Retracing Roots, Creating Identity

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Neera Kapur-Dromson, a fourth-generation Kenyan of Indian origin, has wrestled with kindred issues of identity, roots, cultural clashes and self-creation as long as she can remember.

An Odissi dancer, who was born and bred in Kenya, Kapur-Dromson was puzzled to find that despite living in Kenya for over 100 years, Indians were almost non-existent in histories of the east African country. In memoirs and biographies, like those of Karen Blixen (of the ‘Out of Africa’ fame) or Elspeth Huxley’s books, the Indian is shown just as a worker, sans family or individuality, an invisible nameless being. This disturbed her and goaded her on a long-winded trip into the memory of four generations and three countries. This inner voyage crystallised in her first book, From Jhelum to Tana, entwining personal history with defining historical events in Kenya that impacted on the lives of Indians living in that country.

In this conversation with Manish Chand, Kapur-Dromson speaks about the mingling of Indian and Kenyan cultures and languages, the contribution of the Indian diaspora in awakening political consciousness among Africans and the need for Kenyans to move beyond Bollywood and clichés to understand Indians and their culture better. “It is important for people to know where and what backgrounds they come from,” she says in this interview.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q) How did you put together this narrative of four generations of your family in Kenya? Were there any written records that helped you write this book?

A) I read many books on and about Kenya – all kinds of books, both historical and narrative. I found little mention of the lives and times of Indians in Kenya. I was a little bothered at first as even in my own family, I did not find any written records. No diaries, with the exception of one or two of my grandmother who started writing late in her life… so I did not have access to immediate firsthand information. However, I talked to a lot of people, especially the older ones who still remember stories narrated to them or what they themselves witnessed. Some people absolutely refused to part with the information…why talk of old times, they asked me. Let these be buried. With others, information differed each time. However, my mother has been a mine of information. The book then became an absolute priority as I felt that if I don’t do it now, even more will be lost. Amadou Hampate Ba, a very important African writer once wrote, “In Africa when an old man dies, it is as if a library has burnt…” so you can imagine the urgency of the task.

Much of the history written about Kenya was, for a long time, from the Western, mainly the British point of view. And in these documents, the Indian way of life is quite negligible. Even in memoirs and biographical books, or novels, like those of Karen Blixen (of the ‘Out of Africa’ fame) or Elspeth Huxley’s books, the Indian is shown just as a worker, without family or individuality, an invisible nameless being. The socio-cultural profile had been entirely ignored. That disturbed me. Another good reason for writing this book, I was persuaded. This information gap had to be bridged.

Fortunately, historians like Dana April Seidenberg and Cynthia Salvadori, socio-political writers like Dharam and Yashpal Ghai, and now writers, journalists and activists like Pheroze Nowrojee, Rasna Warah, Zarina Patel and Zahid Rajan, Salim Lone – all residing in Nairobi – have made contributions to correct our history in Kenya.

However, little has been written about lives of ordinary Indians. That is why I have written a story about simple people living in this part of the diaspora, about their day-to-day lives.

Q) Identity is an important theme in your book. Can you elaborate on what it was for Indians to carve an identity in an alien land?

A) There have been attempts to write about important political figures or personalities like Makhan Singh, a very prominent figure in the trade union movement. But I didn’t want to write about a big political figure.

I wanted to talk about daily lives of ordinary Indians living in Kenya, to write about changing patterns in the social and cultural life of the Indian people in Kenya. Above all, I wanted to write about changing identity.

Identity is not a fixed entity; it is never static – beyond the limits of geography, where space and time know no barriers, there identity is cast – in the state of mind. Identity is an ever-evolving process; just like consciousness. In fact, the two are almost intertwined. It is not enough to say that my identity is of Indian origin or that I am a Kenyan, a woman, married, working etc. All these are parts or bits of identity, and they evolve with the new experiences in our lives. 

Even reading a book or listening to a good radio broadcast, or a TV programme can help change thoughts and thus affect one’s identity.

My own identity has evolved tremendously by writing this book, for example. I have grown by learning about my past history and that of my ancestors. The experiences they went through, what brought them here in the first place, where they came from, what their socio-cultural profiles were etc. Their language took on words from African languages and vice versa. The Swahili language has many words from the Indian languages also. Food patterns changed and adapted, as also mannerisms, and to some extent religion. Communal and caste barriers have always been very strong, but even these have adapted to some extent.

It is important for people to know where and what backgrounds they come from.

