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Indian Africa

Adam Michel

Family, Family Life and Marriage among Indian Communities in East Africa

Michel Adam

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1Regardless of their religion or class, Indian families in East Africa, which mostly originated from north-western India (Gujarat, Punjab, Rajasthan) and south-eastern parts of present-day Pakistan (Sindh), are characterized by some structurally common traits. These traits can be said to be deriving from some sort of meta-culture, as explained in the introduction of this volume. The socio-cultural changes that have taken place over the last half a century laid the foundations for the original pedestal; they introduced increasing diversity between the communities, with some of them proving more permeable to outside influence than others.

The initial family model in north-western India

  • 1 As indicated in the foreword, the Indian terms mentioned in this chapter are either Gujarati, domin (...)
  • 2 Gotra is a Sanskrit word meaning “cow pen”, which refers to the pastoralist origins of those who in (...)

2Formed from monogamous unions (including, with few exceptions, Muslims of any conviction), families from the north-west of the Indian sub-continent are organized in patri-lineages (kutumb or khandan)1 and non-territorial patri-clans (sibs) called gotra whose apical ancestors are supposed to go back to the Vedic era (Kapadia, 1966)2. The term khandan or khandam is also synonymous with family of high status. In Kenya the term “khandamic family” is used to refer to an honourable lineage, which resulted both from a class of good repute and having esteemed personalities in the family tree.

  • 3 The father is called bapuji; the mother is called bha; the wife singles out her husband’s eldest br (...)

3A patri-lineage is likely to incorporate several family segments whose indivisible nature remains attached to regions in Northern India. In East Africa, like in the former metropolis, the indivisible extended family (kutumba) remains the model for family organization. Its main features are generational cohabitation, having one common kitchen, one family religion. In the traditional joint family, brothers (bhay) do not leave their parents’ home and cohabit with their wives and children. In the past early traditional marriage accorded this custom some justification even though its explanation should be sought elsewhere3.

  • 4 Some authors also associate it with polyandry, which is actually unknown in Northern India and char (...)

4The cohabitation between brothers cannot be dissociated from the solidarity that is imperative between them, the moral imperative that is always present, particularly in case of death of a spouse or business and financial difficulty. In the past the duty to share went to the extent of including a degree of tolerance in case of adultery with one of the sisters-in-law, a now abandoned arrangement that should be more associated with past practices, such levirate marriage (niyoga) or inheritance of the eldest brother’s widow by the last-born brother (in contradiction with the more recent prohibition to remarry widows)4.

  • 5 According to Kapadia (1966: 290), 69 % of Kathiawar (Gujarat) families still had forms of joint fam (...)
  • 6 The issue arising currently, nevertheless, due to the shrinking of some families: to deal with it, (...)

5Bringing together three generations, the household can also host other distant relatives in arrangements that may be temporary or lasting, in isolated cases: studying nephews or nieces, relatives who have been widowed, etc. Although it is difficult to statistically confirm, this residential conglomeration itself seems to be practiced widely even today in spite of the tendency by young couples to end up in independent homes5. The prospect of living separately in any way from the aged parents (hospice, apartment) elicits unanimous disapproval and is never expected of the various descendants6.

6The communal house, which is as indivisible property as the family itself, consists of common facilities: garden, patio, laundry, sanitary facilities, kitchen, family shrine (among the Hindu), lounge and dining room, and private apartments, often reduced to single rooms, and intended for the unmarried adult children as well as married couples. The patio is an all-purpose area, both a passage way, playing area for children, space for house work (ironing, sewing, etc.). Apart from personal objects (clothes, jewellery, trinkets, etc.) and of bare minimum furniture, household goods amount to few items. Most of the furnishings and household equipment are kept in the common area.

  • 7 A sign of the reincarnation cycle, the swastika with four hands, has disappeared from most interior (...)
  • 8 In some modest families, women still serve the children and men, then go to eat alone in the kitche (...)

7The living rooms (dining room, lounge) are generally decorated with multi-coloured tapestries (rangoli) and colourful pious pictures, which are often mixed with old family photographs. It is usual to find portraits of the dead hung on the wall, a habit that is perhaps a result of British influence7. The kitchen, which is sometimes separated from the rest of the dwellings by a protective curtain (purdah), is relegated to areas situated away from the visitor’s prying eyes. The meals are taken together in the dining room, while the kitchen is generally managed by the mother-in-law, often with the help of her daughters-in-law. Traditionally, men eat separately and before everyone, a habit that is showing signs today of disappearing in favour of big family meals bringing together (especially in the evening) all members of the household8. In these nearly permanent cohabitation areas, some joy is brought by the presence of children.

8The family shrine, main dwelling room among the Hindu, is always near the entrance to the common facilities. Dedicated to a protecting deity, (kuladevata), it also serves as some sort of mini temple (puja ghar) devoted to the belief in deities that are unique to every caste (in East Africa, it is often Rama or Shiva). Left under the care of elderly people, it is looked after with close attention. Offerings are regularly placed at the shrine. In modest and devout families, it is generally shown to visitors and serves as a statement of prestige.

9Even though the patriarch (karta or bapuji) has authority over the family segment (particularly the group of sons, married or not), the household is in actual sense governed by the mother-in-law (saasu) whose reign over the family, in a way uncontested, particularly over her daughters-in-law (bahu). When she is widowed, she becomes even more powerful by acquiring part of the authority devolved to her defunct husband. Exempt from any material duties, her work is to transmit tradition, educate and advise her daughters-in-law on domestic and educational matters. She has authority over the servants, ensures purity of the food (jutha) is observed, sets the daily menu, prescribes the food to be bought, supervises housework (laundry is done jointly, this excludes the washing of underwear and ceremonial clothes), maintenance and decoration of the common facilities. The household budget, to which every nuclear family contributes, is managed by the mother-in-law, or alternatively by the eldest daughter-in-law.

  • 9 In Hindu families, it is however usual for young married women to return for a few days to their ow (...)

10Generally, the relationship between daughters-in-law and their parents-in-laws is distant and complicated: with their mother-in-law, the daughters-in-law are forced to adopt a submissive and respectful attitude, while actively participating in the domestic chores of the household. With their father-in-law, the daughters-in-law have to lay themselves open to rebuke over vanity. Once they are married and settled in the parents in-laws’ house, they can welcome their own parents for brief visits but may not offer them food and much less give them shelter9.

11Life in the joint family is a source of discomfort and tensions. In the first place, the tiny private space leads to frustrations: it is impossible to invite some friends (except with the mother-in-law’s permission, in her presence and under her control); it is impossible to cook what one wants nor eat alone or as a couple; the children have nothing to themselves and their disputes quickly degenerate in quarrels between their mothers. Intimacy between couples is strictly confined to their private rooms, which are generally tiny. On the other hand, the joint family has advantages: household work is divided and everyone has more time for himself or herself, singles and old people are cushioned from solitude; couples cast their burdens on the community to help in caring for their children; raised together, children establish lasting relationships between them and develop sharing and helping one another.

Family life outside the joint family

12Although social activity for the families varies according to their community, social environment and standard of living, it has common characteristics that make it possible come up with a general picture.

  • 10 African workers are also employed in private kitchens; a break with tradition – among the Hindu at (...)

13The first outing opportunities are community and religious festivals (pritibhoj) as well as family ceremonies. Most communities periodically organize in the annexes of religious premises festive meals to which all faithful are invited. For several years now, these meals have been prepared by African staff but under supervision of Indian officials, and there have not been criticism from any quarters10. The community premises also serve as venues for family ceremonies (birthdays, marriages, etc.).

14Other festivities go beyond the community setting in the strict sense of the word without generally going outside the Indian African world. This is the same for quite a number of theatre festivals or movies, music recitals or demonstrations of traditional dance where members of several communities mingle. Such occasions for mingling are also available in families, particularly among intellectuals, liberal professionals or certain manufacturers. Some Indian families host a lot of such occasions and lead an intense society life.

  • 11 The bui bui or ridha, which emerged a few years ago and is characteristic of Bohra women’s attire, (...)

