03/08/2017 10:16 AM IST | Updated 03/08/2017 10:16 AM IST

The 44th Tribe: How Kenya's Asians Are Navigating The Upcoming Election

Asians have a long history of financially supporting politically-active Kenyans.

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Kenyan flag with Indian flag on a tree stump.

As Kenya readies to go to polls early next month, a battle of tribal allegiances is expected, and where the ethnically non-indigenous Kenyans will fit is interesting to watch. Many Kenyans, with ethnic roots in the Indian subcontinent, tend to feel threatened in this tense atmosphere. Shops close down and many leave the country.

In a country where politics is polarized by tribes, the Asians as they are referred to, are less than 1% of the population but their presence is conspicuous. They own most of the big businesses, live exclusively in well-to-do neighborhoods and are culturally, if not nationally, segregated.

A section amongst them started advocating for the status of a tribe earlier this year; trying to gain as much prominence politically as they possess economically. This weekend, in a smooth pre-election tactic, the ruling party announced official status of Asians as the 44th tribe in Kenya.

READ: Indians In Kenya Are Now The '44th Tribe' Of The Country

The Presidential elections in Kenya this year predict a close margin between current incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, who has long been an opposition candidate. While Kenyatta will seek to defend his position and avoid being Kenya's first one-term president, for Raila, this is believed to be his last stab at presidency.

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A worker hangs ontop of an election campaign billboard displaying Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta (L) and Deputy President William Ruto from the Jubilee Party in the town of Mai Mahiu, Kenya, August 2, 2017.

After the unanticipated violence that broke out after the 2007 elections, people are wary. Given the high stakes for both candidates, violence and unrest is expected after results given the likelihood that whatever side wins, results will be questioned by the other. President Kenyatta also happens to be from the Kikuyu tribe that makes up a fifth of the population and is the largest ethnic group. Odinga, is a Luo — a rival tribe that forms about 15% of the population.

This time, as at every important moment in Kenya's politically history, the Asians feel targeted.

This time, as at every important moment in Kenya's politically history, the Asians feel targeted. In the coup 1982, shops were looted and women raped. When Idi Amin expelled the Asians from Uganda, it created panic in Kenya. During nationalization projects, many had to shut shop. "If you stood out even economically, there was a fear that you would be thrown out," says author Shiraz Durrani. Similar was the case in the 2007 elections as well. Under the first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, there was a sense that Indians were taking away the wealth. This resentment has continued, and understandably makes them the first targets during moments of unrest.

The Asians of Kenya

The streets of many prominent neighborhoods in Nairobi often lead one to forget where we are. The buildings have familiar Hindi and Gujarati names, the faces you see driving cars, shopping and even running the malls are ethnically South Asian — Kenya's Asians. Theirs is a story intertwined with colonialists bringing them all the way across the Indian Ocean, to a land alien to them that they adopted as home.

They brought with them food, culture and lexicon that fused with that of the land. Chapati is a staple, and blends in the cuisine as seamlessly as the words chai, achari (pickle), serikali (government), duka (shop) and pesa (money). They arrived first at the coast, initially as traders and eventually as laborer settlers. As a trade language, Swahili developed out of a necessity to communicate.

A fun fact about the Indian influence in Swahili refers to Kenya's official motto, harambee; Swahili for all pull together. Legend has it, that the men building the railway line would chant to Hindu goddess Amba, "har, har Ambe", and the first president is said to have witnessed this and derived the term from there. While the veracity of this is doubtful, what is not is that they played a major role in creation of Kenya as a nation yet feel removed from its politics today.

Legend has it, that the men building the railway line would chant to Hindu goddess Amba, "har, har Ambe", and the first president is said to have witnessed this and derived the term from there.

Political activist Nerima Wako works towards engaging youngsters in electoral politics in Kenya.

"Asian Kenyans usually end up not voting. Most leave the country and will travel to neighboring countries or England during elections. But this isn't just a feature of ethnicity. It is common for people to not vote. The middle and upper classes don't see the point of lining up for hours, the results aren't credible and you feel like you're wasting your time. The Asians might not be voting because they are rich," she says.

Their perception of being divorced from politics, Wako thinks, is a factor of the education system. "The contributions of Asian is not mentioned in history books and you wonder why that part is omitted. It makes it easier to ignore that community."

