The Bombay of East Africa

Asian and African Relations in Kisumu

This essay examines the issue of race relations between Asians and African communities in Kisumu. It examines the roots of Asian presence in Kisumu and explores the various levels of interaction between the Asian communities and black Africans in their business premises and residential quarters.

The subject matter of race relations has remained a controversial issue world-wide. This issue continues to attract enormous attention from scholars of all sorts. This is anchored on the premise of the extent to which dependent groups can harmoniously work together, while at the same time minimizing conflicts that could possibly cause social stagnation and untold suffering.

The construction and completion of the Kenya-Uganda Railway in 1901 heralded the arrival of Asians in the lake port city of Kisumu. After completing the railway, some of the Asian workers opted to settle permanently in Kisumu and opened shops and other commercial enterprises there.

The main reason behind the Asian immigration into Kenya and specifically Kisumu, which at that time was a colony, was to work as indentured laborers building the Kenya-Uganda Railway. Some Asian immigrants also arrived as artisans to help in building colonial administration structures while others came in as traders because their economic activities were deemed by the colonial government as important to the development of the colonial system in Kenya. Others arrived in Kisumu to visit relatives and opted to stay permanently.

Having arrived in the newly established Kenyan colony, Asians became quite handy to the colonial administration as well as to various economic activities in Kisumu. Asian presence in Kisumu increased considerably during the colonial period. Asians participated in many economic activities in Kisumu and markets around Kisumu. Neighboring markets such as Boro, Kendu Bay, Homa Bay, Ndere, Siaya, Rang'ala, and Luanda easily come to mind as some of the local towns inhabited by the emergent class of Asian traders.

Apart from conducting large- and small-scale retail business, Asians also carried out cotton and sugarcane farming, participated in the emerging transport business, and put up residential and commercial buildings in Kisumu, Boro, Homa Bay, Kendu Bay, Kamito, and Luanda.

The enterprising Asians transformed Kisumu into a well-known station for the distribution of imported goods such as clothes throughout Nyanza province and eastern Uganda. They transformed Kisumu into a major depot for gathering raw materials from rural African markets in the hinterland, and assembling them in readiness for export to places like Europe, Somalia, and Saudi Arabia.

Between 1910 and 1920 Kisumu became an important commercial center in the Great Lakes region. This was partly due to the Asian influence. Kisumu became a major axis where goods imported from outside of British East Africa percolated into the areas occupied by the Luo, Abagussii, Abaluhya, Abakuria, and beyond.

The population of the Asians in Kisumu expanded tremendously, attracted by the city's enormous economic opportunities. Many Asians made Kisumu a home away from home. In fact, during the colonial period, Kisumu came to be known locally and regionally as "the Bombay of East Africa."

The population of the Asians in Kisumu grew apace after Kenya achieved independence in 1963. However, this time it was not economic opportunities that attracted Asians to Kisumu in droves; something else was at play: politics. Due to political persecution in Uganda in the early 1970s during the reign of Gen. Idi Amin Dada, a large number of Asians started fleeing Uganda for Kisumu. In 1972, many Asians were expelled from Uganda by Gen. Amin Dada who argued that his government was determined to make the ordinary Ugandan a master of his destiny by empowering him to enjoy the wealth of his country.

Many Asians therefore fled Uganda to escape persecution by General Idi Amin Dada who singled them out for blame for Uganda's economic and political problems. This persecution was one of the factors that led to the immigration of a large number of Asians to Kenya, particularly to Kisumu.

Members of the Asian community have gone on to become one of the most important communities in Kisumu. They have transformed the demographic, social, economic and political profile of Kisumu. Many Asians have largely embraced members of other communities in Kisumu. A large number of Asians speak local languages, particularly Luo, fluently. They have put up schools to provide educational opportunities, and clinics to offer much-needed health services to the local people. They have participated in politics by voting and standing for elective political positions in the city. Shakeel Shabir, a member of the Asian community, is currently one of the Members of Parliament representing Kisumu. Asians have contributed enormously to the economic, social, and political development of Kisumu. There is no doubt about that.

Yet, although Asians have been at the forefront of the development of Kisumu, their relationship with the local people cannot be said to have been without controversy. In fact, a large number of Asians have been accused by local African communities of subjecting Africans to mistreatment, discrimination, and persecution. Although Asians have been victims of persecution in places such as Uganda, some of them have not shied away from perpetrating acts of discrimination and persecution on local African people. Their less-then-stellar treatment of local people has led to resentment, tension, and even outright conflicts with the local people. The recent destruction of an Asian religious [Sikh] monument in the middle of Kisumu city is a reflection of underlying racial tensions that have characterized the relations between Asians and the local people in Kisumu since the colonial period.