15Thanks to cars, which are widely owned today – including in modest or middle class homes – the family outings are frequent and appreciated. Visits to the countryside or the coast, walks in public parks, eating out in restaurants, are models of life that is widespread in Europe. Outings in the countryside (including dinner and nights in hotels or lodges) or excursions in the animal reserves are especially a preserve of well-to-do families. Along the Indian Ocean (Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar and Mombasa), the sea shore is a daily beehive of social activity of people from all communities. In Mombasa, the beach south of the island (Mama Ngina Drive) has become the daily sunset meeting place of diaspora families. In the sprawling brouhaha of hundreds of parked cars, parents and children crammed on rare lawn spaces, spread out their folding armchairs and settle down with their picnic baskets on the path of the cool breeze from the sea. African hawkers sell from group to group. The children run between cars while others play various games. Some Bohra families do not leave their big limousines, with women donning their bui bui confined on the backseats, while the men sit in front with windows open playing backgammon games11.

16Public family show-off - a new development but that is quite usual in contemporary India - has not put an end to practices of gender separation in social life, particularly in entertainment. Male entertainment revolves around British-style clubs, which as may be recalled, were such a resounding success in India that one sometimes wonders whether it is the English who copied the practice from the country. All clubs are not community-based and even if they are, they may not be exclusive to only one community. Even though all groups have their own clubs, some Indians (tycoons generally) make it a point of going to clubs run by neighbouring communities or mixed or non-religious clubs. The incentives for such involvement in multi-community clubs are numerous: quality services offered (particularly aristocratic sports like cricket, golf or horse-riding); opportunities for meetings outside the community; need for integration with non-Indians, etc. This is how Madatally Manji (known in Kenya for his popular brand of biscuits The House of Manji), who was registered at the Sir Ali Sports Club (an Ismaili club managed by his community of origin), at the same time belonged to the Rotary Club, Muthaiga Country Club (very select), Muthaiga Golf Club, Nairobi Club, Nairobi Gymkhana, Parklands Sports Club and Kenya Police Sports Club, the former with mostly African members. Other Anglo-Saxon clubs – but of lower status (the Lions Club, for example) – also have Indian-Kenyan members.

  • 12 Nevertheless, in her research on women Sikhs in Nairobi, Hanita Gurwitz demonstrated that in 1988 4 (...)

17Outside the male-dominated (marital or paternal) setting, women from all religions, for their part, have some degree of independence and are free to leave home alone, drive their cars and participate in a variety of extra professional activities. Even though a number of these activities are within the context of associations (art, cookery, philanthropy, etc.), some of them are based at the family home12. Young girls are fond of private Indian movies and collect the post cards of film stars.

Raising young children

18Children are kept in the maternal space until they stop breastfeeding (never beyond one year), before they are placed under communal care by women: grandmother, sisters-in-law, and elder unmarried sisters. Boys and girls (brothers, sisters and cousins) in the household are therefore communally brought up until they become teenagers. Whatever the privileged ties between mother and child, the former should always desist from spoiling the latter with caresses and kisses in the presence of her in-laws. The children indiscriminately call their parents as well as their uncles and aunts “daddy” (bapuji) and “mummy” (bha). They call their siblings and cousins “brother” (bhay) and sister (bahen). Up to the age of seven or eight years, boys remain more or less confined to the women’s society. They are then placed under the control of men who impose on them strict standards of discipline. However, the father’s distant authority generally implies that he does not play an active role in the daily up-bringing of his children. The eldest sons enjoy some respect from the other brothers. In the past, they could only talk to them while standing.

19During the entire early childhood (and beyond for girls), the grandmother plays an important role without ever taking the mother’s eminent place. In families that have been less influenced by the West, magic is still practiced, often for propitiatory or therapeutic reasons (magic message or mantra sewn in a garment, steel bracelet hung on the cradle), and rarely for vengeance or punishment (the so-called “contagious” black magic: cotton soaked in menstrual blood, clippings of nails, etc.). Although the knowledge of magic is frequently associated with the mother-in-law, it is possible that some beliefs or magic practices have been borrowed from Africans, particularly through domestic workers (Dahya, 1963).

Preparations for marriage: Relationships between young people and cultural orientation

20There are no similarities in relationships between young people in each of the religious and class communities and quite extensively reflects the cultural differences between the communities. If these differences were to be summarized in a diagram, a double distinction should be identified between two orientations: a conservative orientation that would include groups at the bottom of the social ladder as well as groups that are most attached to traditional religious values (Kutchi Sunni Muslims, Ithnasheri Shia Muslims and orthodox Bohras; strict Hindus); a liberal orientation would, on the other hand, include rich families, which are more influenced by Western lifestyles, as well as non-orthodox religious minorities (Ismaili Muslims and reformed Bohras, break-away Hindus from various minority groups: Punjabis, Arya Samaj, liberal fraction of Jains and Lohanas, etc.).

21Although the children of both genders never share classrooms, they mingle from a young age in school. During their entire school life, the opportunities to meet are especially presented by sporting activities, which sometimes take up close to half of the timetable, as is the practice in the Anglo-Saxon schooling model. The preferred sports are hockey, cricket, baseball, basketball and badminton. Just like classes, sports teams are never mixed but informal training occasionally brings together children of both genders. Frequently-organized inter-school sports meetings enable children to widen their social networks, particularly non-religious schools that above all register African pupils.

22When they become teenagers (13-14 years), young boys and girls share games outside of the school premises. In the cities of Nairobi and Mombasa, several shopping malls (property of Indian owners) provide leisure complexes based on Anglo-American models (bowling, tennis, swimming pool, movies). Young people from well-to-do neighbourhoods drive to these malls on Saturdays and Sundays in private cars or taxis, sometimes accompanied by their parents. They often spend late afternoon with the family, eating ice cream and drinking sodas at the terrace of any bar. There is quite a clear social hierarchy that exists between these new meeting spaces. In the proximity of the posh areas, the high cost ones have a cosmopolitan, half-Indian, half-European clientele (Village Market, Sarit Centre, Yaya Centre, Prestige Plaza in Nairobi; Cinemax in Mombasa). In contrast, other malls located at the heart of Indian neighbourhoods attract the youth from more modest neighbourhoods of the diaspora (Diamond Plaza in Nairobi’s Parklands area). Still in Nairobi but far from the city centre and away from the residential areas, the Carnivore Restaurant and the rather recent Panari Centre seduces older young people and modern couples with expensive attractions (skating rink, karting, sports centre, casino, night club, etc.). In contrast to these modern complexes, the clubs, or better still, community centres have activities and diverse games in which children variously take part in, but which teenagers take little interest in.

23Birthday parties constitute other meeting opportunities whose Western origin ritual is widespread today. In the form of family “bitings”, birthdays are celebrated in families, generally on Saturday afternoons. Young people can initiate invitations under their parents’ supervision. A buffet full of pastries and sodas is prepared. Social games are organized (riddles, musical chairs). Away from the parents’ sight the first couple role play and the games of seduction are played out amid hints of dancing steps to the sound of fashionable music (Anglo-Saxon and neo-Indian). But the dance does not actually take place. Everyone goes their separate ways before nightfall.

  • 13 On the “rockets” phenomenon, see the book’s introductory chapter.

24Towards the end of secondary school (between fifteen and eighteen years), boys and girls claim more independence, seeking to find out from emancipated young adults ways of freeing themselves from the control of their guardians. The Bollywood model, which came out of India and became a reference point for the youth, is now extensively accessible on the Internet, but it is still, as it has been for a long time, disseminated almost everywhere through cinema halls, the mass media (including public television), of the individual subscriptions to film and music magazines (often read in the waiting rooms of physicians and dentists) and special shops (magazines, disks, cassettes, DVD). The business, which is often controlled by young “rockets” (who illegally sell second hand copies of imported disks or articles exempt from custom taxes), is concentrated in Nairobi’s Diamond Plaza, one of the meeting places teenagers are fond of13. Among the idols of the youth, contemporary Bollywood stars (Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Abhisheikh Bhaccham, Aishwariya Rai, Rani Mukheeji, Preity Zinta) mingle with the new romantic song heroes (Atif Aslam from Pakistan, Punjabi Movie Songs), as well as Indian music orchestras (Sikh origin Bhangra Music and New Indian Punjabi Music). Several cinema halls in Nairobi regularly show the latest hit Bollywood movies, which are very popular in the diaspora neighbourhoods. The younger generations especially like recent Indian movie productions, which uncompromisingly deal with social themes that are generally treated with silence in Africa (marital infidelity, prostitution, lesbian orientation, AIDS, abortion, etc.).

