A man was given land in Nairobi, the size of which depended on his servant’s fleet of foot. The faster he could run the bigger the land. A college expellee from walked from Cape Town (South Africa) to Cairo (Egypt) just to prove to his prospective father-in-law that he was responsible and serious enough to marry his daughter. And he was serious! He even built a prominent children’s hospital in her honour when she died in Nairobi.
A doctor, the first in the nascent capital city, rode on a zebra in his regular estate rounds…
These are some of the hilarious and weird anecdotes that characterised Nairobi’s formative years in early 20th Century. They are told in a newly published book by Sharad Rao, Indian Dukawallas: Their Contribution to Political and Economic Development of Kenya.
The veteran lawyer’s first book celebrates and reaffirms the community’s immense contribution to the economic, social and political development in Kenya.
The book could echo the ‘Indian Question’ that arose in the 1920s when the community agitated for equal rights with European settlers.
The colonial government excluded the Indians from acquiring land in the White highlands.
Led by prominent Indian personalities like Mangal Dass and A. M. Jevanjee, they protested the racial discrimination. It was noted in the House of Lords in 1927 that the Indian problem in the Kenya colony had been a “cause of special anxiety” to the British government.
Indian Dukawallas chronicles the community’s arrival in Kenya and celebrates their role in the liberation struggle as well as their entrepreneural and philanthropic efforts country.
Their political activism in Kenya rose alongside India’s struggle for independence under Mahatma Gandhi and Africans’ agitation for freedom in Kenya. In Empire, Race and the Indians in Colonial Kenya’s Contested Public Political Sphere, a journal article, historian Sana Aiyar provides “an intrinsic link between the political agitations by Indians in India, Indians in Kenya and Africans in Kenya. She quotes Harry Thuku as having drawn his nationalist inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi.
Equally poignant was Mangal Dass’s declaration in Nairobi that they would “bring cannons and rifles and fight for our rights in this colony when India gets self-government.”
Rao’s Indian Dukawallas delves into early 19th Century when European explorers arrived in the east coast of Africa. The book has it that a number of Indian traders and workers had arrived in the area and worked for the Arab sultanates.
More Indian immigrants, mainly from Gujerat and Punjab, came in 1885 as labourers to build the Mombasa-Kisumu railway line.
It would appear that the Indians related fairly well with the Europeans during the construction of the railway from Mombasa to Nairobi. Matters took a bad turn when the railway reached Nairobi and Europeans, not directly related with the railway, came around oozing arrogance and racism.
Upon the building of the railway headquarters in Nairobi, the British administration office was transferred to Nairobi under the then principal administrator John Ainsworth.
Ainsworth introduced segregated settlements for Europeans, Indians and Africans in Nairobi. Indians were confined to the Indian Barzaar living in such congested shanties that Sir Charles Eliots, reportedly described as “so close together that they neutralised the natural advantages of air and light.”
Jevanjee was then a prominent businessman in the town and had established friendship with Ainsworth.
Rao says in the book that one morning, Ainswirth stood with Jevanjee at the Ainsworth Bridge (Museum Bridge) to give him land. Jevanjee sent his servant to run. He ran all the way to Biashara Street and the stretch became Jevajee’s land from then.
As more settlers arrived, Indians were progressively isolated and were prohibited from acquiring land in the productive areas called white highlands.
The book describes Col. Ewart Grogan as one of the harshest racists among the settlers. He had arrived in the country after being expelled from a South African university and quickly expressed his disdain for Asians and Africans alike. “We Europeans have to go on ruling and rule with iron discipline.”
Indians’ collaboration with Africans flourished as soon as Kenya became a British protectorate. Manilal A. Desai resigned from a law firm after he was told he couldn’t smoke in the office because he was not white. He founded the The Chronicle, an anti-colonial newspaper that gave voice to African freedom fighters like Jomo Kenyatta and Harry Thuku to vent their African grievances.
Girdharlal Vidyarthi lauched the Colonial Times that carried the grievances of both Asians and African as Acharia established the Weekly Democrat. Pio Gama Pinto was one of Vidyarthi’s journalists while Tom Mboya and Kenyatta contributed regularly.
Vidyarthi was arrested many times for his “frank, free and fearless” newspaper. He launched a series of other newspapers and continued his crusade. In 1947, he was charged with sedition, convicted and sentenced to 18 months prison.
Another Indian nationalist of note is A. B. Patel, who was a member of the LegCo. He declined his appointment as a Council minister, the only non-European in the Cabinet, and insisted that an African must be included. Thus B.A. Ohanga was appointed minister for Community Development and Rehabilitation in 1954-1957.
These days, the Indian community in Kenya leads a fairly quiet life that borders on the timid.
Although it lacks the finesse of an academic work, the book offers vital insight into the historical social and cultural developments that characterised the east coast of Africa in the years gone by.
The community has footprints in all sectors of the economy and fingerprints on most household goods. Even those made in Europe or China come to us via an Indian’s duka.
Yet their cultural and linguistic contribution is significant as well. Kiswahili, our national language, has significant breaths of Indian phonemes and morphemes. Indian traders and workers brought in dhows and some household words like karatasi and chapati and sahani.
The community dominates the service industry, including the legal and medical professions.
Two of its members - Chunilal B. Madan and Majid Cockar - have risen to Chief Justice while Kalpana Rawal became Deputy Chief Justice.
Nonetheless, Pio Gama Pinto’s assassination dealt the community’s political enthusiasm in the post-independence era a blow and led many of them to “play safe” in the private sector as others left the country quietly.
Even as he recounts the successes of the Indian populations, Rao sees Goldenberg scandal architect Kamlesh Pattni and Anglo Leasing scamstars Pareira and the Khamani family as the gravest dent in the otherwise glorious image of Asians.
The book is available at Prestige Bookshop, Text Book Centre and other leading book stores.