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Klaus 3: Colonial Kenya - a racially stratified society

Note: The segment below is taken from Chapter 11 (My Second World)
The book:
A Colonial Boyhood: Growing Up in Three Different Worlds (1999)
Author: (the late) Klaus de Albuquerque


It was British colonization that provided the major impetus for migration of Asians from the sub-continent to East Africa. At first the migrants came as indentured labourers, recruited to work on the Kenya-Uganda railway (1895). They were followed by voluntary migrants lured by the promise of jobs and of commerce. The expanding colonial economy had created a demand for clerical workers, skilled tradesmen, technicians, accountants, and the like, and British colonial policy encouraged the migration of skilled workers from British India. Indeed, at one stage ( 1910), Kenya (with the exception of the highlands), was envisioned as becoming a "second India". The typical business was a general store known in Swahili as duka, from the Hindi word dukarl, meaning shop. Indian dukas spread everywhere, from the large towns to the smallest towns, and were instrumental in promoting the money economy. For Africans to purchase goods, they now had to sell produce or livestock or work for money. My paternal grandfather [who arrived in Kenya in the late 19th century] made his living by buying and selling livestock and by exporting hides.

The major Asian ethnic groups were Cutchis, Sindhis, Gujaratis (Banya, Lohana, Bohra, Khojas), Punjabis, Parsees and Goans. They spoke Cutchi, Sindhi, Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Urdu, and Konkani, and represented various religious groups including the Ismailis (a branch of Shia Muslims). These groups built their own places of worship -- the Ismailis their jamatkhanas, and the Hindus and Sikhs, their temples. For Muslim Asians mosques already existed in all coastal settlements, and for Goans there were established Catholic churches.

The British authorities created occupational segregation among the various Indian ethnic groups by recruiting groups for different tasks. Punjabis generally worked on the railways and in the transport business (truck drivers). Goans were primarily karanis (clerks) and lower level civil servants. The Khojas (Ismailis), like the Gujaratis, entered business (the Agha Khan, their spiritual leader, as early as 1921, had identified Kenya as a place for Ismaili settlement). Colonial policy also insisted on segregated churches. At first certain back pews were reserved for Asians and Africans (my cousin Jules remembers having to sit in a back pew in a Catholic Church in the small highland town of Eldoret). Later on, missionary groups/religious orders, built separate churches for Africans, Asians, and Europeans.

The Kenyan apartheid system was designed to separate the races residentially, occupationally, socially, in transportation, religious worship, education, health care, and even sports. On the railways First Class seating was reserved for whites, Second Class for Asians, and Third Class for Africans. In fact, seating on the railways provides a concrete illustration of the racial stratification system that prevailed. In some places in the "white highlands", the colour bar was so severe that Asians and Africans were required to walk on one side of the street.

Asians occupied the middle tier in this system of apartheid. They were deferential to Europeans and for the most part they bought into the ideology of white superiority. One would have thought that the colonial experience would have united Asians, but because their numbers were substantial (177,000 in Kenya in 1962), and because they came from different parts of the Indian sub-continent, they clung to their separate identities. In addition, the colonial policy of benign neglect towards Asians, forced the larger ethnic groups to pool their own resources to provide for such services as schooling and health care. (The colonial government in effect expected that non-African education to be provided by the communities concerned). This encouraged ethnic communitarianism--so in Mombasa there was the Agha Khan School for Ismailis, the Goan School for Goans (which did admit a small number of non-Goan Asians), the M.P. Shah Primary, and the Allidina Visram School for Muslim Asians (which also admitted other Asians). Each of the communities (Punjabi, Gujarati, Goan, and Muslim Indian) were virtually self sufficient -- with their own places of worship, recreational and social centers, and in some cases, even social welfare centers.

Communitarianism was reinforced through inter-school competitions in football, hockey, cricket, and athletics. There were numerous sports clubs organized along ethnic lines -- the Arya Sports Club, the Sikh Union, the Hatim Karimjee Sports Club, the Goan Institute Sports Club, to name the best known. The Goans and the Sikhs would always end up in the field hockey finals. It was a bitter rivalry and the games never ended without one or two fights. These involved pushing, pulling, and the odd punch (no hockey sticks allowed), with the inevitable dislodgement of carefully tied hair buns. Since the Sikh players were much tougher than the Goans, our boys adopted the strategy of pulling off their Sikh opponents hair buns so their long hair would stream into their faces. Temporarily blinded, they became easy targets for punches, kicks and slaps. These fights sometimes would empty the sidelines and a whole melee would ensue. Finals would be replayed under tight security.

The various Sports Clubs would also have periodic fetes to raise money. The Goan fete was an all day affair. Numerous Goan delicacies were on sale and plenty of liquor to wash them down. We spent our money on "lucky dip" (sticking one's hand in a barrel to fish out a prize), the ring toss (over soft drink or beer bottles), darts to pop balloons affixed to a plywood board, knocking down a stack of cans with a tennis ball, and so on. The older folks played "tombola/housie housie" (bingo) in the shade. The field was a hubbub of activity. Sack races, three legged races, and wheelbarrow races (two people, one of whom was the wheelbarrow and would use his/her hands to propel the team forward). I would run out of money within the first hour, but there were always Uncles, Aunts, and family friends I could hit up for money.

Asians in their relationships with Africans manifested a superiority complex. Caught as they were in the middle of the colonial racial system, most Asians reduced Africans to customers and servants. In fact, Asian ethnic groups had their own derogatory terms for Africans -- for example, the Gujeratis called them "khaliya". Only a few Asians showed any kind of enlightened attitude towards Africans. Aong those who supported African nationalism were M A Desai (advisor to Harry Thuku, the father of Kenyan nationalism), Makan Singh and Pio Gama Pinto, a vocal supporter of the Mau Mau movement. India's High Commissioner to Kenya (1948-54) chided the Asian community for its sectarianism, and its racism towards AfricansHowever, most Politically minded Asians preferred to form their organizations (like the Kenyan Indian Congress) and were ambivalent about supporting African coounterpart organizations.

(END of Part 3)

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Last updated December  2007 Copyright Mahmood Fazal 2005 - All Rights Reserved Created By Husain Fazal