25The dance parties, both festive and social, are common among young people (who are growing in number in well-to-do liberal families). Young people celebrate trendy music hits: contemporary Indian music and from all continents (hip hop, pop, rock, contemporary Arab music and of late, South African music). Generally held at home (therefore under the vigilant watch of parents), the parties are actually held on Saturday afternoons, often to mark birthdays, or some sort of extension of the “bitings” described above. A result of the communal nature of the home, the blend of several lines of descent of cousins and their respective friends from both sexes facilitates networking between young people while increasing the number of potential circles.

26In a clearly more unbridled style trend, clubs and night-clubs today attract younger and younger people. Although entry is in principle reserved for adults, many minors find their way in by falsifying their age. Blue Times and Gypsies (Westlands) in Nairobi are more or less exclusively patronized by an Indian clientele. Pavement, Black Diamond (in Westlands), Casablanca (Hurlingham) are patronized by a mixed clientele of Africans, Indians and Europeans. Similar joints also exist in Mombasa (Pirates, Kembo).

  • 14 Among the youth there is competition over who can consume the highest number of “pegs” (shots in ba (...)

27When they go to nightclubs the youth have the opportunity to consume alcoholic drinks. Like in Europe, the consumption of alcohol from a young age is a growing trend in Kenya, particularly in Indian neighbourhoods. Many youngsters consume beer from the age 12 or 13 years, even during daytime at bitings and other parties, without the knowledge of their parents. With the exception of some stricter Muslim groups (orthodox Bohras, Ithnasheri), most communities are affected. At some evening parties or in nightclubs, the consumption of spirits is acceptable both by girls and boys (Sambuka, tequila, whisky). Mostly often bought outside the clubs (due to high costs), the drinks are sometimes consumed beforehand not out of taste, but for the desire to get drunk14.

28Early sex (15-16 years) has become common among the carefree youth and is quickly spreading to other neighbourhoods. Factors like Western influence, young girls’ desire for emancipation, easy access to condoms are behind this radical break from traditional behaviour. In many respects and in spite of the restrictions still maintained by families (particularly in traditional settings), relationships between girls and boys are easier to engage in and much more widespread than it was in the past. Apart from festive opportunities, numerous clandestine meetings take place in cybercafés, or even through online messages. As in Europe, mobile telephones often confer on girls the possibility to initiate romantic escapades.

29Meetings between youngsters usually bring together all communities. In spite of their religious nature, most schools have Indian children from several religious communities, particularly from minority groups that do not have their own schools. Religious cohabitation, which is generalized in all school life situations, is never faulted outside school, even when it comes to home invitations (birthdays). As it has always been the case for adults, meta-community sentiments (mostly among adults of Gujarati descent or simply Indian descent) transcend distinctive religious identity. It appears that these same sentiments attenuate – without totally eradicating – the ever-present class differences as we will demonstrate later on the subject of matrimonial relationships.

30There are apparently no restrictions against registration of African children. In reality, it only serves to reflect – without mitigating its chronic and constant shortcoming – the inter-community relations countrywide. The Indian-Kenyan religious schools register a very low percentage of African children (between 2 and 10 % according to school records). It is this same percentage of African children that most Indian families invite for parties at home as guests of their children. It is however remarkable to note the relative novelty of such contacts, which are probably likely to increase in future.

31Indian youth more remarkably embrace Western modernity ideals than Africans of comparable social standing. With the exception of those from the most modest fringes, young Indian-Kenyans share common aesthetic, musical, fashion tastes that widely set them apart from their parents. Even though the differences exist, as previously mentioned, between religious groups, these differences are heightened, as one would imagine between boys and girls. Although it has been observed that the youth are less inclined to frequent places of worship, it is more acknowledged among the Jains and Hindus (with the exception of minority groups Arya Samaj and Swaminarayan) and to a lesser degree among the Muslims. For instance, whereas non-Muslim boys have opted definitely for cosmopolitan Western dress, Muslim youngsters preserve the use of ceremonial clothes for going to the mosque, particularly for Friday prayers. This practice exists in all cases, except for the Ismailis, who have adopted Western dress in all situations. As for the girls, the difference between the communities is not clear-cut in this same chapter whatever the social context. Even though the majority of Muslim girls are subjected very early to wearing traditional attire (with the exception once again of Ismailis and, in some cases reformed Bohras), non-Muslim girls have adopted Western dress, at least until they get married. However, there are occasions when they wear traditional clothing to attend certain festive events. The Bollywood influence has in addition brought back the taste for “Indian” clothes, a mixture of Western and traditional models (sari cloth, trousers and modern bodices, etc.).

  • 15 These restrictions add to those that have already been traditionally in practice since non-Hindu In (...)

32In other respects, the attraction to the Bollywood phenomenon has elicited among the youth an unexpected renewed interest in classical Indian culture and easy access facilitated by the Internet. In spite of the general decline in vernacular languages (Gujarati, Punjabi), which is increasingly neglected by the under fifteen year-olds (in contrast with the fact they are generally spoken in all families), increasingly successful are classical Indian literature, dance and music, often in English language and sometimes in Hindi, which is taught in community centres and at the Indian Embassy Cultural Centre. Even though vegetarian tenets are no longer so strictly observed among the Jains and the Hindu (with some youngsters refusing to obey their parents’ wishes, while others, in contrast subscribe to a stricter adherence to the norm), a certain degree of adherence to vegetarian diet has become a tenet of other religious bodies15. These initiatives are a sign of a new phenomenon of individualism, which means greater liberty in behaviour.

The rules of traditional marriage

33The rules of matrimonial union that are widespread in Northern India, and that apply to most of the Indian families in East Africa, impose very strict restrictions and constraints on those intending to get married. Setting a wide range of matrimonial do-s and don’t-s, they rule out the choice of a spouse from families that could in any way be suspected to have genealogical ties with one’s family. Paradoxically – and without in any way adopting prescriptions that are unique to the so-called “elementary” systems (choice of spouse within a group of blood relations socially known as “non-relatives”) – they organize a fastidious set of endogamous requirements.

  • 16 In such a system known as “patri-Hawaiian” or “Guinean” in Peter Murdock’s terminology, the sibling (...)

34Correlated to the indivisible extended family, the exogamic restrictions, are first and foremost, in the eyes of an ingenuous observer, suggested by the list of relationships that bring together, as mentioned previously, siblings and cousins (parallel and cross-cousins). The rule currently followed in East Africa (traced to that followed in Northern India) consequently imposes exogamy beyond the lineage borders while disallowing, as a precautionary measure, any marriage between first or second cousins16.

35Secondly, apart from the issue of simple collective preferences, which are quite distinct from legal constraints and dictated like everywhere else by socio-cultural and linguistic proximity, three types of prescribed endogamies characterize Northern Indian societies. Even though the first two, which are religious and class-based in nature, are widespread in the world, statutory endogamy in India has a particular feature due to the narrow and rigorous nature of matrimonial choice. Indeed, it is known to everyone that in the tradition set by the laws of Manu - but which in fact applies to all religious communities – the choice of a spouse must be within the smaller statutory grouping, notably caste or sub-caste (jati or gnati), which is moreover generally set – or at least from the roots - within a confined geographical area.

