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Indian Africa

Adam Michel

Portraits and Fragments of Life Histories in Kenya1

Michel Adam

Texte intégral

  • 1 Except for the last 4 portraits of known personalities, names appear in initials and surnames were (...)

1As a conclusion to this volume, the 19 following narratives or biographical fragments embody, at the level of the individual or the family, the recent history of populations of Indian origin living in Kenya. We could as well have collected these histories among populations residing in Uganda or Tanzania, these countries sharing commonalities with Kenya when it comes to African Indian settlements. We do not contend that the life histories briefly sketched out here can represent all the Indo-African communities of East Africa. Yet, they both illustrate their similar characteristics (geographical origin, language and culture in the broad sense of the term, belonging to the same condition of immigrants, frequent contemporary scattering of family in the world) and underline differences: different periods of settlement on the African continent, religious belonging, statutory origin, level of education, professional engagement, standard of living and social position, etc. Although one of the main obstacles to the integration of African Indians in their new host countries resulted from difficulties of communication with Africans, the following life histories reveal the truth of simple people, far from the prejudice too often attached to generalizing representations. If they highlight existing sociocultural determining forces, they also bear witness to the variety of individual trajectories often marked out by day-to-day hardship, thus belying simplistic social caricatures about Indo-African still pervasive all around East Africa.

Portrait of Farooq R., Sunni Punjabi, owner of a car rental company in Nairobi2

  • 2 Interview carried out in Nairobi in 2001.
  • 3 Town located on the shores of Lake Victoria, at the extreme end of Western Kenya.
  • 4 Another town found in Western Kenya not far from Kisumu.
  • 5 Town located at the coast of Kenya, North of Mombasa.

2In Nairobi, Farooq A. is the owner of a car rental company that is well known by tourist agencies, embassies and European residents for the quality of its vehicles. His vehicles are generally second hand but well maintained and offered at lower rates than those of big companies. Farooq is from a Sunni Muslim family and was born in 1924 or perhaps in 1928, not far from the city of Jeelander that is part of Punjab, now located in Pakistan. Farooq arrived in Kenya with his mother when he was 10 years old. This was shortly after his father had settled in Nairobi as a stonecutter for stones meant for construction of mosques. Two years later, his father abandoned the family and moved to Kisumu3 in the company of another woman. Farooq’s mother returned to India with her second son. Since he had been left alone, the young Farooq joined his father in Kisumu. Once in Kisumu, Farooq was employed in a flourmill to clean machines. The work was however hard and dangerous. Rebuffed by his father, Farooq was placed in a dairy factory as a mechanic apprentice. At the age of 16, his boss assigned him to drive a GMC truck even though he did not have a driving licence. Being too small to reach the pedals, he rammed the truck into a ditch. Having been forgiven by his boss, Farooq doubled up as a mechanic and driver. He saved little by little, sometimes by taking passengers illegally on his truck during milk deliveries. He was thus able to amass 28,000 shillings, a considerable amount of money at that time. Upon reaching the age of 20 years, the in-laws of his sister who was married in India proposed one of their daughters (his brother-in-law’s sister) to him for marriage. Contrary to customs, the bride did not bring dowry, a condition Farooq was willing to accept. When the marriage took place, the bride and the groom had never met. On the wedding night, Farooq discovered with desolation that his wife was toothless. In the years that followed, Farooq never stopped saving part of their income in order to buy her dentures. Farooq says that after a difficult start with his wife, he finally got attached to her. She is currently disabled and stays at home, totally dependent to her husband who spends several hours a day with her. Shortly after his marriage, Farooq quit his job as a driver and accepted an offer in Kisii4 town where he was employed as a mechanic in the County Council Administrative garage. He remained there for seventeen years to perfect his training as a mechanic. He went back to Nairobi around 1966. He was then about 38 years old. He opened a small garage in the industrial area, taking advantage of small abandoned premises belonging to his brother in law. Two years later, he became the owner of the premises and came up with the idea of hiring out used and old model vehicles that were in good condition at a cheap price. The success was immediate. Encouraged by the satisfaction of his customers and his reputation for honesty, Farooq now owns about twelve tourist and off-road vehicles. At the location of the previous small premises stands a concrete building of three floors. Farooq is a father of a daughter and two sons. The daughter has been married for several years. She is a university graduate, though she does not exercise her profession. The eldest son, known as Abdul, is his father’s associate and he did his training on the job. Abdul is also a father of two sons and a daughter and his eldest son is learning how to run the company. Farooq’s youngest son lives in Malindi5. Another son, formerly a pilot (the third in the series), died some years ago in an accident.

  • 6 Region located at approximately 150 km South-East Nairobi.

3The father and the son share one office decorated with a shiny Cadillac grille that was taken from a 1960s limousine. They live together in the Indian area of South B (a modest residential area). Farooq and Abdul co-own two farms in the Kamba6 region in which they employ at least fifteen African workers. They practice modern farming of mangoes (600 trees irrigated by a drip-drop system). Although that activity generates profit, Farooq sees this occupation as a hobby, “for love of nature,” he says. Farooq also has more substantial income in addition to that of his business: he owns eleven rented houses in two Indian areas of Nairobi (South B and Westlands).

4Farooq has a gay and cheerful character and is a practicing Muslim. He is active in religious organizations, regularly pays tithe, gives alms (especially to Maasai elders who regularly visit him) and professes the principles of honesty and strict family morality. He visited India once, but did not enjoy his stay, having lost contact with his family. His children have no plans to settle abroad and he fully considers himself a Kenyan citizen.

Portrait of Sultan D., an Ismaili manufacturer in Nairobi7

  • 7 Interview carried out in 2001 in Nairobi.

5Sultan D. is almost 50 years old and belongs to the Ismaili community. He is originally from Homa Bay on the shores of Lake Victoria, where his father ran a wholesale grocery. In 1990, using the family resources, and taking advantage of credit offered by Ismaili financial institutions, Sultan established a paper factory that recycles newspapers and old papers in Nairobi.

  • 8 “Street children” live mostly on selective sorting of garbage.
  • 9 Vasai or Bassein (formerly Bajipur) historic town, an old Portuguese trade post.

