Version classiqueVersion mobile

Kenya in Motion 2000-2020

Marie-Aude Fouéré
Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle
Christian Thibon

Chapter 11

Minorities of Indo-Pakistani Origin

Michel Adam
Traduction de Shruti Singhal

Texte intégral

1At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the population of Kenya includes minorities of Indian or Pakistani origin whose number (approximately 100,000 people, or 0.3% of the total population) is unrelated to their economic, social and cultural importance (Nowik 2010, 132–33).

  • 1 The curious reader will find much more complete information on the subject in the book that the au (...)

2At the crossroads of several cultural and linguistic areas (Bantu, Nilotic, Cushitic, Arab-Swahili), Kenya is an ethnically composite country, populated by successive waves of migration over the past centuries. If most of the country’s ethnic groups are of African descent, other groups—despite the fact that they may have established in Kenya long ago in history—were coming from more distant territories, in any case outside of the African continent. This is the situation of the Arab and Persian minorities, established on the coast of the Indian Ocean since the beginning of the Middle Ages, or of the populations from the Indian subcontinent discussed in this chapter.1

3Compared to its western coast, which is facing the desolate expanses of the Atlantic Ocean, the eastern coast of the African continent opens onto an inland sea dotted with islands. From Yemen to the south of India, it is bordered by lands which were once populous and prosperous, and by means of a regular regime of trade winds, lend themselves to important human and commercial exchanges. Navigating at high speeds, big dhows coming from the coast of India could—and can still today—reach unhindered the coasts of Africa and Madagascar from the beginning of the winter monsoon (October to March) and return during the summer monsoon to their home ports in favour of the inversion of the trade winds. Closely associated with the African settlements of the Arabs and Persians since the sixteenth century, various Indian traders from the regions of Gujarat and Sindh did not fail, as the Portuguese navigators testified, to arm ships coming from India and the Persian Gulf, occasionally financing cargo caravans within the African continent and engaging in local trade activities in Zanzibar, Pemba, Mombasa and as far as in the northern parts of Kenya’s coast.

4If the presence of Indians on the Kenyan coast is ancient, their settlement in the interior of the country is comparatively recent: it dates from the late nineteenth century and corresponds to the establishment of British colonies in Eastern Africa.

5From the beginnings of British colonisation, the British East Africa Protectorate, a sparsely populated territory and climatically welcoming to European immigration, became, in the eyes of the colonial authorities, a sort of extension of the Indian empire geographically quite close and easy for marine access. While the use of the Indian rupee as an instrument of exchange became dominant in the country, the small staff of the African colony (clerics, domestic, policemen and soldiers) were recruited on a voluntary basis in the northern and western provinces of the sub-continent (Baluchistan, Punjab, Gujarat, Kerala). In order to ensure the rapid construction of a railway linking Mombasa to the protectorate of Buganda and because they were anxious to distinguish the professional qualities of an already trained workforce, the British called on 35,000 skilled Indian workers (masons, blacksmiths, carpenters, surveyors, drivers, mechanics, etc.) to work in Kenya. After most of these contract workers were returned to their country at the completion of the railway, several waves of voluntary immigrants succeeded in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Almost all of these migrants were from intermediate castes (craftsmen and technicians, skilled workers, traders, employees) who came to make a fortune in the country. By settling in the cities but also in the intermediate villages and in the proximity of the peasant populations, these newcomers understood very quickly that the African population, which the British incited to enroll in a monetary economy, represented a very vast market (Gregory 1993, 11).

  • 2 Patel: caste of peasants and traders from north-western India.

6Like in South Africa, Indian immigration to Kenya—and to East Africa in general—was encouraged by the colonial authorities. Following the expansionist and imperialist aims of Cecil Rhodes, the British had in mind that a vast Indo-African confederation could be ruled from India. In this imperial context characterised by large demographic disparities and significant inequalities in technical development, the purpose of population movements was to ensure a better distribution of the human resources, necessary for the development of each province. In Kenya, a territory of a great future already promised to an important European settlement but devoid of resources of intermediate level manpower (e.g. technicians, tradesmen, administrative staff), the colonial power strove to gather the human means susceptible to work on what was called at the time “development” (mise en valeur), even sketching the idea (yet abandoned before the 1920s) of a massive installation of Hindu Patel small farmers2 in the distant hinterland of the port of Mombasa and around Kisumu. In the period between the two wars, Indians quickly exceeded Europeans. From 44,000 individuals in 1931, the number of Indians reached 177,000 in 1962, or 2% of the total population, and almost 20% of the urban population.