36The third type of endogamous orientation applies only to Indian Muslims and is not prescriptive in nature since it stops at recommending an Ego Union with the daughter of one’s paternal uncle (parallel patrilateral cousin). This matrimonial model, which originated from pastoral societies in the Arabian Peninsula – known in short as “Arab marriage” – spread with unequalled success in all Muslim societies, and even in non-pastoral societies.

  • 17 In this case, professional position (in a caste matrix) tends to unofficially take the place of the (...)
  • 18 More widespread in East Africa is marriage between a man named Kaira Leva Patel and a woman named L (...)
  • 19 The Moghol rulers occasionally took wives from the Hindu religion.

37As is often the case in social situations that are under strict norms – including, as we will see later, religious provisions – prescribed endogamy in India has for a long time been severally amended. The first concession, that has for a long time been accepted (but has nevertheless remained quite rare), allowed Hindus to have unions between spouses whose religions are related but at the same level of class respectability. A very well-known example in East Africa is the union between Hindu business caste families (Lohana, Patel, etc.) and Jain families, which are in principle casteless but have been assimilated in the “Banyas” (business castes in general) by the Hindu17. Secondly, among the Hindu as well as Muslims, a major adjustment in caste endogamy also involved amending the isogamous type of canonical marriage (spouses from strictly the same class) in the form of asymmetric union (spouses from different classes). The widespread form of this type of marriage is known hypergamous anuloma ( “within the thread”) marriage, Male Ego marriage to a wife from a slightly lower status. It may be noted that the admission of a spouse from a lower class to benefit men alone is justified by the patri-linear nature of kinship, thereby ensuring within the species that status, therefore the entire patri-lineage is passed on to descendants (inversely, a matri-linear kinship would prescribe a Male Ego marriage to a higher class spouse). Thus a Brahmin, who as a man, enjoying privilege of transmitting his caste, can in certain circumstances marry a lower class woman18. Similarly (while getting assimilated to a religion foreign to a somewhat lower class Ego), a Muslim is allowed to take a non-Muslim as wife (on condition that she will subsequently convert). The symmetrical transaction that would imply loss to the Muslim community of children born in the marriage is, on the other hand, totally disallowed19.

38The Indian tradition allowed even more far-reaching and unexpected concessions in marriage, in the form of pratiloma marriage: Ego marriage to a higher class woman. This marriage, which is exceptional in nature, was practiced in some rich families without a male heir. While it guarantees sustainability of “house”, it can be said that taking on a lower class son-in-law makes this type of marriage look like “inheriting the son-in-law” (also known in French as “mariage en gendre”), which was in the past widespread in France, in the Pyrenees region (Augustins 1989: 194). One of its modern variants is illustrated by the practice of importing husbands from abroad (particularly from India), necessitated by the demographic context in the diaspora – but which involves reversing residence rules.

39Whatever its form, however, asymmetric marriage is only acceptable between spouses of nearest status and never, in principle, between members of different varnas, especially among Hindus, if the marriage is between spouses from religions that are completely foreign to Hinduism. This is what made the practice difficult with the non-Indians: Europeans and Africans. As we will see it a little later, hypergamous marriages among Muslims with Africans was in fact confined to Muslim Swahili families, more specifically Sunnis, considering the tiny number of Shia within the Swahili population of East Africa. The social dimension was moreover never ruled in these marriages since a number of Arab-Swahili families in the entire coastal belonged to yesteryear business middleclass. In other regions of the country, there were in the past few examples of marriages with Somali or Borana women (though they are both Muslims) and – as just mentioned – a minute number of marriages with non-Muslim Africans.

What are the qualities of a good (future) spouse?

40How are today’s marriages settled and what is left of traditional marriage arrangements? Under pressure from their parents, young Indians have not entirely broken with the prescribed early marriage, which was well established in the past. This practice, which according to the elderly people was an answer to the risks of sexual carelessness among young women, is still widespread in the religious settings where there is staunch social conservatism, notably among the Bohras. Some puritan families even use the temptations in the modern world as an argument to rush into considering as marriage juvenile love affairs between their children the moment they see the partners as acceptable.

41Even though in all settings the so-called “arranged” marriage is still the norm, the question that lingers in the mind is what this expression should mean. First, what should be ruled out, which is in actual fact uncommon in a strictly traditional context, is the assumption of parents exclusively making the matrimonial choice then imposing their choice on the future spouses. From then on two scenarios can be discerned. In the first scenario it is the parents’ prerogative to propose a number of approved suitors from which the children can finally choose. In the second scenario, the children begin by choosing based on self-censorship (therefore ruling out beforehand suitors considered unacceptable), knowing moreover that the discernment opened out in this research doesn’t dispense a final compliance of the parents. Contrary to conclusions, which are undoubtedly hasty, even though the first model today appears to be declining, it is defended strongly even in liberal families for reasons that are very clearly linked to some prospects of business and financial alliances.

42A reflection on the definition of “acceptable suitor” (satisfactory or acceptable suitor), would probably first forget about personal character traits and individual socio-economic profiles and limit itself to sociocultural criteria. However, in the Indian-African context, it is impossible to be silent about the fact that in most families, fair complexion – generally associated (although often wrongly) with belonging to higher castes – otherwise remains an optional criteria, or at least one of the preferred factors, particularly among girls.

  • 20 There is no global study on this issue. The last assessment carried out in 1987-88, which was very (...)

43Therefore, for the sake of adopting a closer definition, what is a “socially acceptable suitor”? A preliminary observation would hold that if socio-cultural norms in place, which define not the “acceptable” suitor but the “right” or “suitable”, have hardly changed (in terms of class and religious), the allowed gap in relation to this norm has widened greatly over several years. Besides, it may be noted that the degree of tolerance shown today by families still covers probably a large majority of unions consummated in strict conformity with these same norms20. In other words, even though almost all families show a very high degree of tolerance (within the limits that will be described shortly), very few of them find the opportunity to practice it. In contrast – and this is where most of the change and the capacity to change in the future lie – marriages consummated “outside the norms” but within the existing interval of tolerance, are now socially accepted and are no longer viewed as scandals or with disapproval.

44The first liberty taken by almost all the families in relation to the canonical matrimonial body of rules has to do with the requirement to strictly adhere to exogamy. No one nowadays undertakes, and has the means, to verify – at least with the degree of precision demanded by tradition – the village roots of ancestors in a faraway country, which has with time become a simple point of reference for unity in community belonging.

45Secondly, it is worth mentioning, with regard to prescribed endogamy – which is on the bending of isogamy rule (marriage with a spouse from the same class and religion) – this is dependent on the capacity to go round the rule in a merely asymmetric manner. As presented earlier, tradition responds to this demand by allowing the hypergamous arrangement – marriage between a higher class man and a lower class woman – under certain circumstances. It is clearly under the hypergamy regime that the tolerance interval has today been extended. In clearer terms, the tolerance interval extends to all types of marriages but more acceptable in a hypergamy setting.

  • 21 Referred to in East Africa as fundi, a Swahili term, the choti jat comprise a set of varied castes (...)

46The third way of understanding the tolerance interval – which is predictable and expected – is all about the caste one belongs to or the alternative to that among non-Hindus. We noted in a previous chapter the current difficulty in measuring caste prejudices which can only be matched by the resistance of individuals to publicly talk about one’s caste. The first point that seems to have nevertheless been made so far in this respect is that in a vast symbolic field of respectability, accurate match-making between jatis (including the tolerated hypergamy extensions) as required in the past by tradition is no longer appropriate, even though we should reiterate that it remains more often adhered to in union practices. People no longer take issue with marriages between a Darji ( “tailor”) and a Sutar ( “carpenter”), or even between a Lohana ( “trader”) and a Pattni Soni ( “goldsmith”). Match-making between jatis belonging to far apart symbolic levels – like the union between a Brahmin or a kshatriya and a woman belonging to another varna – have been undeniably more difficult until today. The pressure from the opinions of non-Indians, socio-economic upward mobility by some members of the lower jatis and, last of all, the change in customs, have however greatly weakened arguments of those who favour a very strictly category-base endogamy. Among Hindus today there are marriages between the “twice-born” and partners from choti jat (castes of craftsmen at the bottom of the class hierarchy)21.