Racial tension between Asians and Africans can be said to have started with colonial occupation of Kisumu and other African territories by Asians and white settlers. The process of the dispossession of Africans of their land by white settlers and Asians during the colonial period led to landlessness and economic marginalization of Africans, who in turn blamed white settlers and Asian immigrants in Kisumu for their plight.

Racial tensions in Kisumu reached a boiling point when white settlers and Asians established a rigid three-layer racial system in Kenya during the colonial period, with the Europeans at the top, the Asians in the middle, and Africans at the bottom, a system oiled and lubricated by the colonial myth of European superiority over Africans. Under this system, Africans were subjected to open discrimination by white settlers and Asians. Africans were forced to live in their own spaces, separate from Asians and white settlers, go to their own separate schools, attend religious services in their own separate religious grounds, and lead their lives in their own separate residential quarters where the standard and quality of life was low, poor, and abysmal. This policy led to the emergence of segregated neighborhoods in Kisumu, with wealthy neighborhoods for Asians separated from poor neighborhoods for Africans.

Asian discrimination against Africans in Kisumu comes out more clearly in the economic sector. After Asians arrived in Kisumu with the Kenya-Uganda Railway, many of them became traders, a carder of mercantile intermediaries who facilitated the flow of goods between big foreign commercial business and local Kenyan markets such as Boro, Ndere, and Luanda. The Asians opened up shops [stores] in and around areas populated by Africans and eked out a living by selling basic goods such as salt, sugar, spices and sometimes fresh vegetables which they grew behind their shops. This naturally spawned off rivalry between Asian entrepreneurs and African traders.

Gradually, Asians started employing Africans as house servants or "ayahs" [maids/house helps/servants] to do the cleaning and cooking and looking after their children, but the problem is that many Asian employers paid their African "ayahs" poorly and subjected them to ill treatment. The conditions of work were terrible. Asians often subjected their African employees to verbal and physical abuse. Asian women never bothered to interact with their African neighbors or learn local African languages. The Asian women preferred speaking their own languages peppered with a small smattering of elementary Kiswahili to communicate with the African "ayahs."

Asians in Kisumu also employed Africans as security guards to protect their residential and business premises. There is no need guessing that the pay for these security guards was also atrociously low. The Asian employer usually gave his African security guard firm instructions not to allow any "strangers" -- meaning Africans -- into their [Asian] premises. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with baring "strangers" from one's home, the problem, in our view, is the mindset behind it: the notion that Africans are thieves and never-do-wells.

Many Africans claim that Asians generally perceive them as "thieves." They claim that this notion of Africans as "thieves" is so ingrained in the minds of many Asians that it is very common for Asians in Kisumu to close shop and barricade their business premises early in the evenings to avoid what they perceive as African thieves and criminals roaming around Kisumu looking for things to steal. As evidence, they point to the fact that a lot of Asian residential areas tend to be closed and ringed off with high barbed-wire fences. Indeed, many Africans claim that Asians do not usually allow Africans to visit them in their residences. In fact, Africans claim that, for them to be employed by an Asian, they must be "very well-known" to them before they can get that employment because, otherwise, they might turn out to be "thieves" out to steal from the Asian.

When you talk to Africans in Kisumu, you find that, while they acknowledge, recognize, and appreciate Asian contributions to the development of Kisumu, they are not very happy with the way many Asians treat Africans. They claim that their relationship with Asians in Kisumu is that of a servant and a master. Those who are employed by Asians claim that they are often forced to live in small, cramped houses known as "servants quarters" where conditions of life are very poor. Many Africans agree that, although this practice emerged during the colonial period, out of the practice of white settlers and Asians employing Africans as "boyi" [a house boy] and "ayahs" with separate compounds designated as "African servant quarters," they wonder why it should exist today. They chafe at the mindset that allows an Asian to instruct his African security guards to bar even an African acquaintance from visiting them at their homes (Ondiallo, 2006).

Many Africans therefore claim that Asians in Kisumu generally keep Africans at arm's length and treat them as less than human. At best, they claim, Asians view Africans as mere employees to be seen and not heard, and at worst as mere customers coming to buy goods and bringing them in their business premises.

In conclusion, although Asians have contributed immensely to the social, economic, and political development of Kisumu, their relationship with Africans has left a lot to be desired and can be better. Asians' place in Kisumu is secure, but their relationship with Africans could be better.

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