6Sultan’s factory is situated in a muddy and offset industrial area. The company purchases old papers from local wholesalers (buyers of scrap press or spoilt packaging material) as well as from street boys in Nairobi8 several times per week. It employs hundreds of people and uses machines purchased in India. All members of the executive staff (ten people) are Indians. With the exception of an engineer, they belong to the owner’s family in one way or another (brother, brother in law, cousin, and uncles) and many were recruited from India. The engineer is of Hindu faith and originally from Delhi. He was recommended to Sultan by the director of his insurance company. Other managers (purchasing manager, deputy finance director, engineers, etc.) come from Gujarat or Maharashtra. The financial director is Sultan’s maternal uncle and is from Vasai, a town near Mumbai9. As a bank clerk in Bombay, he used to spend four hours a day to get to work by train in the past. He is now very happy to be in Kenya. All managerial staff (the family and the Hindu engineer) meets every day in a big and well-lit dining room for lunch. Meals are strictly Indian vegetarian and are prepared by African staff.

7Sultan lost his father shortly before he left Homa Bay. Although she is not by any means the heiress to her husband’s property, Sultan’s mother seems to play the role of real executor of the will. Always dressed like women of her native region (sari and the traditional head veil), she occupies an office in the central part of the company and gives orders to the staff. In fact, she seems to decide everything.

8Sultan is married with two children. He is an intellectual (a part from English, Gujarat, Hindi and Swahili, he also learned Sanskrit). He lives with his family in Ngara area of Nairobi. This area was formerly occupied by Indians but is now gradually being occupied by Africans. His children are enrolled in an Ismaili school in Nairobi.

Portrait of Chabir H., orthodox Shia Bohra, restaurant owner in Mombasa10

  • 10 Interview carried out in Mombasa in 2008.
  • 11 Town in central Kenya.

9Born in Mombasa about fifty years ago in a Shia Bohra merchant family, Chabir H. lived in his hometown until his late teens. After failing biology studies at Egerton University in Nakuru11, he obtained a certificate in professional accounting from Nairobi. Trying his luck in the United Kingdom (Glasgow) and assisted by his parents, he started studying tourism and thereafter he studied computer science in which he acquired a diploma. He was a company employee but he used to dedicate his free time to archaeology. Through this, he ended up being recruited by an international group of Bohra researchers. As such, he made eighteen trips to the Middle East (Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Jordan). Tired of Europe and clerical work, he returned to Kenya in 1980 with his savings and bought the restaurant that is found at the entry of the old town. Founded in 1868 and having maintained its oriental décor of Indo-Arab style, this modest establishment whose interior is somehow faded, does not lack charm despite its dusty surroundings. Being away from the street noise and near the central market, the restaurant prepares simple meals for local customers who are usually in a hurry (vegetable curries, samosas). Chabir also sells Indian pastries, cookies and candies flavoured with cardamom in large transparent plastic bins that keep away the many flies found in the neighbourhood.

10Chabir lives modestly and respects Bohra traditions. He has a beard, wears an Islamic cap and during holidays, he wears the local kanzu (loose white tunic with embroidered notch, usually worn by Swahili men). Old photo portraits of community saints and verses from the Koran are hung on the walls of his restaurant. Chabir H. has a daughter who is already married and three sons whom he has enrolled in an Ismaili school. The eldest of them, aged 21, has just opened an Indian frozen food company called Royal Ready Meals in Mombasa. He got the idea while visiting a supermarket in England.

11In order to implement his plan, the son spoke to local representatives of the Bohra community. Having written and submitted a brief of 50 pages (supported by technical information found on the Internet), he obtained a grant of 2 million Kenya shillings (€20 000), of which 500,000 (€ 5,000) was given as a donation. According to Bohra customs, a five-year loan does not generate any interest. The son will have nothing to repay for the first year. But he must, as it is also customary among the Bohras, present a gift to the lender if the loan was profitable. With borrowed money, the son rented premises and bought a packing machine for €5 000 from India. The equipment also includes a kitchen, a big freezer and appropriate shelving. The company has a total of seven employees, all Africans, but familiar with working with Indians (cook, kitchen helpers, mechanic, accountant, etc.). The company delivers various frozen traditional Indian cuisine: samosas, biriani, tandoori, varied curries, rice, raita, etc. to local supermarkets on a daily basis.

12Chabir H. gladly welcomes children coming to buy his cookies for five shillings. He earns his living the hard way, but he faces the future with optimism and maintains cordial relations with his numerous neighbours: Indians, Arabs and the Swahilis. He regrets the transformation of the neighbourhood. According to him, this phenomenon is due to the recent arrival of Somali immigrants. Like most Bohras, Chabir is not thinking of leaving Kenya in the future and expects it will be the same for his children.

Portrait of Murtaza A., reformed Shia Bohra, antique dealer in Mombasa12

  • 12 Interview conducted in Mombasa in 2006.

13The great grandfather of Murtaza A. arrived in Mombasa in 1860 by dhow where he settled as a furniture merchant. The shop was originally situated on the ground floor of an old Arab house near Fort Jesus but was later moved to its current location, near the city centre. It is at that time (1960) that the nature of his business changed. Murtaza’s father turned to buying and selling of antiques. Having studied electronics, Murtaza was engaged for 24 years as an employee in a radio repair workshop belonging to a Hindu Punjabi. At the age of 55, he took over his father’s shop after his death ten years ago. Business did very well. Murtaza sold to Europeans living in Kenya, or to hotels, especially at the coast. As it is usually the case with many antique shops in Kenya, objects on sale are an imbroglio in which are found at least four cultural universes of reference: Colonial England (furniture, dishes, ornaments, most of them dating from early last century), Arab-Swahili crafts (consoles and carved wooden panels, models of dhows, etc.) cheap Indian cultural products (tapestries, polychrome decoration and grimacing figurines representing various deities); heterogeneous remnants from the West. Murtaza also has a large collection of clocks dating from mid nineteenth century. These clocks were from North America and were originally intended for the Russian market. They were however turned down by their buyers. They thus passed through the hands of German and British merchants and later became the property of Arab and Indian families in Zanzibar after a consolidated shipment to the colonies. Murtaza’s father took over these assets after these Arab and Indian families had been expelled from the island in 1964.