  • 22 See Bharati’s remarks on this subject (1972: 60).

47The fourth and ultimate threshold of tolerance in matrimonial union is one’s faith since religious disparity is unanimously considered likely to disrupt the symbolic universe of relationship between families brought together by marriage. According to this principle, partners belonging to other big religions, generally Hindu, Muslim or Christian, are ruled out of marriage considerations just like in the past. Within these categories, the scale of tolerance in exogamy varies according to each religion’s own criteria, which are sometimes strengthened by mere cultural and linguistic criteria: even though Hindus, who are always ready to reinstate break-away faithful, quite good naturedly accept (as previously seen) marriage unions with Jains - or even with Sikhs, they especially do it even more readily when the partners originate from the same region (for example a Hindu spouse with a Sikh partner both from Punjabi origin22). It should also be recalled that in addition to this complex religious assembly there is, as we also noted, a purely class dimension but which is not explicit (thus a Patel Hindu spouse readily marries an Oshwal Jain partner whose social class has always been assimilated to his/her own caste). In contrast the requirement strictly religion-based match-making for Muslims will generally continue to apply, consequently ruling out unions between the two main Islamic groups (Sunni and Shia) and even between various break-away groups (Ismailis, Bohra, Ithnasheri, etc.).

  • 23 To the author’s knowledge there is only one study conducted nearly forty years ago on the issue. It (...)

48What remains to be explored is the hypothesis on marriage with non-Indian suitors, particularly Africans. When interviewed (young people, family members), they say these types of marriages are quite impossible, not due to any prejudice, but due to the aforementioned community endogamic principles. Those concerned even advance arguments to justify their reluctance that do not lack in aptness (what language, what religion, what culture would the children subscribe to? how would one resolve the frequently conflicting dilemma of choice?). There is no doubt, however, there are marriages conventionally referred to as “mixed”, and that they have been increasing in number over the years23.

  • 24 Morganatic marriages between Europeans and Ismaili imams have, nonetheless, been practised since se (...)

49First, marriages with Europeans (or Westerners in general) often take place as a result of pursuit of further studies abroad by young Indians. Although there are no statistics that would help to assess how frequent it happens or its nature (but it is known that such marriages involve mainly Hindu youth), resistance by families has not prevented the increase in such marriages, particularly in Great Britain. In all the cases known to the author and from what the informants said, it is significant that the majority of these marriages more often involve girls than boys, in contradiction with the thinking behind the patri-linear requirements unique to Indians24. The explanation of this asymmetry can probably be found among Europeans (who are more reticent than Indians themselves to let their daughters marry strangers). As for tolerance observed on the part of Indians, it can undoubtedly be explained by today’s fascination with Europe, even though such unions are judged harshly by community institutions. It is a fact – even in assumptions on domestic resistance – that these types of mixed marriages are not on any account confidential in nature. They are conducted in ceremonial, with the families often demanding double celebrations: European and Indian.

  • 25 The author can cite the case of a trader in a remote rural area in Kenya whose father was Sikh and (...)
  • 26 A few years ago, Kenyan jotawa formed some sort of informal association to protect them from discri (...)

50Unions with Africans have different characteristics, since they are first and foremost asymmetric with African women, inversely comparable to what has just been described about marriages between Indians and Europeans. Secondly, unlike the latter, unions between Indians and Africans are not publicized. In reality – apart from marriages between Muslims which will be examined shortly – they are never real marriages, from an Indian perspective, but informal unions even though they are sometimes a reason for some sort of celebration among Africans. Thirdly, they are statistically negligible – a few hundreds, one or two thousand at most in the whole of East Africa. Moreover, their sociological characteristics set them aside or on the fringes of usual matrimonial conduct. They involve a small minority: intellectuals or human rights activists preoccupied with becoming pioneers or behavioural models, entrepreneurs or isolated singles in the rural areas, etc. (the case of Sikh entrepreneurs is often cited). Children born in mixed marriages are called jotawa in Gujarati, a term which roughly translates as “half-caste”, but it actually has a derogatory connotation and that would more accurately translated by the French word “batard”. Whether these children are recognized by their father or adopted by the mother’s family, their life ends up with difficulties. Thus it is assumed that any future marriage with a spouse of “non-half-caste” Indian remains inconceivable, just as plans of a union between Indians and Africans25. Examples known by the author also show even though mixed couples and their children have some difficulties getting themselves accepted in the Indian neighbourhoods (including their areas of residence), Africans are not more tolerant towards them. Knowing that ethnic cohabitation is both widespread and accepted among Africans, such behaviour raises several questions: 1) are Indian cultural ingredients incomprehensible for Africans? 2) is the fact that half-castes are economically and socially connected to their Indian reference group sufficient reason to exclude them of the African community26?

  • 27 In 1972, Bharati estimated their number at about 5,000 (1972: 160). Indian-Africans who acknowledge (...)

51Already tackled in a previous paragraph, the case of Muslims must be treated differently. The paragraph indicated that common religion could facilitate mixed marriages in the unique case of Sunnis. There is an unknown number Indian-Swahili couples in Mombasa, and in other cities along the Kenyan coast (Malindi, Lamu), as well as Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar. There are also several Indian families which acknowledge having had Arabian or African descent in their family tree27. Generally, these unions – which are often unnoticed by Europeans – are accepted both by Indians and Africans.

Search for (the right) spouses

52Apart from assuming spontaneous local meetings in the cultural and festive settings described above, the search for spouses is an important activity on behalf of suitors and their families. From the beginning of the colonial period, families often dedicated several months to this undertaking using their different networks of relatives. Up to the years before independence, the local sex ratio imbalance that did not favour girls supported match-making business in Gujarat and Punjab (often run by broke Brahmins) at the service of the diaspora in East Africa. In other cases (particularly that of small communities whose local numbers were not sufficient to meet marriage demands) single men went to India in person and came back to Africa after the marriage.

  • 28 Indian-Kenyans have a poor reputation in India. They are accused of abusing alcohol and not respect (...)
  • 29 For this, see the chapter on the diaspora population by Laurent Nowik.
  • 30 We previously saw that the practice of getting male spouses or husbands abroad in the past was, on (...)

53Such cases are no longer the norm. Even though the trips to India did not reduce, a number of families lost their links in the country while the cultural gap with the emigrated communities widened over the century. A large number of Indian girls, for their part, only wanted to travel to Western countries28. The number of “incoming brides” therefore decreased considerably even though they did not quite disappear, particularly as demonstrated by demographic statistics29. In contrast, the search for future spouses (girls and boys) among Indian immigrants in Western countries (particularly within the communities in England and Canada) is widespread among rich and middle class families. Such potential spouses, whose ideal image is a degree from a prestigious university and speaking English with a British accent, are much-sought after in Kenya where they are known as “dukes” (derisive title borrowed from the title Duke of Buckingham)30.

  • 31 The Bohras have an organ called Taisirum Nikkah Comity (TNC) specifically in charge of such arrange (...)

54Faced with lack of matrimonial resources from the former metropolis, potential spouses have adopted other strategies that are better suited to modern life, which have grown in leaps and bounds. Thus several communities use the means of their international networks to actually set up matrimonial forums. This is what Bohra Shia, who are known to encourage early marriages, have done31. Held in luxury hotels of big cosmopolitan cities (Dubai, Singapore, Cairo) and in leisure centres (including famous beaches) these forums have had a resounding success despite the high cost of holding them.

55Internet networks, which are less expensive and often a preamble to numerous meetings (including the previously described forums), are currently the main means of matrimonial engagements. Indian-Africans in East Africa (as well as Indians from all over the world) know website ( “”) whose advertisements, in disregard to all laws, respond to certain detailed questions by applicants – especially skin colour and caste whose discussion is, in principle, prohibited by Indian law.

  • 32 Another type of “romantic” marriage, which is tolerated by the Muslim tradition but condemned by Hi (...)