7Like in other imperial spaces where the logic of colonial confinement ruled, the socio-economic and socio-cultural model of the ethnic division of labor was applied even without being establishing institutionally. This system of territorial exploitation followed two regulatory principles:

  • First principle. The colonial society was made up of three specialised and hierarchical community groups:
    —the Europeans, about 30,000 people at the end of the colonial period, who, after seizing the best lands, reserved for themselves the very remunerative functions of agro-export exploitation (tea, coffee, cotton, etc.), general administration and command;
    —Africans, confined to reserves, were dedicated to food production; under the control of the British administration, some of them were mobilised for subordinate services (domesticity, forced labor) and to serve as auxiliaries to large export agriculture;
    —Indians were assigned to economically and socially intermediate tasks, which were themselves divided according to the community specialisations related to the caste system. They were appointed with trusted administrative responsibilities (state employees, health personnel, police officers, postal and railway staff), or were wholesale and retail traders, qualified technicians, service providers, small industrial contractors. Overtime, they encroached, as far as possible, on the privileges of Europeans, gradually controlling a growing share of industry, banking and insurance, gaining access to many liberal profession positions thank to their first-class university degrees, thus becoming lawyers, architects, doctors, pharmacists, etc.
  • Second principle. The three production and community entities were deemed complementary, not in competition. Enclosed in specific and largely exclusive activities, these communities exchanged goods and services but were not (or only marginally) competing economically. Thus, Indians were (legally) excluded from agricultural activities while Africans were banned from export farming and removed (de facto) from trade and industry.

8These three communities remained physically and socially separated in accordance with the principles of colonial apartheid, which was not a legal but a de facto partition in force until the threshold of the 1960s, and materialised through the system of African “reserves,” residential segregation in the city, segregation at school, in hospital and in society, strict endogamy, etc. Without endorsing the apartheid principles of which they were also the victims, the Indians made do with—and in some respects profited from—the tripartite division of labour and communal separation which reflected the division of castes still in force in India.

9As secondary actors in the anti-colonial struggle, and being unpopular among the African population, East African Indians suffered from xenophobic reactions in the aftermath of African independence with partial expulsion and massacres in Zanzibar, mass expulsion in Uganda (Prunier 1990), and discriminatory measures in Kenya. At the end of a period of uncertainty corresponding to a strong demographic regression, they nevertheless preserved over the years their social and cultural characteristics while consolidating their economic power over the country.

1. Main Characteristics of the Indian Diaspora in Kenya

10Also present in the other countries of Eastern and Southern Africa (Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa), minorities of Indian origin in Kenya mainly live in major cities (Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, etc.) Some of them also reside in secondary urban centres, including the most remote rural villages. Since the first years of independence, the significant reduction in their demographic importance has been accentuated by the considerable increase in African population, and even more in the urban population. From 2% of the total population in 1962, their numbers fell to 0.7% in 2010 and to 1.5% of the urban population instead of 20%.

11The diaspora of Indian origin has, for two or three decades, been partially renewed by the more or less clandestine influx of migrants from India. The latter are often eager, at the end of a first professional experience in Africa, for a migratory rebound towards a Western country. Typically recruited from the Internet and from the middle class, this recent wave is mostly made up of young single graduates, facing unemployment in their home country, as a result of positive discrimination measures in favour of “low castes” and “disadvantaged classes,” also called “scheduled casts” or “backward classes” respectively (Jaffrelot 2002). These new expatriates are attested in several branches of industry, banking, import export and international hotels. Equipped with a high level of qualification (especially in IT, commerce and management), low wage requirements and poorly welcomed by most Africans, these new expatriates are nicknamed rockets (“rockets”). Evaluating their numbers is all the more difficult as many of these young workers are undocumented and have obtained residency status through bribery (Adam 2010, 29–30; see also Prunier 1998).