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The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi with the President of Kenya, Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi.

History, Politics, and Asian Kenyans

When academic Sana Aiyar first started research on the Asians in Kenya, everyone she met called them apolitical traders. She disagreed and set out to discover that in their relatively recent habitation of this country, they were a part of many firsts. The first attempt at political organization in Kenya was the formation of the East Africa Indian National Congress in 1914. The first Kenyan trade unionist, Makhan Singh, was born in Punjab and moved to Kenya in his teenage. Independent Kenya's first martyr, Pio Gama Pinto, was of Goan descent.

"It was systematic, our removal from politics. We were told to not participate," says writer Aleya Kassam. "So whoever can leave will leave in this election. Most peoples' attitude is that it is messy and they don't want to get involved but there is now a group of people who will vote."

Aleya's family has been here many generations and her view is resonated by many others in similar positions. Shiraz Durrani explains, "There are a number of things that make Indians in Kenya not politically active. The Asians were intimidated, first by the British and then by local administration. They were scared to be open in politics. They stuck to their business and profession."

The colonial legacy of divide and rule has left its traces here as well.

Fear, racism and economics

"Elections aren't normal for anyone in Kenya, even African Kenyans," says Aiyar and while it holds true it is understandable why the Asians feel targeted.

"The petty shopkeeper has been the target of looting and violence since he was always seen as an everyday thief," she says. Zarina Patel echoes her views. She doesn't believe that the Asians were targeted racially, rather their "shops and homes have money, jewelry and things worth targeting."

Patel, amongst the many hats she wears, is also the Editor of AwaaZ Magazine (Kenyan magazine that started with a focus on South Asian affairs) with Zahid Rajan.

She and Rajan are hopeful for this election. "Over the years since 1997, 2002 we have seen gradually increased participation. This year we expect good participation, even in the candidates running for the election. We already have three MP's in parliament and for a population that is such a tiny fraction, that is impressive. The democratic space has opened up. This year we expect even more Asian voters," they say. "However, we are more scared than ever before as well."

A diaspora of no return

Having been seen as the 'other' and feeling unsafe in a land they call their own is what has long characterized the Asians in Kenya. Unlike other diasporas, they migrated fairly early from India, before there was a Pakistan. When they left in the early 1900s and made the choice to stay, they also cut off from most of their families.

Four generations hence, you often hear disavowals of connections with the subcontinent. Theirs is a diaspora of no-return and of no connections to the homeland. Kenya, for them, is home.

"I'm an African girl", remarks writer Aleya Kassam. "This is home, where else will I go?"

This complete national integration is interesting given how culturally they are so segregated. Material culture, tradition, and rituals that they brought along have all stayed. It poses an interesting conundrum for an outsider trying to understand them. Stepping into Diamond Plaza, the Indian marketplace in Nairobi is a time warp.

Virtually everyone is dressed in traditional attire and you find all wares you would in a local market in Delhi, from masalas manufactured in India to Ayurvedic face washes, Gujarati dry snacks, loose pulses and kebabs aplenty. With such few familial and financial ties to the subcontinent, you wonder how they are culturally so connected and insulted from their surrounding Africans.

Inter-racial weddings between Africans and Asians still make news for they are rare and unusual. An African Kenyan man is being serious when he says that for every muhindi (Swahili for Indian) girl you see, there is her auntie or grandmother lurking somewhere around.

"Communities under threat keep their take umbrage in local identities and keep them alive," Durrani explains.

Alternative forms of political participation

Voting, however, is not the only determinate of participation. Asians have a long history of financially supporting politically-active Kenyans. During the independence movement, they were responsible for printing anti-colonial pamphlets and materials free. They have since played a backstage role in politics, backing candidates financially.

The tribal recognition is one such example of lobbying and financing political parties by Indians. A few days ago, on the issue of recognition of Asians as a tribe, Ranjan said that, "Tribalism has torn the nation apart for all these years. Playing patronship politics wont help anyone."

However, as of yesterday, in a classic campaign tactic, the ethnically non-homogenous Asians were recognized as a tribe. "Now you are part and parcel of us formally," announced acting Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiangi a fortnight before elections. For a population that suffered indignation at being referred to as "guests" in their own country in the 1960's, this statement could well cause some hurt.