56Paradoxically, the modernization of “arranged” marriages has given rise – or advent in some very traditionally conservative families – to romantic love known as muhabbat or isq (terms that are both Arab and Persian in origin). This neo-traditional lyric model, which once inspired a high level of literary development, is a common plot in Bollywood scripts. In a confrontational break with the canonical forms of model couples following sva dharma (behavioural model that is unique to every caste), muhabbat is distinguished by union, regardless of any family consent, between a man and a woman who are sexually attracted to one another. Thus it leads to two types of marriages, which were greatly disapproved by religious tradition but which were widespread in the past among aristocrats: gandharva marriage (passion marriage accompanied by drama of abduction) and raksasa marriage (kidnap marriage)32. However, the prudishness remains a requirement in the expression of these feelings, before and after consummation of marriage. Nevertheless, no one in East Africa and India seems to know the famous erotic scenes found in classic sculpture in some of the Hindu temples.

Settling marriages: Matrimonial compensation, engagements, wedding ceremonies

  • 33 While indirectly helping to promote prevention of births among girls, dowry continues to weigh on i (...)
  • 34 Non-existent among the Jains and rare in Brahmin families and in highly populated areas, the dowry (...)

57The matrimonial arrangements are, like in the past, accompanied by negotiations between families. Associated to hypergamy, the dowry custom (hunda) exists in the whole of Northern India among the Hindu, including isogamous marriage when it is not required by tradition. Outlawed in 1961 by the Indian Parliament, it is nevertheless extensively kept in practice, and even well developed, particularly among members of the lower middle class, who imitate the higher classes33. Though it has not been abandoned altogether, the practice has, in contrast, considerably decreased in the Indian setting in East Africa34. Young couples may, however, reintroduce it in a bid to quickly acquire separate housing using, in this case, the wife’s resources against the husband’s family’s wishes. Among Muslims, dowry is not practiced. In contrast, the wife inherits part of the paternal heritage (in principle half of what the boys receive). Today it is not rare for such capital to be invested in real estate property, which the household is likely to use whenever necessary.

  • 35 Jains also follow this custom.
  • 36 Gold is meant to cast away priapic demons. Men generally do not wear gold.

58Matrimonial compensation (sulka), which is disallowed by classical Hinduism, is not currently practiced among Hindus in East Africa. It is widespread among Muslims but it has never reached the levels that it has in some Arab countries. According to Hindu customs, the husband (or his family) is required to offer a wedding gift. On their wedding a day, wives receive mangal sutra from their husbands as paraphernalia - necklace made of black pearls mixed with golden perlines. Mangal sutra, which serves as a real symbol of marital ownership, must be conspicuously worn at all times35. On the same day, all able bride grooms also offer their wives golden jewellery decorated with precious stones36. Once married, women who respect tradition have their nose pierced on the left for the insertion of a jewel known as sari (fewer women do this). Widows remove it just as they break the bracelets received as gifts on the wedding day upon the spouse’s death.

59The engagement ritual is always part of a tradition that is still followed in all communities. Known as roca among Hindus ( “stop”, “interruption”), it actually marks the end of pre-marital search and therefore implies real commitment to the chosen partner. Engagements last brief periods (three to six months) and their sole aim is to set a timeline for wedding preparations. The ceremony is usually simple and always ends with the ritual consumption of milk, the symbol of childbearing in the future.

60Whatever the community, a wedding ceremony is one of the biggest moments in the festive life of Indian-Africans. Although there is a wedding season for all religions (which falls in November and December of the western calendar), the exact wedding date among Hindus is always set after consulting a Brahmin astrologist fortune teller. The consultation, aimed at discerning favourable predictions, is sometimes discreetly sought by some Muslim families, particularly Ismailis.

61Three types of wedding rituals are practiced side-by-side in the Hindu Diaspora in East Africa: traditional, semi-traditional and modern. The so-called “traditional” ceremony, which lasts a period of four to five hours, brings together several hundred guests in rich families. It takes place in the community centre auditorium (which comprises a temple and other facilities for not strictly religious purposes). On a stage and facing those in attendance, the wedding couple exchange necklaces and flower garlands in front of the Vedic fire after a Brahmin has proclaimed the seven commandments for spouses and obtained their consent. The young wedded couple is then presented to all guests. The ceremony ends with a reception.

62In the so-called “modern” version of the ceremony, the wedding lasts one or two hours. It keeps several elements of the traditional ceremony but in a simplified form: garlands and rings are exchanged and the husband still applies the sindhor (colourful dot) on the wife’s forehead. He also offers her the mangal sutra (the ritual necklace mentioned above). But there is no ceremony around the fire.

Traditional Hindu wedding in Nairobi

63The wedding takes place in the auditorium of a big religious compound in Nairobi comprising two temples (one for Hindus who hail from Gujarat and the other for those who come from Kerala).

64The expansive auditorium (500 to 700 seats) is furnished with comfortable seats decorated with cushions and decorated with garlands. At the far end of the room, facing the audience, some sort of altar is set covered by a canopy mounted on a golden diadem and supported by columns. Before the altar, which brings to mind a miniature temple, are several armchairs facing each other. On the right of the altar, a decorated small stage is erected for an orchestra of three musicians, impressively dressed in Indian traditional costumes: a tabla player, a zither player, and a drummer.

65All the guests are welcomed by the bride’s father dressed in a traditional ceremonial costume. All women are dressed in saris, while a large section of the men are also dressed traditional costumes. The guests take their seats in the auditorium. The groom arrives, accompanied by his father. His future father-in-law welcomes him in a complicated ritual. The groom proceeds alone into the auditorium. In front of the bandstand, he is welcomed by the Brahmin, who is master of the ceremony. He then goes on to sit down on one of the seats placed before the altar. The bride’s entourage (sandwiched by two elder brothers) solemnly goes down the auditorium’s central aisle with a battery of photographers in its wake. The orchestra begins playing classical Indian music. The groom welcomes the bride under the canopy and invites her to sit on one of the other seats. The Brahmin stands at the foot of the altar and severally makes offerings of flowers and fruits. The very complicated wedding ritual begins and lasts an hour and a half. Several aspects of it are akin to the Christian ritual with some close symbolic differences. The future spouses sit face-to-face in the beginning then side by side once they have been joined together. They exchange not rings but necklaces (including the mangal sutra offered by the groom). The groom applies the sandhor on the bride’s forehead. The now joined together spouses are then locked in a chain made of intermingled flowers. Flowers and rice are thrown on their faces. The Brahmin then recites the seven marriage commandments in Sanskrit (very close to Christian commitments). He recites a speech in Sanskrit that no one understood. The last symbolic gesture borrowed from the Vedic ritual: the brazier fire is lit in front of the couple. The man and woman go round it several times.

66The ceremony ends punctuated by the orchestra music. A gigantic vegetarian buffet is served under tents pitched on the compound’s expansive lawns. The hundreds of guests are invited in turns to congratulate the newly wedded couple.

67In total contrast with the Hindu marriage (as well as its modern version), the Ismaili wedding ceremony has changed a lot over the years. Interspersed in the past with Hindu rituals (to a point that a Brahmin’s intervention was sometimes sought), it must have faced repeated criticism from some Muslim hierophants, particularly Sunnis. After dissociating itself from Hindu influence, it did not, however, adopt practices that are unique to traditional Muslim weddings. In its most recent aspects, the Ismaili wedding is in many respects as an avant-garde prototype of the modern Indian wedding, and insofar as it is detached from religious ritual it resembles Western civilian weddings.

A Modern Ismaili wedding in Nairobi

68The ceremony takes place at the Ismaili community centre auditorium in the capital. The audience of about 150 people consists of members of the liberal bourgeoisie. Many women wear elegant saris while a few of them dress in European attire. For their part, men have more or less all taken to the European mode of dress. The auditorium is furnished with comfortable seats but devoid of decoration that may point to any religious or cultural orientation.

69There is a long oblong table on a stage. Seated behind the table in front of the audience are the imam’s representative, the cadi (Muslim magistrate) and his assistant, as well as the parents of the future husband and wife. Armed with a microphone, a master of ceremony is close to the table.