14Murtaza has two children, a boy and a girl, aged 16 and 18. Both are studying in Kenya (they are enrolled in Jain Oshwal high school in Mombasa). None of them has expressed the desire to pursue their studies abroad.

15As far as the situation of Indians in Kenya is concerned, Murtaza has appeasing remarks. In spite of irregular and uncertain income, he says he is personally satisfied with his situation. As a Kenyan citizen, he has no plans for the future anywhere other than in his country. Having travelled in Europe and Japan (but not in India where he has no ties), he enjoys living conditions in Kenya (climate, cost of living, housing, domestic services, social life). He recognizes that urban insecurity is a problem, but he has to put up with it.

16Murtaza runs the business with his family. He never borrows from the bank, but sometimes borrows from his elder brother, or even from the small reformed Bohra community of Mombasa. He is not against association with Africans, but believes he can only trust a tiny minority. He fears partners who do not respect their commitments. He says Arabs can be acceptable partners, and often loyal. However, Bohras rarely borrow outside their community because they do not take interest-bearing loans. This does not however prevent them from doing good business.

  • 13 According to rumour reports dating from the end of 19th century, these underground holes were used (...)
  • 14 This building is to currently the new head office of the Bank of India.

17Murtaza talks about the municipal policy whose orientation he blames and also criticizes some members of the diaspora. In Mombasa, the largest pieces of land and buildings are owned by Indians, the rest being owned by Arabs. However, the share of Arabs is gradually increasing and many Indians have difficulty in collecting rents from the Somali clients who have become the majority in some neighbourhoods. Real estate speculation is high. Beautiful buildings constructed during the colonial era, like the Minor Hotel or the Bank of India (near Fort Jesus) were destroyed (the latter building was destroyed several years ago). The plot where Minor Hotel used to be located was bought by an Indian speculator. However, construction on this plot was not permitted due to the presence of old underground holes that were dug in the hotel foundation13. The place is currently a vast field of garbage, unfit for habitation right in the heart of the city centre. As for the Bank of India plot (belonging to a Hindu), it was used to build one of the most unsightly modern buildings in Mombasa, completely disfiguring the site of Fort Jesus and the view of the Old Town14. Other speculators are Arabs, like the owner of the latest skyscraper in Mombasa who made his fortune in coffee trade.

18Like in the rest of Kenya, Indians in Mombasa are grouped according to residential areas. According to Murtaza, this situation worsened recently because Indians were once very present in the old town, now mostly inhabited by Arabs and increasingly Somalis. Although the Hindu presence is high because of the proximity of several temples (especially the big Shiva temple), all Indians who remained here for residential purposes are Muslims. The situation is the same for Nkrumah road area, the main artery linking the city centre to old town. However, in Digo Road area (main street linking the city centre to Likoni Ferry), all traders are Hindus (mostly Patels and Lohanas) and none of them has left the neighbourhood.

19Murtaza lives a somewhat reclusive life, punctuated with occasional visits from customers and neighbours. From his shop, located near various places of worship (Anglican Church, Hindu temple and mosques), he hears several times a day manifestations of the country’s religious diversity that are particularly sensitive in Mombasa: the muezzin’s call for prayers, the ringing of bells and the chanting of Hindu devotees. At sunset, these contrasting testimonies of popular piety form a kind of concert from which harmony is less an euphonious character than the message of tolerance they bear. Murtaza appreciates the peaceful coexistence of all faiths. He has no particular plans for the future, unless the revenue derived from his business fail him. He plans, in that case, to get back his former job as an electronics engineer.

Premchand K., Jain Navnat, importer and wholesaler in Mombasa15

  • 15 Interview conducted in 2008 in Mombasa.
  • 16 About Navnat Jains, see the chapter on socio-religious communities.

20K. Premchand was born in 1930 in a small town in Gujarat (India) in a Jain Navnat middle class family; his father was a secondary16 school teacher. At the age of 24, Premchand arrived in East Africa in 1954 to settle for a marriage that had been arranged by his two brothers who had already settled in Panga, Tanzania. At the beginning, he was employed in an import-export company in Mombasa. He saved some money to open a small shop in 1959 in collaboration with one of his two brothers. When this brother passed on in 1963, their business had grown. With the help of his nephew (son of the deceased brother), Premchand opened a small import and export company.

21Premchand is currently a father of three sons. He has succeeded in leading a family-owned company of about 160 people that has several branches and activities (Mombasa, Dar es Salaam, Kampala, Nairobi, Kisumu). Based in Mombasa, and still run by its founder (79 years), the parent company is specialized in trading of various items that look heterogeneous, but actually well selected based on the local market, resale value in the region and prices offered by producers. The main imported goods are office supplies, crockery, bicycle spare parts, wires, reams of paper, hessian and medical equipment, all from China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and India, and sold to local retailers. In order to get appropriate information, Premchand explored the regional market targeting supply gaps and resale prices among retailers. Before selecting his suppliers, he went to trade fairs attended by foreign exporters in Mombasa, Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. Premchand also buys wholesale goods to resell them in neighbouring East African countries: Tanzania and Uganda, where his branches are located. Edible oil, soap, detergents and cosmetics produced in Kenya are among the main items in his catalogue. They are stored in one of the stores at head office in Mombasa, and then they are shipped to Uganda or Tanzania, or delivered directly to local customers. All customers are Indian African shopkeepers, usually approached through door-to-door canvassing. Premchand sells on credit for 60 days, as it is common practice in the profession.

  • 17 Kambas are a Bantu ethnic group in Kenya settled in the area between Nairobi and Indian Ocean coast
  • 18 Sunni Badala are Sunni Muslims from Kutch (Gujarat) and belonging to the badala caste (jati). They (...)

22Located in the city’s industrial area, the company employs 25 people in Mombasa, including 18 Africans and 7 Indians. Out of the 7 Indian employees, the three managers are family members (the father, the third son, the grand-son). All Africans are junior staff except two employees and the chief accountant, a Kamba lady trained by the boss, having been recruited from domestic staff formerly employed by the family17. Among Indian employees, two are Jains, the father’s distant relatives, and two Badala Sunni Muslims who are in charge of store management18.

