Why Asians found it impossible to live in Kenya all those years ago
Fifty years ago, over 100,000 Asians from East Africa arrived in Britain seeking new homes and constructing very different lives for themselves after waves of persecution and intimidation in Kenya and other parts of East Africa –
Guest writer of the month – CYPRIAN FERNANDES
During the 1960s, the last African countries still under imperial control regained independence from their European colonisers. The process of ‘Africanisation’ that followed was not straightforward. Economies suffered as political leaders struggled to unite communities in the face of drought and famine. The political instability brought danger to the large Asian communities in East Africa who had been brought from India by the British to help run their businesses.
Since the late 1800s, Asian people had settled in East Africa. Most were Hindus from Gujarat. Many lived in distinct communities, separate from their British rulers and their African neighbours. The British colonialists had introduced separate development (the purest kind of colour bar I can think of and few if any were aware of it) and people went about their lives not worrying too much about it. For a start, most of the migrant communities did not have the social graces of mixing socially with white people. Many were to go on to become successful professional and skilled workers. These communities became increasingly threatened as African governments cast Asians as a scapegoat group. In the face of rising hostility, many Asians decided to leave for Britain: the country whose culture they carried and whose passports they held.
By the terms of the 1962 immigration laws, British passport holders living in independent commonwealth countries could move freely to Britain. This position changed in 1968 when new controls restricted entry to people with at least one UK-born grandparent.
India also closed its doors to those trying to leave Kenya, causing the ‘Kenya Asian crisis’. This was followed in 1971 by a more dangerous crisis in Uganda. In 1971, 50,000 Ugandan Asians were harshly expelled from the country by the military dictator, Idi Amin. The urgency of the situation prompted the British government to relax controls, allowing entry to 27,000 of the 50,000 refugees.
By 1973 approximately 103,588 Asians had entered Britain from East Africa. At this point, the crisis was deemed to have ended, although a new group of refugees came from Malawi in 1976.
Despite government efforts to distribute the refugees evenly about the country, many settled in areas with established Asian communities. In London, East African Asians settled principally in north and west London, particularly Harrow, Ealing and Wembley in Brent. (source unknown).
PAUL THEROUX (1967) wrote:
In East Africa, nearly everyone hates Asians. Even some Asians say they hate Asians. The British have hated the Asians the longest. This legacy they passed on to the Africans, who now, in Kenya, for example, hold the banner of bigotry high. Political scientists, anthropologists and sociologists in Africa largely ignore the Asian community. That students in East African universities hate Asians is a demonstrable fact. The Greeks and other European small traders in East Africa hate Asians, too. Racial insult against Asians now approaches the proportion of fashion; and when the pressure of fashion attracts Asians themselves to slander each other, I begin to worry and think it may be too late to do anything about it except talk. Not much has changed since then.
IN a few years, perhaps even a couple of decades … no, it might have happened already: the history of Asians in Kenya (up to around 1970) will have been completely erased, if not in print, at least in the collective memory banks, even in the diaspora. Only Zarina Patel, the doyen of African journalism will continue to keep the flame of memory alive as long as she can. As long as she is alive, she will always be the keeper of the collective Asian memory, especially in Kenya. I pay the greatest tribute to the Asians (especially, my own community the Goans) who stayed and continued to make their own contributions to a new Kenya since Independence.
I knew from the very first day when I walked in off the street and got a job on the Daily Nation as a sports reporter at the age of 16 that the day would come one day when I would have to leave Kenya because I had chosen a British passport instead of a Kenya citizenship. However, before that day came, almost everyone in Government thought I was a Kenya citizen. So much so, I was selected to go on a couple of Kenya Government delegations, including one to the Congo in the company of G.G. Kariuki, Robert Matano and others. President Jomo Kenyatta refused to call me by my given Christian name: Cyprian Fernandes. Instead, he saw me called: “mtoto ya mhindi!”. Other Kenyans who could not roll Cyprian around their tongue, christened me sufria!
I was only a toto in the middle 1950s but it was a time of immense activity, the country was gripped in a sense of resurrection (not insurrection … by 1954, the air was filled thick with the promise of “our” was coming). By 1956, I had managed to meet Tom Mboya at a Luo Union football match and from then on, every time we met he made time for me. On some of these occasions, he introduced me to many of the men who would shepherd Kenya to independence, men like James Gichuru (who will forever remain one of my favourite politicians), Oginga Odinga, Jeremiah Nyagah (much later) and his delightful wife who introduced Charolais cattle to Embu. I stay with them many times. Jeremiah was also one of my tutors in Kenyan politics. Three years after I had joined the Nation, while I was still a sports journalist, I met Joe Wanjui, first when he headed the Agricultural Development Corporation and later the even large Industrial and Commercial Development Corporation. He had been in the US and I think he was seconded to Kenya from Esso where he worked. Dr Gikonyo Kiano (Minister for Commerce and Industry, aka Mr 10 per cent allegedly for import/export licences) and at one time or another I met the whole of the first Kenya Cabinet and subsequent new members.