70At the foot of the table, in the first row reserved for the audience, four seats are reserved for the future husband and wife as well as their witnesses.

71The master of ceremony describes in English the various steps of the ritual.

72The groom arrives first at the auditorium, accompanied by his mother and followed by his close family. The bride then enters holding on to her father’s arm.

73The couple goes to sit down first, escorted by their witnesses (a man and a woman). The imam recites a psalm prayer. The cadi takes over. He reads the marriage contract as well as the legal marriage provisions that bind the future husband and wife, particularly those that bind them to a community arbitration institution in case of conjugal conflict.

74The couple comes to sit at the table, accompanied by their witnesses. They sign the marriage contract. The cadi declares the couple husband and wife. The couple exchanges union vows. Everybody applauds.

75The newly wedded couple takes some minutes off. When they return, they cut the wedding cake. They each eat a small portion. In the meantime, the audience sings “Congratulations… etc.” (an English song). Everybody parades to congratulate the newly wedded couple. Some have brought gifts.

76A reception, served in another room, ends the ceremony.

Future of married couples

77The above remarks give a glimpse of the importance of transformations affecting the behaviour of the young people, and indirectly and finally therefore that of young couples, on which in turn family reform depends.

78Even though few of them could pride themselves in attaining the level of moral liberty to which young singles (both girls and boys) currently aspire, a large number of young Indian couples today do not see themselves in a big picture of a household where the wife conforms strictly to Manu’s precepts (IX-12), which talks about the six dishonourable acts of married woman: “drinking alcohol; sleeping at abnormal times; wandering; entertaining bad company; going into another man’s house; separating from her husband”.

  • 37 In an already cited but old study, a group of married women were asked: “Do you appreciate living w (...)
  • 38 There are unfortunately no statistics on involvement of Indian women in professional activities. In (...)
  • 39 Among girls, the rise in the level of education at all academic levels has been rapid within all In (...)

79The majority of spouses aged between 25 and 35 years first and foremost plan to acquire an independent home and thus put an end to the collective residence system which most of them are still subject to37. Female professional involvement is the second great aspiration of the new generations. In the three countries of East Africa – more particularly in Kenya – the spread of contraception and the modernization of domestic techniques reduced the influence of motherhood and outlined the premises of this change. A large number of Indian women today are engaged in professional activity and have no intention of abandoning it – even if it depends on that of their husbands, like it is often the case in business families. This trend can only have more natural impetus to the advantage of further qualification of female work38. Whereas female numbers at secondary education level in Indian religious schools has today nearly reached 80 % of the male numbers, increasing proportions of girl pupils are getting to the university and specific professional training colleges39.

  • 40 Moreover it was in the past often confused with the levirate marriage custom, where the younger bro (...)

80It is true that in other areas changes do not come quickly because of strict social control. The first limitation to family transformations is the persistence of the coercive nature of marriage, both in premise (pressure from parents) and possible resolution (in case of conflict between the spouses). In Hindu tradition (dharma-smriti), marriage is absolutely indissoluble and the remarrying of widows is forbidden. Even though the latter rule has only applied to the higher castes, remarrying widowed women remains quite rare40. Even though the possibility of divorce is no longer ruled out today, it is strictly restricted by community institutions, which strengthens the efficiency of parental authority. Most community authorities have arbitration institutions to carry out obligatory attempts at conciliation between the spouses. Due to this, the number of divorce cases remains very low, whatever the community.

81Secondly, as it is the case in raising children, which we have already talked about and commented on, the metamorphosis of the status of women – and, in the same vein, that of all the households – also depends on the diversity in socio-cultural, economic and religious factors. In general, submission by women remains a reality in lower class neighbourhoods, where they have lower levels of education and are subjected to rigid religious constraints. In these areas, there are a thousand and one signs of gender inequality that is deep-rooted in some ancestral traditions: use of teknonymes to refer to the husband, vegetarianism of convenience imposed on women, both relics of the system known as purdah, which forces daughters-in-law to respect all the men in the household, strict domestic training of girls among Bohras and Ithnasheris, persistence of clitoridectomy within a section of the Bohras, etc.

82Other behavioural traits are, however, not associated with the status of women, but unique aspects of the Indian culture – that are perhaps partly dependent on the collective residence model – but anchored in collective behaviour and reproduced through education. Thus, except in cases of intimacy, relations between spouses always remain under the rule of reserve, sexual morality and dignity. Up to now it is not appropriate for spouses to smile at each other in public or display the slightest sign of affection, observing thus an order that applies to the relations between men and women everywhere. Spouses (wives in particular) avoid calling each other by their first names, and often use teknonymes ( “so and so’s father” or “so and so’s daughter”).

83The Indian diaspora family setting has no doubt kept for a long time these distinctive characteristics inherited from traditions that are alien to East Africa. The question now is how, without questioning the identity of their own cultural institutions, individual descendants will accept to import them upon migration for use on another continent, the continent of their birth, in other words, their country.



AUGUSTINS, Georges 1989, Comment se perpétuer ? Devenir des lignées et destins des patrimoines dans les paysanneries européennes. Nanterre, Société d’ethnologie ( « Mémoires de la Société d’ethnologie »).

BHARATI, Agehananda1972, The Asians in East Africa: Jayind and Uhuru. Chicago, Nelson Hall Company

DAHYA, B.W. 1963, « The “Evil Eye” in an Asian Community in East Africa », Kampala, East African Institute of Social Research Conference.

GURWITZ, Hanita 1988, The Statute of the Sikh Women in Nairobi. Nairobi, University of Nairobi ( « Thesis for the Master of Arts »).

KAPADIA, K.M. 1966 (1955), Marriage and Family in India. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

ROTCHILD, Donald, 1973, Racial Bargaining in Independent Kenya: A Study of Minorities and Decolonization. London, Oxford University Press.


1 As indicated in the foreword, the Indian terms mentioned in this chapter are either Gujarati, dominant vernacular spoken by members of the diaspora, or Hindi, or more rarely Punjabi.

2 Gotra is a Sanskrit word meaning “cow pen”, which refers to the pastoralist origins of those who inherited this tradition. Each gotra used to have its own livestock brand.

3 The father is called bapuji; the mother is called bha; the wife singles out her husband’s eldest brother (jet) from his younger brother (s) der. The eldest brother’s wife is called jetani. The younger brother’s wife is called derani.

4 Some authors also associate it with polyandry, which is actually unknown in Northern India and characteristic of Southern India.

5 According to Kapadia (1966: 290), 69 % of Kathiawar (Gujarat) families still had forms of joint family in the early sixties. Therefore nuclear family only applied to 31 % of families. Thanks to statistical data from Kenya’s 1999 census, Laurent Nowik demonstrates above that at an average of 4.2 people per household, up to a quarter of the households consists of groups of non-nuclear residents. The remainder, therefore, are more than three quarters of the families living in what can be called “nuclear” structures. However, this information is insufficient to qualify the reality of contemporary residential model, since a number of apartments occupied by young couples and described as separate homes are actually part of the same family building.

6 The issue arising currently, nevertheless, due to the shrinking of some families: to deal with it, the Oshwal Jain community has plans to create a retirement home to host old people at risk of isolation.

7 A sign of the reincarnation cycle, the swastika with four hands, has disappeared from most interiors, with exception sometimes of Jain homes which have a custom of preparing a swastika from grains of rice. The white of rice symbolizes purity and lack of reincarnation, because once the rice is polished it becomes sterile.

8 In some modest families, women still serve the children and men, then go to eat alone in the kitchen, sitting on the floor and holding their plates on their laps.

9 In Hindu families, it is however usual for young married women to return for a few days to their own mother’s home after giving birth of their first child.

10 African workers are also employed in private kitchens; a break with tradition – among the Hindu at least – according to which meals are prepared exclusively by members of one’s own caste. As an exception, some rich families (or famous restaurants) employ Brahmin staff to prepare meals because they are reputed to be free from any pollution due to the assumption that their person is always associated with permanent “purity”.