  • 19 Chaggas are a Bantu ethnic group living in the North East of Tanzania, near the Kenyan border (Moun (...)

23Led by the youngest son, the Dar es Salaam branch is co-owned by the family K. (46 %), another Oshwal family friend (40 %), and an African partner of Chaga origin whose religion is Catholic (14 %)19. The shareholders enjoy excellent relations among themselves. The company employs approximately 100 people: 90 Africans and 10 Indians. 4 of these Indians ( “rockets”) arrived recently from India and belong to other communities (Hindu Dhobis). In 2002, the youngest son even opened a candy factory in Dar es Salaam. Its prosperity is now assured.

24Premchand recently inaugurated a syringe factory (he was already a syringe importer) in Mombasa. He came up with the idea after finding out that all of syringes used in Kenya were imported from India. Having learned the processes after an internship in a factory in Bombay, the third son of the family brought the machinery from India and Korea. After an advertisement on Internet, a consultant was recruited from India. He quickly moved to Mombasa for two months and was hosted by the family to set up the factory after the land was purchased and buildings constructed. The new factory employs about thirty people, including five Indians who recently arrived from India ( “rockets”) and form the supervisory staff (head of production, head of purchasing, laboratory director, technicians).

25The three sons – among them the eldest son, who died in 2001 – were all involved in the management of family businesses, though the father retains ultimate control over all decisions. The husband of one of the daughters is also a business agent and a supplier of his father-in-law. He owns a shop in town and provides some of the export supplies. He also sells a small portion of catalogue items. The eldest of the seven grandchildren is 22 years old. He is a graduate of a British business school and already has a role to play in the company. The second grandson (20 years) is preparing to take a role in the company upon completing his studies in USA.

26Premchand K. is optimistic about the future of Indians in Kenya. He considers Kenya as his country and he has never thought that his descendants and successors can leave it. After his sons got married two decades ago, he began looking for a fiancé for his eldest granddaughter. He hopes to make the right choice... “with the consent of the latter”, he says.

Portrait of Mohamed J., Ithnasheri Shia, a shipping broker in Mombasa20

  • 20 Interview conducted in 2001 in Mombasa.

27Mohammed J. is an Ithnasheri Shia Muslim. He comes from a family that originated from the Bombay region but settled in East Africa since the mid-nineteenth century. He is the living testimony of the so frequent scattering of large families of the Indian diaspora. One of the first immigrant’s sons settled in Zanzibar, the second in Lamu (Kenya), the third in Mombasa, and the last in Madagascar (Tuléar). Mohamed J. is about 60 years old and is the heir to an import and export company in Mombasa, mainly engaged in cereal trade. He settled in 1976 as a shipping broker and he currently represents twenty companies in Mombasa. Mohamed’s eldest son is a lawyer in Nairobi. The second son is employed in New York in a Swiss-American optical company. His third son is a shipping broker in Toronto. Mohamed’s daughter is married in the U.S. to a medical doctor. Mohamed wants to spend all his life in Kenya, but does not hope to make his children come back. He made several short stays in India, but lost all contacts with his family. However, he maintains old traditions at home and imposes the use of Gujarati language in the family. Besides English, Swahili and Gujarati, he also speaks Urdu, Persian and Arabic.

Portrait of Hassan V., an Ithnasheri Shia, a farmer in Mombasa21

  • 21 Interview conducted in 2001 in Mombasa.
  • 22 Approximately 2,000 hectares. Voi town is located not far from Mombasa, in the interior.

28Born around 1945 in Arusha, Tanzania, Hassan V. belongs to a family of Ithnasheri Shia Muslims from Gujarat that migrated to Zanzibar three generations ago and later settled in northern Tanzania. Like other Indian families, Hassan’s family has moved a lot during the last century, leaving Arusha in 1964 for Uganda where Hassan’s father operated a lumber company at the time. Then Hassan came to Kenya after another brief stay in Tanzania. He purchased 5000 acres of land22 near Voi. Currently, he is mainly cultivating sisal, oranges and watermelons sold in the local market. The sisal fibre is exported to Spain and South Korea. Among all his brothers and sisters, Hassan is the only one who remained in Africa, others having migrated to Great Britain and Canada. Hassan lives in Mombasa with his wife and frequently travels to Voi. His son finished studying marine biology in England and wants to move to Kenya to do research on corals. His daughter is married in Canada and wants to stay there. Hassan has lost contacts with India and, unlike most Ithnasheri, he is not in close contact with his religious community. But he has many friends among Hindus. He is a member of the Mombasa Sports Club, an old colonial institution currently frequented by 70 % of Hindus.

Portrait of Issa K., a Cutchi Kumbhar Sunni Muslim and printer in Mombasa23

  • 23 Interview conducted in 2002 in Mombasa.
  • 24 Making fun of their poor social status in the traditional hierarchy, the Kumbhar cheerily say that (...)

29Issa K. is about fifty years old and belongs, within the larger Sunni Muslim community, to a small group of modest social status known as Cutchi Kumbhar (former blacksmiths)24. He has a small printing house near the port of Mombasa. Issa was born into a family of fairly recent immigrants; his father left India in early 1930s. He is married with two daughters and a son. Both daughters are married, both to members of the Kumbhar community. One lives in Britain while the second one is based in Mombasa. The son works in the family business which is also associated with that of Issa’s brother. Issa’s wife does not work. Issa lives very modestly on the ground floor of a dilapidated house. One of the rooms in the house serves as his workshop. Issa has one employee and deals with neighbouring businessmen, Indians and Africans (business cards, posters and billboards, various adverts, etc.).

30Issa’s family members visit representatives of other Sunni Cutchi groups as well as Cutchi Patel Hindus whose language is identical to theirs. They have very few or no ties at all with other Indian Africans whatever their religion. Within the Sunni Cutchi community in Mombasa, Issa may be seen as relatively privileged. Most of them being employees of other Indian Africans, members of this regional group generally have insufficient income to enrol their children in Indian schools and must therefore contend with public schools. Even though this situation facilitates their eventual integration into the great mass of Africans, it also leads to embittered attitudes which mask great dissatisfaction. While reducing their chances of social advancement, it deprives members of this group of resources (including language) to try their luck abroad. Being generally without resources to obtain passports and air tickets, and having no knowledge or relationship with the West, they also have no chance to consider a stay there.