12On its side, the Indo-Kenyan population of older stock maintains over generations the geographic dispersion of some of its members, both in East Africa and in a limited number of English-speaking countries, from the United Kingdom to North America to Australia. In their eyes, this propensity for mobility shows the capacity for reconversion associated with the family geographical break-up, but without calling into question—as will be seen below—the claim for the status of autochthones which people of Indian origin living in Africa frequently make.

13Originally, in the great majority of the north-west of the subcontinent (Gujarat, Punjab, Maharawra, secondarily Kerala, and Pakistani Sindh), the Indian diaspora in Kenya has no less form a sort of cultural concentrate of India or apart from the political dimension, like “India in reduction.” Almost all the social and religious communities in India are represented, but in different proportions than in the former metropolis: more Muslims (35 to 40% instead of 14%), and among these, a significant proportion of Shiites (40% instead of 13%, including a large proportion of Ismailis); more “classes” or “castes” averages, and very few low or very low castes, among which the untouchables are absent. Finally, among Hindus, representatives of schismatic organisations form very large minorities (15% of Jains instead of 0.3% in India, 8% of Sikhs instead of 1.8%). Other minorities which are tiny in India, such as Christians or Pârsis, are also over-represented in Kenya (10% Christians instead of 3%, 0.05% Pârsis instead of 0.01%). This prevalence of religious minorities maintains highly tolerant behaviour among all communities (Adam 2010, 32–33).

14The Indians are grouped into 100 community associations formed by reference of the following three criteria of belonging: denominational membership, caste (or, for Muslims and Sikhs, the professional corporation that stand for it), and the region of origin. Community associations are instances of sociability and cultural and ceremonial animation, mutual aid and cooperation, and legal protection. They own their religious buildings, their recreation centres, their clubs, and wherever possible, their schools, hospitals, credit societies, radio-TV stations, and so on. In the case of certain communities (Ismailis and, to a lesser extent, Bohra), the association leaders possess as delegates supranational religious authorities and have quasi-sovereign powers: they raise taxes, control the allocation of credit, register acts of civil status, manage health and social services, administer sanctions, etc.

15Although divided religiously and statutorily, the Indo-Kenyans are nonetheless united by the feeling of a common belonging as well as, for the most part, by the same geographical origin and by the existence of a widely shared cultural heritage: language (Gujarati or Hindi), etiquette, social, dress and culinary usages, secular rituals (almost all of Hindu origin, but commonly observed by Muslims and Christians).

16The feeling of unity, which is reactivated in situations of xenophobic pressure, is further reinforced by the fact that in the diaspora situation, Indo-Kenyans are generally perceived by Africans (who are often ill-informed of the complex differences that separate the different communities) as belonging to a single socio-cultural entity. Sometimes neglected—or even decried—in inter-community relations, the community of belonging feeds on the external gaze or even more on threats made by others.

2. The Place of the Indians in Multi-Ethnic Kenyan Society

17In the aftermath of independence, when called to choose between departure and integration into a new socio-political group, the Kenyan Indians chose a middle way: they preferred to establish in the country but refused full integration as they were invited to do by the new authorities. Successive Kenyan governments accepted this compromise—concerned, for their part, not to jeopardise sectors of activity considered vital for the prosperity of the country—and respected a kind of self-segregation among Indian communities contrary to the principles of diversity advocated by the paladins of independence. The new situation that had thus just been created was in several times detrimental to the immigrant communities, yet it was to continue until today. Its characteristics can be described as follows:

  1. Partial survival of the community and statutory division of labour;
  2. Displayed willingness to preserve the culture of the origins;
  3. Low social and political integration.