I mention all this because the white colonialist settler community, most of the Asians and other migrant communities who did not opt to remain in Kenya by taking up citizenship knew in their heart of hearts they would have to go. With the white communities, it was a race thing, many fled to South Africa, others to Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) but most back to Europe.
The Europeans were not the only racists. The majority of the Asian community was religiously so. British journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has been saying so of Uganda Asians for donkey’s years. I was once told by a Sikh friend of mine, a teenage friend at the time; he was still at school, I had already started work in 1956. He said most Indians (including Pakistanis, Ismailis, Sikhs etc) made it their religious duty to send as much money as they could to their homelands. They knew that one day, they would be returning there. I always thought they were religious about making as much money as they could, some would do it illegally but that did not bother them one bit, because making money was a religious thing. In more recent times, I was told something similar happening around the world today. It might have been in jest, but I would think there is some truth to it. Apparently, when a family migrates to a new country, the father gets everyone together and says something like this: “The first thing we have to do is to understand what the government can do for us, what are benefits, free services, does the government offer us any money … we must examine every avenue and we must exploit every opportunity to secure our future both here and in India (or wherever else they come from).
When independence came, those who knew time was running out for them were quite brilliant in lengthening their stays in Kenya after despatching wives and children, first to the country of origin and later to the UK. If it meant bribery was the price of their continued exploitation and success they paid it happily, even corrupting Africans in sleeping parts in Asian businesses. I am sure a few whites did it too. However, being a sleeping partner was not a joking matter because the sleeping partner eventually grabbed the business as soon as the Asian owner left Kenya. The term “sleeping partner” was also not a term familiar to Kenya’s African community. Some thought it was male prostitution.
Kenya will always remain my own paradise. I grew up in the Goan community which did not pay much attention to the politics of the day. Many thought they had a job for life, especially those who were still working in the Kenya Civil Service. After it was the Goans that kept the apple of the British colonial eye working as a well-oiled racist machine. Some of the reprobate British senior staff exploit the humble Goans to the limit. Only problem was, many of the Goans were not that daft, they knew how to take of themselves. It might have been a case of “Yes Sir, Yes Sir, No Sir, No Sir”, always bowing to the white masters, but also having the last laugh. The Goans were great in the Kenya Civil Service, Winston Churchill and others of his ilk said so.
One major negative was that some of the Goans treated black Kenyans in the same awful manner as did their white masters but never with the level of cruelty. After all, the Goans were pious Catholics, if it suited them.
However, like all other migrant races, they were all racist. Especially for one reason: they feared that wives and daughters would one day be raped, even in an independent Kenya. They feared for their womenfolk especially because of the black men’s large penises. That really was the stuff of their nightmares. The indentured labourers that were brought to Kenya from various parts of the subcontinent learned very quickly from their white masters, that the “blacks” were savages and must be treated accordingly. “Don’t trust them, don’t take your eye off them”.
Yet, there were many hundreds of people from various migrant communities who cried bucket-loads that these “black bastards” had robbed them of their heritage. One common lament was: “we gave them the best years of our lives and now they are kicking us out.”
Most migrants stuck it out as long as they could and then headed off to Britain. By then entry into Britain had been paved. Or there was Australia, New Zealand and with relatives, USA.
In a similar vein, they cried that they had built schools, and given African menial jobs, especially as houseboys, cooks and ayahs and in their stores, warehouses and places of business such as construction sites, garages, and a phalanx of commerce and industry. Some of this home help was cherished to the point even after migration families would send money to their former employees. I know of one family in which the home help remained a part of the family for more 60 years … he may still be there … Mombasa.
Another thing, you did not see many Africans playing cricket, hockey, table tennis, billiards and snooker (after 1964, Fadhili William, the singer-songwriter used to play snooker regularly at Brunner’s Hotel (Queen’s Hotel). There was minuscule socialising between Asians and Africans. I don’t know, and I might be wrong, of any Asian family that went to dine in an African hut. Or invited their servants to dinner at their table and among the family’s friends.
The incoming Kenya Government did value the work of the Goan Civil Servants but long before Uhuru, Jomo Kenyatta had been preparing the Kikuyu for the various roles in government. In one of the earliest editions of Mwigithania (which he wrote while he was in London), he urged Kikuyu parents to send their children to the “Church” schools. That was in 1923 (I think), he was already planning then for Uhuru.
Over the years, I quickly built up a relationship of trust with most of the key players since the first cabinet was established. Trust is the greatest asset any journalist worth his salt must achieve in as many sackful as he can. I had that reputation. However, Njoroge Mungai and Charles Njonjo were almost at each other’s throats. Mungai had both his eyes set firmly on the presidency after Jomo Kenyatta left this earth. Charles Njonjo would have probably gone to war (of sorts) to stop him. That was my problem.