Portrait of Yusuf S., Punjabi Sunni Muslim, butcher in Nairobi25

  • 25 Interview conducted in Nairobi in 2001.

31From the Sunni Punjabi Muslim community and approximately thirty years old, Yusuf S. runs a small butchery in Pangani area in Nairobi. Yusuf is the great grandson of an immigrant who arrived in Kenya in 1893, shortly before the start of construction of the railway. He comes from a family of butchers, though one can practice another profession if deemed necessary. Thus, Yusuf ’s grandfather took part in the construction of the Ismaili mosque in Nairobi when he was unemployed. All Indian butchers in Pangani area are also related (uncles, nieces or nephews).

32Yusuf’s customers include African and Indian Muslims, but also other non-Muslim people in the neighbourhood: Kikuyu, Kamba and Luo. Like all Indian butchers, Yusuf only sells sheep meat because beef is a taboo to Indians, whatever their religious affiliation. Pangani is a former middle-class neighbourhood but is being impoverished day by day. It was once exclusively inhabited by Indians: Sunni Cutchi (Memon Luhar), Punjabi Sunni, Sikhs and Ismailis. It is now full of Africans and Indians have become a minority. However, apart from aggravation of criminality (according to residents, this is due to the proximity of Eastleigh, inhabited by many Somali immigrants), relations between communities are peaceful and friendly.

33Married and a father of three young children, Yusuf lives modestly and does not frequent other neighbourhoods. He has never gone to India and does not consider doing so.

Portrait of T. S. Singh, Ramgarhia Sikh, public works contractor in N.26

  • 26 Interview conducted in 2001 in N., a small town in Central Kenya.

34Born in 1943 in Punjab, T. Singh is a building contractor in N. He is divorced from an Anglo-Canadian woman and he has no children. He lives alone, keeping as much as possible, close ties with his siblings and 14 nieces and nephews, though most of them have settled abroad (India, U.S. and Canada). Born in a family of eight children (three boys and five girls), T. Singh arrived in Kenya at the age of two years. T. Singh’s father, a retired military officer from the British army, established the present company in 1948. After high school in Nairobi, T. Singh took over the family business in 1978, together with his two brothers. He currently manages it alone because his brothers left the country (one in the U.S., and the other one in Great Britain). Employing about one hundred workers, this family business has become the main one in the region as far as categories are concerned. In N. likewise, other building companies are in the hands of Indians or Africans, but most of them are small scale. In T. Singh’s company, senior staff members (three engineers and the chief accountant) are Indian. The rest of the employees are African.

35T.Singh lives well: he has a nice house and a big off-road vehicle. He has excellent relations with his neighbours. The town of N. has sixteen Sikhs families and about one hundred Indian families. T. Singh visits a large number of them regardless of their caste. He also visits representatives of the African bourgeoisie (mainly government officials), especially at local golf grounds that is held in high esteem by all members of the Indian diaspora. His relations with Africans of the same social level are trusting and cordial, yet episodic. In addition to Swahili, T. Singh speaks Kikuyu (language of the region).

36T. Singh is from the Ramgarhia group (Sikhs of lower status than the Zamindar). This group is subdivided into several socio-professional subgroups that were once hierarchical (carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, etc.). Without evidence of a particular religious zeal, T. Singh is consistent with traditions of his group. He attends religious ceremonies and wears the traditional turban. He travels extensively in the country (his company has projects in other regions) and goes to Nairobi where he periodically visits acquaintances and friends. He travelled once to India (in 1961 at age of 18 years), but he does not intend to go back there because he has few relatives.

Portrait of Mullah H., orthodox Shia Bohra, businessman in N. with interests in hardware, locks, glassware and sanitary equipment27

  • 27 Interview conducted in 2001 in N., small town in Central Kenya.
  • 28 Town in the Coast province of Kenya, North of Mombasa.

37Mullah is approximately fifty years old. He has a large shop specializing in hardware, locks, tools, glasses, sanitary equipment and households in the centre of N. town. Born in Mombasa, he is from an old Indian African family that arrived in Malindi28 in the first half of the nineteenth century. Mullah’s father had the oldest bookshop in Mombasa while his paternal uncle established one of the first glassware shops in Nairobi in which Mullah made his debut as a salesman. Encouraged by his family, and having taken a loan from community institutions, Mullah opened his current shop in N. in 1978.

38Mullah’s shop is a kind of a dark junk shop whose corners are filled with a multitude of seemingly different items. However, selection of these items is based on a paradigmatic logic that is characteristic of businesses found in remote areas and responding well to the linking needs of specific essentials of the consumer. Thus, dealing in taps and bathroom tiles, customers also have a choice of a secondary chain of non-durable goods used in the bathroom: soaps, toothpastes, shaving creams, shampoos, etc. Like in all Indian shops, all the items for sale are exposed to the buyer’s eye, and this brings out the impression of apparent confusion.

39Although staff (African) receive customers without excessive affability, business is doing well. Mullah maintains very good relations with businessmen in the neighbourhood, mostly of Indian origin. He says that he hosts several African friends at home and that in his absence, he entrusts them with the keys of his house. He regularly travels to Dubai and India to see his suppliers (about once a year). Though he has no family in India, he likes to stay a few days in the land of his ancestors. He visited the family graves and makes pilgrimage to Bohra holy places.

40Mullah says he is a Kenyan like any other and has no intention of leaving his country. He is the father of one daughter who recently got married. She is a teacher in another town in Kenya. He intends to give his shop to his son-in law.

Portrait of Karim C., Punjabi Sunni Muslim, antiques and African handicraft dealer in Nairobi29

  • 29 Interview conducted in Nairobi in 2002.

