Tanzania, young couples today often receive a house as a wedding gift from their parents. Therefore sons acquire their own homes with their wives and children without relinquishing their rights to the family property (in this case their parents’ current houses). The family is like a nodal organization for Indians living in Tanzania, even when it is dispersed in different regions of the country. For example, a couple living in Tanga, 500 km North of Dar es Salaam, with family members scattered in Arusha, Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam, makes at least six trips per year from Tanga to visit family members. Weddings and funerals are the most common reasons for these visits, as explained by one respondent:

I was in Arusha last week for two days, I had to go for the bridal shower of my cousin but now I hear my mother in law is sick in Zanzibar so I will be going to see her. It is expensive to make all these trips especially when I am not working, only my husband’s salary is not enough for our three daughter, but we also have to think of the family, I can’t say we don’t have money to come see the sick, it doesn’t work like that.

  • 1 Durga: goddess – mother of Hinduism, Shiva’s wife, celebrated in October.

21Beyond the extended family, social ties are most closely maintained by the organization in each community (jati). Each community has its own temple (in Dar es Salaam, Hindu temples are almost all situated along Kisutu Street). Daily religious practices usually take place in domestic temples. However, important ceremonies such as Navratri, Holi and Diwali bring together all members of the community. There are also non-religious ceremonies that are usually organized by women’s committees. Continuous relations between members of a community that are scattered (Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, other regions of Tanzania) are maintained by means of sports and games. Some relations are inter communal (bonanza). Other inter communal events such as Dandia Nites (or Dandiya Nights, a dancing party in honour of the goddess Durga)1 is celebrated by Hindus, but attended by representatives from other communities. Members of the host region thus take the responsibility of inviting non-Hindu communities.

22Other than the residential family group, kinship relations remain at the heart of the social functioning of the Indian diaspora. Extended families form a patrilineage known as kutumb. Each lineage is divided into segments: nath (gurajati) or jath (hindi/urdu). The protocol compels kutumb members to respect certain ceremonial obligations, particularly at weddings and funerals. Among Hindus, marriage rules are based on the principle of exogamy where no marriage was allowed within the lineage or within the clan. This family exogamy is combined with caste endogamy because rules stipulate that marriage is supposed to take place within one’s community. After the wedding, the couple’s residence is her parents’ in law house as we saw earlier.

23Like Hindus, Indian Muslims practice the patrilineal rule as well as the rule where the newly wedded wife stays with her parents-in-law. However, unlike the Hindus, they practice endogamy at the family level to some extent. Marriage between first and second (patri-lateral) cousins is a common practice. It is also noteworthy that the maternal relatives take part in consultations and negotiations preceding the marriage. Although Koranic rules allow men to marry up to four wives, most of Indian Muslims in Tanzania are monogamous. Nevertheless, it is true that some of them have concubines, though if they take them for wives, marriage is kept secret and children born of this union are excluded from inheritance.

24The position of women varies according to the community to which they belong, their religion, the social status of their families and their level of education. For example, Ithnasheri women are obliged to wear black veils while Ismailia and Hindu women are not subjected to such obligations. As far as social life is concerned, there is a wide range of behaviors, from liberal education among the Ismailia to conservative behaviour in other communities. The more a woman is educated, the more she asserts her freedom, but she often remains restricted by religious norms and traditional customs. Women of Indian origin face the same challenges in daily life as Arab and African women.

25Two important social standards imposed on all women are modesty and chastity. This explains why relationships between young people remain strictly controlled by families. Unmarried women can not accept invitations to parties or picnics unaccompanied by a relative. However, in practice, girls and boys succumb to teenage love and secret meetings. In spite of this, very few of them dare engaging in a sexual relationship for fear of being rejected by their community if the secret of this relationship is discovered.

26Whether married or not, women remain largely subservient to men in most cases. Unmarried girls exclusively reside with their parents and are under their care. If not, it is the girls’ uncles, brothers or cousins who take care of them. Married women are required to take care of household issues even if they are engaged in a professional career. They are expected to become mothers. They must also respect and serve their in-laws. Some Indian women in Tanzania have been successful in a particular profession, business or politics. However, their success in life is measured by their community in terms of their marriage and their children. Even when they are economically independent, women do not enjoy certain privileges and freedoms that the urban society gives to men of the Indian elite. A woman of Indian origin would be rebuked if she went alone to a pub or if she lived in celibacy. Again, habits like drinking alcohol and smoking are highly condemned.

27Though the majority of Indians in Tanzania were professionally engaged in commercial activities in the past, this situation is about to change. Alongside with wholesale and retail businesses (food, hardware and ironmongery, textiles and clothing, etc.), the range of jobs currently held by the Tanzanian Indians has greatly expanded, from the company directors or marketing managers to clerks, taxi drivers, salesmen in shops and receptionists. While it is true that the most popular activities are on the side of finance, information technology, engineering and medicine, there are also teachers of Indian origin, mostly employed in private schools. A minority of Indians own significant commercial and industrial businesses, particularly in the field of tourism and manufacturing industries.

28Intra communal relations remain very strong in trade because they often provide easy solutions and also because the community’s cohesion is considered a necessity for the survival of its members. This explains why the Bohras were encouraged by their spiritual leader to engage their business ventures in partnership with members of their own community. However, spurred by the new generation that is accustomed to meeting other communities through school, movies, clubs and discos, business relationships between different communities are now developing.

  • 2 Local dance to music of Swahili origin.

29On the contrary, social relations with Africans are still very limited. Tanzanian Indians have come up with a list of bars, restaurants and pubs belonging to persons of Indian origin and offering music, dances and songs from India or of Indian taste. Thus, it is impossible to meet any Indian in any of the African bars of Sinza or Kinondoni or in a taarab or msondo2 dance. Indians are deeply opposed to mixed marriages and often exclude Afro-Indian couples. While the community uneasily adapts to a union between an Indian man and an African woman, the opposite, that is to say a union between an African man and an Indian woman is even more strongly criticized and condemned. In contrast, marriages with European women and men have a certain tolerance. Even among Muslims and Christians, religions that preach brotherhood in the name of Allah or Jesus Christ to their followers, no effort has been made to break these cultural and racial barriers. As long as this trend persists in Tanzania, it will not be surprising to hear Africans using disparaging terms against Indians in the streets and public transport.



MDUNDO, Minael-Hosanna O. 1996, Masimulizi ya Sheikh Thabit Kombo Jecha. Dar es Salaam.

NAGAR, Richa, 2000, “Saboteurs ? Or Saviors ? The Position of Tanzanian Asians”, Samar, 13, Winter-Spring.

OONK, Gijsbert. 2005, The South Indians Diasporas. The Creation of Unfinished Identities in the Modern World. Rotterdam, Erasmus University.

SINGH, Daleep 2003, « The Asian Diaspora in Tanzania. A Critical Assessment », Africa Quarterly, 43.


1 Durga: goddess – mother of Hinduism, Shiva’s wife, celebrated in October.

2 Local dance to music of Swahili origin.


Senior Lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania)

Social anthropologist (Tanzania)

© Africae, 2015

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