181) Despite the denial by the independent Kenyan state of the formalised framework of the old ethnic division of labour (statutory barriers, corporatist protections, social segregation, etc.) and the competition of Indians with Africans concerned about promotion economic and social, the Indians have maintained and greatly expanded their hold on trade and industry activities in many ways. Having acceded to the British ownership of the main means of production, they now control about 80% of industrial branches (agri-food, textile, metallurgy, pharmacy, plastics, paper and packaging, chemistry, etc.), a growing share of agribusiness (fruit and vegetables), tourism and hospitality, 50% of banks and insurance, the bulk of retail, wholesale and retail of the press and advertising agencies which is a very important fraction of real estate activities and liberal professions (Adam 2010: 45–52). In Indian-controlled enterprises, recruitment takes place on family and community bases, with African staff being, with some exceptions, maintained in low professional positions.

19The professional compartmentalisation associated with the caste has lost its binding character nowadays, yet the division of professions specific to each community still corresponds, to a certain extent, to ancient corporatist traditions: leatherworking, goldsmithing, laundry, metallurgy, textiles, bank, etc. Due in large part to the inertia of acquired situations (transmission of knowledge and capital), these technico-professional continuums—which are frequently modernised and brought up to date—do contribute to an Indian stranglehold on certain branches of activity.

20In the current distribution of professions, we observe interesting symbolic transpositions that are quite similar to those encountered in Europe in the history of the old corporations. This is how Soni (jewelers) are today jewelers and watchmakers, but also sellers of curios; Dhobi (whiteners) have the monopoly of Dry Cleanings while Mochi (shoemakers) are industrial and shoe merchants; Wanza Darji (tailors) are industrial and clothing traders; the Nayee (barbers) are frequently doctors and surgeons; the Sutar (carpenters) are building contractors, etc.

212) Socially, Indians remain very weakly integrated into African society. The old segregation imposed by the colonial tutelage has been replaced by an informal self-regulation that leaves little room for a social and cultural mix: separate residential neighbourhoods, denominational schools, community hospitals, social and sports clubs, etc.

22One of the first reasons for this social isolation, stemming from very ancient prescriptions of the Hindu culture, resides, according to the Indians themselves, in the repulsion with regard to natural and organic matters—earth, blood, bodily substances—commonly manipulated by Africans and generally placed by their counterparts in the symbolic register of the impure. Attached to the chtonian rites, consumers of alcohol, beef and animal blood, operators of the human body (on the occasion of the initiation ceremonies), the Africans are opposed in all, by their religious and daily practices, to these canonical preventions, as they are in any case displayed by orthodoxy. One of the consequences of this opposition is the almost total absence of commensality between Indians and Africans as expressed in the register of food and inter-corporal contact.

23Secondly, community endogamy, which was inherited from religious and statutory prescriptions, resists the temptations of mixed marriage, even within the diaspora itself. While religious endogamy (still very strict) itself contributes to limiting inter-marriages between Indians and Africans to a small minority of Sunni Muslims (Shiism having practically no followers in East Africa), ethnic endogamy, in the broad sense, represents, in the eyes of the Indians, only an enlarged form of caste endogamy. At the same time, it seems to be self-evident as caste endogamy, for most of the part, has retained its dissuasive force. Thus, there are very few Indo-African marriages, but low percentages are nonetheless on the growth, especially among young people with higher education from a foreign country. Moreover, these marriages, when they exist, are always limited to the union of a man of Indian origin and of an African woman, a formula which inevitably leads—because of the patrilineal rule—to the absorption of wife and children by the husband’s family. It thus excludes the opposite hypothesis of the insertion of a woman of Indian descent and her descent into African culture.

24The logic of community confinement has two complementary effects: it limits the impregnation of African cultures among representatives of the diaspora—except for the use of the Swahili language generally adopted by all Indians; and it contributes greatly to the preservation of the Indian culture of origin (religion, language, clothing, food, social code, aesthetics, etc.), a culture that remains foreign and frequently indecipherable to Africans.

253) The weak involvement of the Indian diaspora in the political life of their host countries is another aspect of community juxtaposition with East Africa. Indians form informal pressure groups, sometimes very intricate in circles of power. Yet, with some exceptions, they do not participate in public political debates, show little partisan commitment and despite the political alliance attempts initiated after independence, they delegate very few representatives in the local or national deliberative instances.