41Karim is about sixty years old. He is the son of a Punjabi Sunni Muslim who was a serviceman by profession and was additionally employed as a tailor in the supplies service. The adventurous story of Karim’s father is that of a man enlisted in the colonial army in India at a time when the British Empire still reigned over half of the world. Having done his military service in the Far East shortly before World War II (Burma, China, Singapore), he was imprisoned by the Japanese, then escaped and rejoined the British service. He was posted to Egypt, from where he participated in the Italian campaign and was present during the Allied Forces’ victory in Germany. He went back to the garrison in Egypt and after the war, he was involved in several military operations: Palestine, Eritrea, Somaliland. In 1949, he became a demobilized soldier in Kenya and called his family that had remained in India (he got married in 1937, but had not seen his wife since then). Using his little savings, he opened a food shop in Nairobi that was sold in 1969, after the measures imposed by Jomo Kenyatta against non-Kenyan traders.

42Being the eldest in a family of eight children, Karim helped his father to re-establish a small carpet business by borrowing from his community. Located in a busy neighbourhood frequented by Europeans, the business flourished. In 1978, Karim took it over, enlarged and expanded its catalogue to African handicrafts meant for tourists. This was the beginning of a real business success that continues today.

43Karim has not moved away from his residence in Ngara, an estate once inhabited by the majority of Indians belonging to his community. He visits African Muslims and Arabs of different nationalities. Through them, he became a consul in a country in the Middle East. Several of his brothers and sisters have succeeded in their professional life: one of his brothers is a successful businessman; another one is a lawyer while the sister is employed at the United Nations. Part of his family is scattered around the world: the last of his sisters and two brothers settled in London, an uncle in Dublin, a second one in Singapore and the last one in Cairo.

Portrait of Zarina K., orthodox Shia Bohra, a secondary school teacher in Mombasa30

  • 30 Interview conducted in 2008 in Mombasa.

44Zarina K. is in her fifties and she is a teacher in a private secondary school in Mombasa. She is from the Bohra community and strictly adheres to her community’s dressing code: long skirt, fitted bodice and a veil around her face. She was born in Ambanja (Madagascar) and lived there until her marriage in 1980. Arranged by the parents of both spouses, the marriage hurriedly took place due to the presence of the Bohras’ Dai (Imam) in Mombasa, who was visiting the region. Having never met before, both spouses got to know each other on their wedding night. Zarina never saw her father again because he died that year.

45Zarina’s husband is an electronic technician and works in a certain company in town. Zarina is satisfied with her marriage that gave him three daughters, the first being married to a Bohra of Madagascar Indian origin who is a dentist based in Montpellier. The second daughter is studying medicine in Poland and is about to be engaged to a Kenyan Bohra who is known to her mother. As for the third daughter, she is a student in computer science. She recently experienced an unfortunate engagement, having belatedly discovered that her suitor was alcoholic. Zarina has good relations with Africans. She is much more suspicious of Arabs, and even more of Somalis whose recent mass arrival disrupts, in her words, community balance in Mombasa.

46An active woman, enterprising and determined, she is the founder and principal of the secondary school where she teaches. She has her own income, probably higher than her husband’s. She strongly defends the Dai’s work and that of the Bohra community institutions, despite being conservative in nature.

Portrait of Benazir C., Memon Sunni Muslim, foodstuff shopkeeper (dukawallah) in N.31

  • 31 Interview conducted in 2001 in N., a small town in Central Kenya.

47Benazir C. is 38 years old and married with two children. She manages a foodstuff and various household items shop. Her husband is employed in one of the capital’s several security companies. Therefore, he lives in Nairobi (during weekdays) and only sees his wife in N. during weekends. Aged 14 and 13 years, her two children are boarders in African private secondary schools. The eldest of the children is in Nairobi while the younger on is in K, another town in Central Kenya.

48Originally from Mombasa, where her family jointly runs a small transport company, Benazir came to N. in 1983 to get married (she was 18 years old at that time). She took responsibility of running the shop almost alone, but with the help of one African employee who was in charge of serving customers. During his visits to N., her husband orders for supplies and checks the accounts. Luckily located at the corner of two streets, the shop is the classic description of a dukawallah: behind a glass counter (which is also filled with goods) all items relevant to a daily non-demanding African customer’s life are piled on shelves, plus some minor goods for equipment or more festive consumption. Benazir does not practice micro-retail (selling in units or small quantities like in the countryside) and just like neighbouring traders, her prices are 10-20 % higher than those of large supermarkets in the capital. Most customers simply do episodic and limited shopping (totalling an average of 100 to 200 shillings, or € 1-2). Benazir does not sell on credit. Since she is alone, Benazir has a closed character towards her clients and rarely smiles.

49The income from the shop, combined with her husband’s, is sufficient for household needs and probably for small family savings. But they do not have luxury. Main costs incurred are children’s education and transport. The couple has an old car that the wife drives while moving around town. The husband uses public transport (matatus) to commute to and from the capital.

50Benazir dresses like Punjabi women, where her family distantly comes from: coloured sari and white head veil (dupatta). Neither she nor her husband knows India where they have no relatives at all. Benazir spends all her days in her shop, from nine in the morning to five o’clock in the evening giving herself little leisure. In the absence of her husband, she occupies part of her parents’ in law house, sharing it with her widowed mother-in-law and the family of one of her brothers-in-law who is also a businessman in N. Benazir and her husband are happy in Kenya. The whole family has no plans of migrating. On the other hand, they rarely visit Africans. When the husband is in N., the couple’s free time is spent watching videos or visiting Indian friends.

Portrait of Shahshi S., Oshwal Jain, a secondary school teacher in Nairobi32

  • 32 Interview conducted in Nairobi in 2002.

51Shahshi S. is almost thirty years old. She was born in Madagascar, in a family of seven children (six girls and one boy) belonging to the Jain religion and of Gujarati origin. After five years of university education in Mauritius, she was married in 1999 by her parents to a fabric dealer from her religious community and residing in Nairobi. Four of his sisters were married through family arrangements. Two of them now live in Kenya, but in different towns. The eldest sister, fifty years old, lives in India (in Gujarat); her marriage was arranged by her paternal grandfather when she was only nine years.

52Shahshi S. did her secondary education in a French secondary school in Madagascar. She has not been influenced by the teachings of Jain religion and, without denying her community ties, she has a soft heart for secular principles that she discovered during her schooling. Most of her friends were not Indian-born, but rather Malagasy and Chinese. Nevertheless, Shahshi’s family always expressed the desire to preserve and transmit the original Indian culture (especially Gujarati language). Shahshi learned Hindi very early in life by listening to tapes and disks or by watching Indian films at home. However, she was acquainted with English language at school and in Mauritius.