Somewhere in my book I have written: My ancestors came from Jhelum to Tana. It took years to understand that I had to make the trip from Tana to Jhelum – a trip in the memory of four generations and three countries. The cycle is now complete. I offer it to the younger generation so that it may realize that a tree whose roots have not dug deep can easily be blown off by the wind – nor will it blossom.

It is equally important to share this history and our changing socio-cultural profiles with Kenyans of African and other origins in order to remove stereotypes and build bridges.

Q) Can you give a brief overview of the history of Indians in Kenya in colonial times? Were they conscious of their political rights?

A) Indians have been going to Africa since perhaps even before two thousand years. However, so far as the history around the time of the building of the Uganda Railway (as it was then known, around 1880s)is concerned, when the base for the colonial rule was being built, some 32,000 contractual labourers were brought in to work on the rail lines – many from Lahore in the beginning. Many others came on their own, as masons as plumbers, as artisans etc. They called them “coolies”, after the coolies working on the rails in South Africa. Many of these so-called “coolies” left after the construction of the railway was done, many others died due to the dangers and hardships on the building of the rail lines. Most of these early arrivals were very simple people, never ventured out of their small villages. Many were illiterate. They were paid measly salaries, given very little protection to work under the trying conditions of the jungles, of extreme heat, drought, wild animals…you must have heard stories of man-eating lions abounding in the bush and those that ate away several labourers in the camps. They came without wives, without families at first, living in the harshest of conditions.

At first these workers were not at all conscious of any political rights. It took time before they learnt that they were being exploited and that they had to fight for their rights.

My great-grandfather came to Kenya as an adventurer in 1898. Initially he too took up work on the railway, and was also almost taken away by a man-eating lion.

In time, like several other Indians, he too became a “dukawallah” (shop owner). The British didn’t want Indians or Africans to have access to the white highlands in the Rift Valley – the richest land in Kenya. Because of this, Indians were forced into trading culture, or other trades like clerical, administration, artisan, plumbers, blacksmiths etc.

Initially, Kenya, which was then known as British East Africa, was governed from Bombay by the British Raj. The laws were those of British India, as were the penal and civil codes, the police systems, the administrative and judiciary systems, the currency, the National Bank of India etc. It was as if this was another province of India. However, with the arrival of the Boers from South Africa, the new settlers encouraged the rulers to look more toward South African system of governance and rule. A whole system of changes took place during this time, as also the abolishing of the rupee currency.

The second generation of Indians who came later, 1910 onwards were more educated and some came charged with the politico-conscious climate reigning in India at the time against the British raj. People like M.A. Desai, Shamsuddeen, like A.B. Patel, Justice Channan Singh fought against the colonial rule. They should be known as Freedom Fighters. Others like A.M. Jeevanjee established the East African Indian National Congress. As an editor of ‘The East African Chronicle’ M.A. Desai was an outspoken critic of colonial rule, and especially publicised grievances of the Africans. Others like G. Vidyarthi also opened up their printing press for African voices crying for independence and injustice, for trade union movements, for unfair taxes, etc. While Makhan Singh, a self-proclaimed communist, was founder of the Trade Union Movement in Kenya.

Q) What about the politicisation of Africans and Kenyans and their relations with people of Indian origin?

A) The press was a very important medium at the time for politicisation of the people. The Colonial Times, The Daily Chronicle, The Tribune… Those who opened up their presses and papers for the freedom struggle were often jailed and had to pay heavy fines. These never deterred them and they always started again.

During the struggle against colonialism some Indians, like M.A. Desai, whom I have already spoken of above, spoke out openly of the causes of the Africans in their newspapers. He helped them print out leaflets and pamphlets in Swahili. Infact, his office almost became a regular meeting point of African and Indian political activity. Later, G.L. Vidyarthi also opened up his paper, publishing in English, Swahili and other African languages; he was jailed for what was then called ‘seditious’ literature. Makhan Singh, Eddie Pereira, Pio Pinto, Haroon Ahmed, Pranlal Seth, A.B.Desai and his wife who put their own lives in danger for these purposes.

When an underground movement for freedom struggle was formed, known as the Mau Mau, several Indians supported it. Even the newly independent Indian government of Pandit Nehru sympathised with its aims. The newly appointed High Commissioner of India to Kenya, Apa Pant was especially active in this regard. Diplomatically and financially, he gave full support to the movement. Money, arms and accommodation were given to Mau Mau adherents. India became the only country to fully support the Mau Mau in the independence cause. In fact, Senior Chief Koinange made Apa Pant a Kikuyu Elder.