I had rapidly made a name and a reputation for myself as a roving correspondent and much of that involved Njoroge Mungai who was the Foreign Minister. He never asked me for a favour but I had access to the senior staff in his ministry and I travelled to many parts of Africa and Europe, US and Canada. The Organisation of African Unity in Addis Abba was big for Kenya and for Njoroge Mungai. Njonjo hated every moment of Mungai’s role in it. I think they finally declared war in Singapore. Mungai had spent the previous two or three going from country to country in Africa begging for support to stop Britain from selling arms to South Africa. The Boers swore that they needed the arms to keep the Indian Ocean Sea lanes safe. That was a load of crap.
At the Singapore CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting), Vice President Daniel arap Moi, who was leading the delegation agreed that he would let Mungai represent Kenya in the “heads of Commonwealth families’ discussion on the anti-arms sales campaign to South Africa). I dined with Njonjo and Moi that night and everything was pretty jovial. The next morning, I waited to accompany Mungai to the talks. He never came down from his room. Njonjo had twisted Moi’s arm and told him it would “be a disgrace if the head of the Kenya delegation did not join other heads”. Mungai did not come down from his room for a couple of days. South Africa would get the arms, there was no one in that gathering families who could have articulated the case for stopping the arms sales more than Mungai. After all, he spent a lot of time on the project.
A couple of years later, Mungai came to London and at a reception at the High Commission he came close to me and whispered: “Keep away from me, the Special Branch is following me.” He had come to London to talk to me about returning to Kenya to head the election campaign which he lost and won again because of the winner’s death.
Next, morning, when I returned to Leicester where I lived, an anonymous person sent 40 cartons of Tusker.
The best editor, besides Tom Clarke (sports) and Hilary Ng’weno, was the first African Editor-in-Chief Boaz Omori. I had been away on assignment in Europe and Canada. I was digging into how the Aga Khan was facilitating Ismailis for migration. While I was away, Boaz Omori passed away and George Githii became the editor. When I returned, I wrote the story and handed it to the Feature Editor Trevor Grundy (today a lifelong friend). Githii ordered us to “can” the story. We tried to explain to Githii (in front of the wonderful Henry Gathigira) that Boaz Omori had asked me to do this. “Not,” Githii said. Trevor Grundy said that Githii was being unreasonable and unjournalistic. “Bugger that, we will publish it,” he said. In a couple of weeks, we were packing our bags.
Ironically, some idiot went to my wife’s office in the Department of Education and told her “to get your husband out of the country, because there was a bullet with his name on it.” She wanted to get out the next day, and we left in four weeks. Being a sort of a clever chap, on one of my visits I managed to get a new passport issued in the UK. I was recognised as a resident of Britain on subsequent visits and when migrating did not have to wait in any queues. When we eventually got to the UK, my wife was held up at the airport for almost 8 hours while we waited for the doctor to finish his game and return to the airport. It took another five minutes to clear her entry into Britain after I showed the doctor my passport.
Still, the Nation was a great life experience that happened to a kid who was forced to leave school at the age of 12.
The final point, the Asians who remained and new Asian arrivals, have done themselves and their community proud.
On Madaraka Day, 1967: Jomo Kenyatta gave a stern warning to non-Africans who “abused Africans and the government because of their wealth … But I have got information that some Europeans and Asians in Kenya have not realised that this country is independent, and go on abusing.” He attacked some Asian shopkeepers who, “because of their wealth” showed no respect to the ordinary Africans, saying that Uhuru was nothing”.
He then told them that if they don’t change, they should not blame the government for the measures it may take to deal with their nonsense.
I knew a lot of people who were quaking in their boots after that.
Kenyatta also told them that “one leg should not be in Kenya and the other in India.”
Today, in hindsight, for many Asians leaving Kenya was probably the best move they could have made because East African Asians are thriving without any threats to their lives. The nostalgia of their unforgettable lives in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania keeps them warm on cold and freezing nights … and there’s central heating of course!
Racism was not restricted to whites against the rest of us. I did not actually was never the butt of white racism. If you were not a Sikh or Muslim and you tried to woo one of their girls, there was a good chance she would end up in pieces in some river or some forested no-go zone. You, on the other hand, would come within an inch of losing your life, if you were lucky. Love and marriage with African women were rare. If you were a Goan girl you would be packed off to Goa, perhaps even to a catholic convent and if you were a boy, you would probably be doused with holy water and exorcised by a priest or bishop.
Cyprian Fernandes is the former chief reporter of The Nation newspaper in Kenya and a well-respected columnists and author. Today, he lives in Sydney, Australia where he is known as a man who faithfully records the passions, the dreams, the hopes and the failures of a continent new to independence. in the 1960s and 1970s.