53The family of Shahshi’s husband is from a village of farmers in Gujarat. The first immigrant from the family of Shahshi’s husband arrived in Kenya in 1920. He was the son of a railway workman who returned to India in 1902 after the completion of railway construction. Shahshi’s parents-in-law are about fifty years old and go to their ancestor’s homeland every two years, sometimes accompanied by their son and their daughter-in-law. Their stay in Gujarat is short because the original family has abandoned the countryside and now lives quite poorly in an apartment in the Bombay suburbs. Dedicated to family reunions, shopping of different types as well as touristic and religious visits (like the pilgrimage to Palitana Jain Temple), the trip is not very interesting due to the cold welcome (loosening of family ties and limited financial resources).

  • 33 Diamond Plaza and Sarit Centre are two business centres in Nairobi visited by members of the Indian (...)

54Shahshi is very attached to her financial independence and freedom of movement and always dresses European style. Together with her husband, they occupy a three-bedroom apartment in the Indian area of Parklands, away from her husband’s workplace (city centre) and from her in- laws’ home. The couple has no children. Shahshi has little opportunity to mix with Africans, she often sees Europeans at her workplace. The situation is different for her husband who mixes with African clients in his shop on a daily basis, totally cut off from the European social universe. The couple’s leisure life is purely Indian style. Accompanied by her husband, Shahshi enjoys evenings in town: having dinner in a restaurant (Indian), drinks, ice cream and betel quids in Little Bombay (Diamond Plaza), watching movies (Indian) at Sarit Centre33, etc.

Portrait of Chandni S., Oshwal Jain, a secondary school teacher34

  • 34 Interview conducted in Nairobi in 2002.

55Chandni S. is about forty years old and lives alone in Nairobi with his widowed mother and a sister, also widowed and childless. Chandni’s paternal grandfather, Praful S., arrived in Kenya in early 1920, his parents having died of a plague in India during the First World War. Employed as a porter in his elder uncle’s shop based in Nairobi, Praful had no other bedroom for several months other than the cool and starry night in the highlands of Kenya, sleeping on the dirty sidewalk in front of the shop entrance. Taken as a partner by another younger uncle, Praful soon proved his talent as a trader. After he returned from India where he married, he managed to save enough in a few years to open a small foodstuff and soft drinks shop. As the business continued to flourish, he seized the opportunity to visit a relative in Nyanza (Kisumu region, at the extreme end of Western Kenya) where he bought a sugar cane plantation. A few years later, he expanded his activities in Tanzania, opening in Dar es Salaam another retail business, whose management was entrusted to one of his nephews.

  • 35 Old Asian area in Nairobi, now mostly inhabited by Muslims.

56Being the sole heir to the paternal property, Chandni’s father was raised in Kirinyaga area in the family house belonging to his father’s uncles. In fact, his father never left this house35. Rich and appreciated, he was elected to an honorary post in Oshwal community before he suddenly became bankrupt following a setback. He became an insurance agent and managed to give a good education to his seven children (five girls, two boys, all graduates of European universities). The first son now owns a service station, the second runs a large early fruits and vegetables Export Company. Three girls are teachers, one is an executive secretary, and the last one is a graphic artist. As it is often the case in the Jain intellectual circles, Chandni’s family commonly marries outside the community. One of his sons married a Hindu while a daughter is married to a Swede. In the following generation, mixed marriages are even more common; only two nephews married girls from India (a Jain Oshwal and a Hindu Lohana). One of the nephews is married to a French woman and a second one to a German, a third to an Englishwoman, a fourth to a Malaysian. A more distant cousin married a Zairian.

57While the Chandni brothers have settled independently, she did not leave the paternal house where her mother still lives with one of his elder sisters. Old and venerable, the family house is surrounded by small extensions (laundry, kitchen) with a courtyard where African servants work. The mother and two sisters take their meals in a large dining room, crowded with black furniture and decorated with family portraits and old photographs dating from the colonial era. Meals are prepared and served by the sisters. Although vegetarian in principle and habit, they exceptionally eat chicken, excluding all other meats, especially beef.

Portrait of Naushad Merali, Shia Ithnasheri, industrialist and chairman of Sameer Investments Ltd36.

  • 36 Information published in Kenyan and international media.

58Born in 1951 in a modest Shia Ithnasheri family, Naushad Merali began his career as chief accountant in a car company in Nairobi (Ryce Motors). After he became the chief manager of the company, Naushad Merali later bought it. From 1985, he succeeded in quickly buying several subsidiaries of American companies that were having difficulties due to economic downturn: Firestone (tyres), Carbide Union, now Everyday Batteries (Battery), First National Bank of Chicago (now First National Bank and whose management is entrusted to Horacious Da Gama Rose, a Goan friend and business associate), Prudential Insurance (now First Insurance Company). Considered one of the richest men in Eastern Africa, Naushad Merali is now head of a real industrial and financial empire: tires, dealership in car accessories and supplies (Sameer Africa, Ryce Motors, Everyday Batteries), telecommunications (40 % stake in KenCell, second mobile provider in East Africa). In partnership with various African investors (including Moi and Kenyatta families), Naushad Merali also has interests in public works (H. Young), tourism (Ark), real estate as well as importation and exportation (Sameer Industrial Park). In recent years he has added production and marketing of coffee and tea (Tea and Coffee Sasin) to its range of activities.

Portrait of Manu Chandaria, Jain, industrialist37

  • 37 Information published in Kenya and international media.

59Premchand Manujal Chandaria, popularly known as Manu, was born in Mombasa in 1929 in a family of Jain traders that arrived in Kenya in 1916. Manu’s father was the proprietor of a foodstuff shop in Nairobi (Biashara Street) and after a few years of saving, he acquired Kalu Works Company, a small factory of aluminium items. This was the premise of the family fortune. After studying science in India (Bombay University), the young Manu won a scholarship to the University of Oklahoma (USA) where he graduated in 1951 with an engineering degree. First employed in Kenya in Kalu Works Company, he contributed to the rapid development of the company. He settled in Uganda in 1958 where he established a branch of Kalu Works that eventually became autonomous in 1961. Manu returned to Kenya at independence. By that time, he was already regarded as one of East Africa’s leading employers. For this reason, Manu Chandaria was close to President Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, who was then the vice-president of Kenya.