11 The bui bui or ridha, which emerged a few years ago and is characteristic of Bohra women’s attire, is a hood that covers the head and shoulders, only leaving the front of the face uncovered. With the kamiz (long-sleeved tunic), it replaced the sari and the purdah (light head veil, pulled down over mouth in public) which was once worn by all Indian women.

12 Nevertheless, in her research on women Sikhs in Nairobi, Hanita Gurwitz demonstrated that in 1988 41.8 % of them were members of a club in which some of them practiced sport: squash, tennis, golf (1988: 124).

13 On the “rockets” phenomenon, see the book’s introductory chapter.

14 Among the youth there is competition over who can consume the highest number of “pegs” (shots in bar language) of alcohol within the shortest time.

15 These restrictions add to those that have already been traditionally in practice since non-Hindu Indian communities have maintained food restrictions inherited or derivative from Hinduism. Thus Muslims more readily eat chicken than sheep. Even though there is no ban on it, beef is not eaten by all non-Hindu communities. The daily diet of numerous Muslim families, especially Ismailis, is indeed vegetarian.

16 In such a system known as “patri-Hawaiian” or “Guinean” in Peter Murdock’s terminology, the siblings and all categories of cousins are addressed as “brother” and “sister” (see the previous remark). In reference, the nomenclature, however, distinguishes matri-lateral and patri-lateral cousins, thus showing the patrilineal inclination of the system. In Gujarat and some part of Northern India, villages often comprise families linked to a single exogamous paternal clan, itself making up a gnati (caste in Gujarati) fragment. For this reason, exogamous constraint is generally confused with the village exogamy. In East Africa, this strict prescription – to which only the Jains do not subscribe – has for a long time meant that the roots of the fathers of two future spouses in principle had to be known in the two distinct ancestral villages (Bharati 1972: 73); but the rule is nowadays hardly observed. For their part, Christian Indians in principle adopted the European exogamous system that is a combination of a nomenclature known as “Eskimo” (distinguishing siblings and cousins; confusion of parallel and cross-cousins), banned marriage between bilateral cousins, and lack of preferential spouse. However, they remain under Tamil traditions in which the female cross-cousin (or niece) is an ideal spouse.

17 In this case, professional position (in a caste matrix) tends to unofficially take the place of the caste, in the strict sense of the word, even though it erases neither the unique genealogies nor the religious identities. Thus Ismailis and Bohras – who do not allow any intermarriage with Hindus – are part of the Banya category. By virtue of the same principle, marriages between Zamindar Sikhs and Punjabi Hindus are traditionally tolerated in East Africa. It should be noted that regardless of its generic meaning, “Banya” also refers to a specific business caste from Northern India, but that is paradoxically not represented in East Africa (Bharati 1972: 42).

18 More widespread in East Africa is marriage between a man named Kaira Leva Patel and a woman named Lohana, from a very slightly lower status. In contrast, about thirty years ago there was no intermarriage between the main Sikh class categories, namely Valmiks (a lower “caste” assimilated with the untouchables), Ramgharias (intermediate “caste”) and Jats (aristocrats), see Bharati (1972: 70).

19 The Moghol rulers occasionally took wives from the Hindu religion.

20 There is no global study on this issue. The last assessment carried out in 1987-88, which was very partial, was on a sample of Sikh women (Gurwitz 1988). According to this study, 87.1 % of marriages in the sample were arranged and 99 % adhered to prescribed community endogamy.

21 Referred to in East Africa as fundi, a Swahili term, the choti jat comprise a set of varied castes (or sub-castes) which as is the custom in India are positioned in the lowered varna of sudra. However, no jati in East Africa accepts to be recognized in this category. All members of choti jat therefore claim to be from one of the three varna of the “twice-born” (vaishya, kshatrya, and even Brahmin), with their current professional identity being a mere result, according to them, of recent historical vicissitude.

22 See Bharati’s remarks on this subject (1972: 60).

23 To the author’s knowledge there is only one study conducted nearly forty years ago on the issue. It shows that 79 % of those interviewed then considered “mixed marriages” unacceptable (Rotchild 1973: 194). However, since the informants were not asked about the exact nature of the “mixed marriages” (man, woman, ethnic identity of the spouse, etc.) and since the responses were distinguished according to communities (reluctance could greatly vary from one community to another), such a poll only elicited very limited interest.

24 Morganatic marriages between Europeans and Ismaili imams have, nonetheless, been practised since several decades.

25 The author can cite the case of a trader in a remote rural area in Kenya whose father was Sikh and married to a Gikuyu. His father had to mobilize resources for several years of preliminary negotiations for his son’s marriage as he had to identify for him a bride who in some way matched his “class”, meaning a woman who was herself half Sikh and half African. The chosen one was finally found in far southern Tanzania. The couple, which was completely “Indianised” and considered themselves Sikh (in terms of religious, clothing, cuisine, etc.) now lives in a traditional compound with the husband’s Gikuyu mother as the mother-in-law (now a widow) of the household.

26 A few years ago, Kenyan jotawa formed some sort of informal association to protect them from discrimination they often face.

27 In 1972, Bharati estimated their number at about 5,000 (1972: 160). Indian-Africans who acknowledge African lineage are called Africawallah.

28 Indian-Kenyans have a poor reputation in India. They are accused of abusing alcohol and not respecting vegetarian precepts. Kenya itself has negative media coverage because of chronic insecurity in its urban areas.

29 For this, see the chapter on the diaspora population by Laurent Nowik.

30 We previously saw that the practice of getting male spouses or husbands abroad in the past was, on the contrary, more associated with some sort of “feminine hypergamy”, where the future husband accepted exceptionally matrilocality, necessitated by expatriation, rather than class or material advantages that went with it.

31 The Bohras have an organ called Taisirum Nikkah Comity (TNC) specifically in charge of such arrangements. The TNC also organizes tourist trips, which are of course run by chaperons.

32 Another type of “romantic” marriage, which is tolerated by the Muslim tradition but condemned by Hindus, was recently used in Bollywood movies: it is passion marriage practiced in the mid-16th century between a Muslim Moghol sovereign and a Hindu princess from Rajasthan (Jodhaa Akbar).

33 While indirectly helping to promote prevention of births among girls, dowry continues to weigh on imbalanced sex ratio in India. See Anita Desai’s novel The Fast and the Feast for more information on misuse of dowry.

34 Non-existent among the Jains and rare in Brahmin families and in highly populated areas, the dowry custom remains important in the traders’ castes and among the Sikhs.

35 Jains also follow this custom.

36 Gold is meant to cast away priapic demons. Men generally do not wear gold.

37 In an already cited but old study, a group of married women were asked: “Do you appreciate living with your married brothers?” 47.5 % answered “No” and 34.4 % “Yes” (18 % had “No reply”). The majority of those in favour of the system then were 45 years old, had no secondary education and had no professional occupation (Gurwitz 1988: 217-218).

38 There are unfortunately no statistics on involvement of Indian women in professional activities. In her 1988 study, Hanita Gurwitz observed that 41 % of a sample of Nairobi Sikh women had professional activities (16.4 % were teachers and 9.4 % were employees, while the rest were nurses, shopkeepers, builders, decorators, etc.). See Gurwitz (1988: 146). Except in the case of teachers, it is impossible to establish from this study the proportion of female jobs linked to a male member of the family (father or husband owner of a business, for example). Generally, mothers-in-law, fearing the weakening of their domestic power, are still often opposed to their daughters-in-law working. Nevertheless, in Hindu and Jain families, it is not abusive to state that almost all women aged 35 years and above are now engaged either part-time of full-time in a professional activity.

39 Among girls, the rise in the level of education at all academic levels has been rapid within all Indian communities over the last few years, particularly in Kenya and Uganda. For more on this subject, see the chapter by Laurent Nowik (supra).

40 Moreover it was in the past often confused with the levirate marriage custom, where the younger brother “inherits” the widow of his eldest brother. It should be recalled that suicide by widows (sati) was outlawed in India by the British administration in 1829.

© Africae, 2015

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