3. Identity Issues and the Future of Indians in Kenya

26In many respects, however, the situation of the Indians does not correspond to the caricature of xenophobic slogans which make them foreigners in Kenya and emissaries of rival interests. Kenyan Indians, like all East African Indians, have largely broken their ties with the homeland of their ancestors. Although India remains a place of occasional pilgrimage and an unsurpassed reference to revitalise the culture of origins (music, dance, literature, cinema, etc.), it has become a foreign land, socially, economically and politically speaking as well as in terms of family connections, and is in no case represents a possible reverse migratory appeal. For most of them, the Indians of Kenya have been settled in Africa for several generations and a majority hold Kenyan citizenship, so much so that they can as just be considered as Africans of Indian origin, being Indo-Africans or Asian-Africans as they name themselves.

27In ways similar to the South African Indians but distinct from the West Indians and the Indonesians, the identity situation of the Kenyan Indians is original and, in some respect, hitherto unseen. Interlocked identities, in the first place, are remarkable. Born in Kenya, an Indian from the diaspora engages, successively or simultaneously, half a dozen identity references: his family, the geographical and social environment of his childhood, his vernacular language, his religious community, his caste (or what stands for it), his two vehicular languages (Swahili and English) and the cultural environment of its insertion his modern life (school, profession, social environment, etc.), and his citizenship (Kenyan). Moreover, and in a complementary way, as certain religious denominations are minorities—a dominant pattern in East Africa, with the Ismailis, the Bohra, the Jain, the Pârsis, etc.—, transnational community attachment has become the privileged protective reference, beyond the nation-states. As mentioned earlier, this is how the Ismailis, for example, find in the Aga Khan institutions quasi-state services (e.g. bank, judiciary, hospital, education, etc.). Such transnational ties facilitate the establishment of industrial, commercial and financial networks. The frequent dispersion of the families—a phenomenon that is independent from economic expansion—continuously maintains the link with other regions of the world and cosmopolitan references. Already influenced by several cultures (Indian, Anglo-American, African) and multiple identities (Indo-community, national-African), many families of the diaspora are disseminated across the globe due to the contingencies of academic curricula (children enrolled in Anglo-Saxon universities) or to secondary emigration (other African countries, North America, Europe, Australia, etc.). National identity, which Africans reproach Indians for not being attached to—though they are themselves not always attached to it more than to another regional or clan identity—is not, however, negligible value for the Indians. But it connects to other identity referents that compose complex individual trajectories, and in some ways always unique. The problem of the Indians is then no longer to choose between several trajectories situated both within and outside their person; it is rather to discover the way to make these multiple components coexist whilst respecting their duties as citizens and the laws of their host country.

28The array of cultural characteristics specific to Indo-Africans in general evokes the description by Arjun Appadurai (2001) of the “postmodern diasporas” as well as the notion of the “end of the territories” used by Bertrand Badie (1995). In many ways, these scattered minorities are the illustrations of globalisation on the move across the globe. Without exclusive territorial ties, they deploy their activities on a transcontinental scale and communicate easily with their distant correspondents in a world without borders. However, they have not given up their identity ties. The reference to largely reconstructed or imagined cultural resources—for example, in the territorial references of ancient castes in the distant and abstract past—revives Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” and the mobilisation of their respective “ethnoscapes” (Anderson 1996).

29Are they citizens of their countries and citizens of the world? It is almost in these terms that in East Africa a minority of political activists pleading for integration present themselves against the conception of the “isomorphism of the extremes” between territory, origin and religion. Without partisan belonging and political ties, they plead the cause of citizen integration (national preference in economic matters, fiscal citizenship, opening of companies to African leaders, etc.), without denying the diversity of their cultural references or their cosmopolitan attachments. Represented by lawyers, teachers, doctors, and tradesmen, these activists display that their links with Africans and sometimes give the example of social mix through marriage. Despite the support of the liberal press (Nairobi’s Daily Nation, for example), their commitments, however, are currently largely unheard of by the public.


30As a conclusion, let us to return to a debate that has stirred the African and Indo-African intellectual circles for a number of years and briefly above mentioned.