60Manu Chandaria owns about a hundred companies in Africa and Europe operating in several industrial branches (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Nigeria, Zambia, Mauritius, and France). He currently heads several companies dealing in metallurgical production (steel and aluminium) and has substantial interests in banking and insurance. A former chairman of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers and other corporate organizations in East Africa (East African Business Council, British Business Association, etc.), Manu Chandaria is at the head of Chandaria Foundation, a charity founded by his father in 1952, and several other charities.

Portrait of Alibhai M. Jeevanjee (1856-1939), journalist and businessman, Shia Bohra38 entrepreneur

  • 38 Salvadori 1989: 9, 175; Patel 1997: passim.

61Born in 1856 in a poor Shia Bohra family in western Gujarat (Cutch), Alibhai Jeevanjee based in Karachi set up a small import and export business under the protection of a wealthy businessman. Initially specializing in trade with Australia, he then turned to East Africa. In 1890, he signed the first contract with the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) for the recruitment of contract workers, including candidates to serve as police officers in the Kenya colony. In 1891,Alibhai Jeevanjee established a branch of his company in Mombasa. In 1895, he was again approached by the IBEAC to supply labour and materials for the construction of future railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. He brought the first group of 350 workers recruited in Punjab from Karachi (Salvadori: 9).

62After settling in Kenya, Jeevanjee engaged in construction activities. He built the Bohra mosque known as Burhan on the seafront in Mombasa. When the railway reached Nairobi in 1899, Jeevanjee became the developer of the first residential buildings. When British authorities set fire to the bazaar to end an epidemic disease, Jeevanjee bought the land from 1906 to build stores. Most of them were resold to Jain traders (Salvadori: 175). After he became the City Council supplier, he laid out the first public garden in the city (now called Jeevanjee Gardens) near the shopping area.

63Alibhai Jeevanjee played publicist and politician roles. In 1901, he established The Mombasa African Standard in Mombasa, the first newspaper in the history of Kenya. It became the Mombasa Times and later the East African Standard two years later and was published in Nairobi. Simultaneously, he was engaged in the protection of Indian interests in Kenya. As the chairman of Mombasa Indian Association in 1906, he was the first Indian to sit in the Kenya Legislative Council in 1910 and the only Indian to be accepted into the posh Nairobi Club, a colonial club he had built. On the occasion of two visits to London in 1906 and 1910, he defended the rights of the Indian minority, even suggesting that the colony be fully attached as a sub-royalty of India – a position for which he was criticized by the African nationalists.


PATEL, Zarina 1997, Challenge to Colonialism. The Struggle of Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee for Equal Rights in Kenya. Nairobi, Publishers Distribution Services, XXII + 283 p.

SALVADORI, Cynthia 1989 (1983), Through Open Doors. A View of Asian Cultures in Kenya. Nairobi, Kenway Publications, p. 388


1 Except for the last 4 portraits of known personalities, names appear in initials and surnames were changed.

2 Interview carried out in Nairobi in 2001.

3 Town located on the shores of Lake Victoria, at the extreme end of Western Kenya.

4 Another town found in Western Kenya not far from Kisumu.

5 Town located at the coast of Kenya, North of Mombasa.

6 Region located at approximately 150 km South-East Nairobi.

7 Interview carried out in 2001 in Nairobi.

8 “Street children” live mostly on selective sorting of garbage.

9 Vasai or Bassein (formerly Bajipur) historic town, an old Portuguese trade post.

10 Interview carried out in Mombasa in 2008.

11 Town in central Kenya.

12 Interview conducted in Mombasa in 2006.

13 According to rumour reports dating from the end of 19th century, these underground holes were used to clandestinely transport slaves after it was abolished by the British.

14 This building is to currently the new head office of the Bank of India.

15 Interview conducted in 2008 in Mombasa.

16 About Navnat Jains, see the chapter on socio-religious communities.

17 Kambas are a Bantu ethnic group in Kenya settled in the area between Nairobi and Indian Ocean coast.

18 Sunni Badala are Sunni Muslims from Kutch (Gujarat) and belonging to the badala caste (jati). They are sailors, a social status that is not well appreciated. See the chapter about socio-religious communities.

19 Chaggas are a Bantu ethnic group living in the North East of Tanzania, near the Kenyan border (Mount Kilimanjaro region).

20 Interview conducted in 2001 in Mombasa.

21 Interview conducted in 2001 in Mombasa.

22 Approximately 2,000 hectares. Voi town is located not far from Mombasa, in the interior.

23 Interview conducted in 2002 in Mombasa.

24 Making fun of their poor social status in the traditional hierarchy, the Kumbhar cheerily say that they are graduates of, or decorated with “PMDL” (Pottery Makers and Donkey Leaders), a parodic mockery of initials that usually appear on important people’s business cards as per the British tradition, mentioning their university qualifications and other decorations (PhD, or MC: Military Cross, VC: Victoria Cross, KBE: Knight of the British Empire, etc.).

25 Interview conducted in Nairobi in 2001.

26 Interview conducted in 2001 in N., a small town in Central Kenya.

27 Interview conducted in 2001 in N., small town in Central Kenya.

28 Town in the Coast province of Kenya, North of Mombasa.

29 Interview conducted in Nairobi in 2002.

30 Interview conducted in 2008 in Mombasa.

31 Interview conducted in 2001 in N., a small town in Central Kenya.

32 Interview conducted in Nairobi in 2002.

33 Diamond Plaza and Sarit Centre are two business centres in Nairobi visited by members of the Indian diaspora.

34 Interview conducted in Nairobi in 2002.

35 Old Asian area in Nairobi, now mostly inhabited by Muslims.

36 Information published in Kenyan and international media.

37 Information published in Kenya and international media.

38 Salvadori 1989: 9, 175; Patel 1997: passim.

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