In 1952, Pandit Nehru sent a very prominent lawyer and MP Chaman Lall to defend Jomo Kenyatta at the Kapenguria trial. Achroo Ram Kapila, a very prominent lawyer in Kenya, together with Denis Pritt, ChamanLal, Fitz DSouza and Jaswant Singh became advocates for the Jomo Kenyatta trial. Jomo Kenyatta would not then be freed, but in 1963 would become the First President of an independent Kenya. However, soon after independence of Kenya, most of these freedom fighters of Indian origin who were still alive were not to benefit any political role in the new government and would be completely sidelined.

Q) Did Indians face discrimination in Africa?

A) Apartheid in South Africa involved all groups. In Kenya, during the colonial rule, more particularly so during and after the declaration of the so-called Devonshire ‘White Paper’ in 1923 a quasi apartheid system was developed and started to be implemented to separate Europeans, Asians and Africans to give them different and unequal rights. Indians were given the role of coolies, babus, traders, dukawallahs, clerks, mechanics, masons, etc. Both the Indians and the Africans were denied access to ownership of land in the best reserved farming lands which became infamously known as the ‘white highlands’. Even residential areas in the capital and other towns were segregated. Schools were segregated…even toilet facilities in public places were segregated. As were hotels, restaurants, clubs, train compartments etc.

Q) How did India’s independence in 1947 affect Indians in Kenya and Africans in general?

A) The Independence of India was accompanied by the creation of Pakistan. The first consequence was that many Muslims of Indian origin felt sympathetic toward Pakistan, the Hindus, with India. At this time, both the groups were denominated as ‘Asian’. Nowadays this division is less important, and happily I have excellent relationships with both the groups.

Q) Are Indians in Kenya becoming more politicised now?

A) You will find political experts in Kenyans of Indian origin. Remember who was in-charge of the Constitutional Review Committee of Kenya? It was none other than Yashpal Ghai. Yashpal Ghai and his brother Dharam Ghai had also written a very important book on the socio-political history of Indians of Kenya. The daily newspapers of Kenya contain excellent articles written by journalists of Indian origins. We have very good lawyers, and jurists, as also social activists and humanitarians of Indian origin who are politically conscious and have contributed to the society. You surely know of people in-charge of the civil society who are uniting efforts with fellow Kenyans to improve things. Of course, one cannot ignore that like in all groups, the majority of people just want to live their lives.

Q) How do you see the relations between Indians and Kenyans now?

A) Do you mean that we are not Kenyans? I feel Kenyan. I want to be looked at as a Kenyan citizen and I support all the efforts of those who do not want tribalism and ethnicism to be used as a divisive tool of the people of Kenya.

In East Africa we have seen too often for political reasons Indians used as scapegoats of the difficulties and hard life of the majority of the people.

Soon after independence I remember when I was in school Indians were made an object of envy, of much hate. That’s because the Kenyans never saw the white man holding big companies. They could only see the Asians because it was the two-tier system built by the British. The Africans were at the bottom of the pile. They could only see Indians having some money and shops (dukas). But they never saw the white man holding big companies and banks.

The present situation is very interesting because the young people are getting much more exposure to each other. Today, the Kenyans of all origins have more access to each other. Another refreshing thing is that the young people don’t have the burden of colonial past. They have the same ambitions, same stories and same expectations.

There is more awareness about Indian culture. From Yoga, Bollywood, the ‘bindi’, salwar-kameez, chapatti, samosas, curries, to the language. The word duka in Swahili comes from ‘dukan’, shop in Hindustani. Kali, the name of Indian goddess, has come to mean terrifying and fierce in Swahili. The word harambee, which is a very important word in Swahili, has very interesting history. The Indian coolies used to chant Har Ambe – the name of Indian Goddess – while pulling together to build the railway line in the colonial times. Today harambee – which now means the spirit of solidarity – has become so important that parliament house is called Harambee House. Harambee was the most important word coined during Jomo Kenyatta’s time. Our own spoken versions of Indian languages here – Punjabi, Gujarati etc- have also taken up words from Swahili. Fagia, for broom, mchungwa for orange, kisu for knife…these are day-to-day words used in our colloquial language.

As an Indian classical dancer, I have already done some joint productions with African tribal dancers, musicians and acrobats. Now, it would be interesting for me to use my book as a point of reference for discussions in schools, colleges and other organisations and groups of all backgrounds in Kenya… and why not elsewhere?


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