31As Kenyan citizens, the question arises—once again—whether Kenya’s Indians can be considered “Africans,” that is, indigenous or autochthones in this country, or not? In other words, at what point does one stop being a foreigner or allochthone, knowing of course that in all countries of the world, most but if not all autochthones are former allochthones. To define autochthony is apparently, therefore, about assessing how long ago establishment in a particular place happened. It goes without saying that an answer in terms of temporal depth calls other questions of a socio-cultural nature. Indeed time is not a condition in itself here, but a simple factor of one of the way more fundamental attributes of the identity of “native,” namely, not so much the erasure as such of the previous origins but the irreversibility of immigration defined as the impossibility of a return to that origin.

32Considering this important clarification, we can call “autochthone,” in the general sense of the term, any person who can not avail themselves of other family ties as well as social and socio-cultural ties than in the country of their birth. To put it differently, it defines a person who cannot envisage, even as a possibility, a return to the country of their forebears, even in the hypothesis that such a country could be identified.

33Just like the Maasai—who arrived in the country just 250 years ago—, the Indo-Kenyans are at home in Kenya. The curious walker can discover on the shores of the Indian Ocean, a few kilometres north of Mombasa but at some distance from any human settlement, a Hindu temple set in a marine cave, partially covered by the waves at high tide. This temple is still very popular with the faithful of the neighbourhood and can be dated more than 200 years, and it is not impossible that it is much older. No African has ever thought of questioning the legitimacy of Indians to hold this temple on the African soil of their ancestors.


Adam, Michel (ed.). 2010. L’Afrique indienne. Les minorités d’origine indo-pakistanaise en Afrique orientale. Collection “Hommes et sociétés.” Paris: Karthala-IFRA.

Adam, Michel (ed.). 2016. Indian Africa. Minorities of Indian-Pakistani Origin in Eastern Africa. Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota; Nairobi: IFRA.

Adam, Michel. 2004. “Qui sont les populations d’origine indienne au Kenya ?” Les Cahiers d’Afrique de l’Est 24: 2–49 [archive].

Adam, Michel. 2006. “Une minorité microcosmique : les Indo-Kényans de Nairobi.” In Nairobi contemporain. Les paradoxes d’une ville fragmentée, edited by Hélène Charton-Bigot and Deyssi Rodriguez-Torres, 286–58. Collection “Hommes et sociétés.” Paris, Nairobi: Karthala, IFRA.

Anderson, Benedict. 1996 (1983). L’Imaginaire national. Réflexions sur l’origine et l’essor du nationalisme (traduction française). Paris: La Découverte.

Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Badie, Bertrand. 1995. La Fin des territoires. Paris: Fayard.

Gregory, Robert G. 1993. Quest for Equality: Asian Politics in East Africa, 1900–1967. New Delhi: Orient Longman.

Jaffrelot, Christophe. 2002. “Inde : l’avènement politique de la caste.” Critique internationale 4, no. 17: 131–44.

Nowik, Laurent. 2010. “Les Indiens d’Afrique de l’Est. Combien sont-ils ?” In L’Afrique indienne. Les minorités d’origine indo-pakistanaise en Afrique orientale, edited by Michel Adam, 109–90. Collection “Hommes et sociétés.” Paris, Nairobi: Karthala, IFRA.

Prunier, Gérard. 1990. L’Ouganda et la question indienne. Paris: Éditions Recherche sur les Civilisations (ERC).

Prunier, Gérard. 1998. “Les communautés indiennes.” In Le Kenya contemporain, édité par François Grignon and Gérard Prunier, 191–207. Collection “Hommes et sociétés.” Paris, Nairobi: Karthala, IFRA.

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


1 The curious reader will find much more complete information on the subject in the book that the author published in French (Adam 2010), and its English translation (Adam 2016). Other sources of information include Adam (2004; 2006). The English translation of the 2006 text, published in 2010, is seriously flawed (“A Microcosmic Minority: The Indo-Kenyans of Nairobi,” in Nairobi Today: The Paradox of a Fragmented City, see:

2 Patel: caste of peasants and traders from north-western India.


Open access


Volume papier
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search