Kenya's Asians: needed but not wanted. They're victims of their own success

Four years ago this month Rashid Mughal, a Kenyan journalist, defended his family with a hockey stick from a mob of angry slum-dwellers. Hundreds of them swarmed through the Asian man's home, stripping the house bare of every possession, including the bathroom and kitchen fixtures. Several times the rabble threatened his wife and small children at knife point. The ordeal lasted six hours. When it was over, the family was left only with the clothes on their backs and their Kenyan citizenships.

Like many of the Asians who live in this East African nation, the family was the target of a smoldering racial hatred -- a hatred that burst into flames in August 1982, when thousands of Nairobi's black urban poor joined rebels from Kenya's Air Force in an abortive attempt to topple the regime of President Daniel arap Moi. Chaos ensued, as the rioters directed their pent-up frustration and anger at the conspicuous wealth of this minority community.

Looters ignored many of the shops belonging to Africans, and instead broke into those owned by Asians -- a term used here for people of Indian or Pakistani origin. Of the $100 million damage incurred, about 90 percent fell upon Asians.

Before Kenyan Army troops subdued the uprising, rioters beat up scores of Asian men. Asian women and girls were raped.

But despite all this, Mr. Mughal chose to remain in Kenya, the country of his birth. Asia, he says, holds no opportunity for him.

The ironic truth is that Asians are needed in Africa, but not wanted. This hard-working, entrepreneurial community has fallen victim to its own success.

The Asians' monopoly on the wholesale and retail business has made them economic scapegoats; they are routinely blamed for black Africans' declining living standards and shrinking incomes.

The 70,000 Asians who live in Kenya -- the largest Asian population on the continent outside South Africa -- are thought to contribute about one-third of the national gross domestic product.

In the years since the 1982 coup attempt, black resentment toward Asians has frequently surfaced here. An August 1983 editorial in the government-owned Kenya Times said public opinion deemed the Asian community ``wealthy, mean, secretive, insular, and contemptuous of the African majority.'' And this past June -- when President Moi urged African Kenyans to assume control of their economy -- the cry for ``indigenization'' was taken up by politicians.

``If you walk on some of the streets in Nairobi and other towns, you might think you are in Bombay,'' said Francis Thuo, a member of Parliament.

As a result of this attitude, Asians are periodically subjected to punitive measures designed to adjust the economic disparity. In 1969, 3,000 Asians who decided against exchanging their British passports for Kenyan ones were forced to give up their businesses. Many have had their licenses for retail and wholesale shops withdrawn. Frequently the new African proprietors have invited the former owners back when the businesses failed to make a profit.

But, at the same time, Kenyans say privately that the country's economy would collapse if Asian finance and managerial talent were to be withdrawn.

``We may lambaste them in public, but we know that they are with us for at least another generation,'' confided an African businessman in recognition of the uneasy symbiotic relationship that exists between the two races.

The recognition of that relationship is subtly reflected in government policy. By comparison with neighboring nations, the Kenyan government has maintained a tolerant, hands-off stance toward Asians. The state-owned radio broadcasts in Hindustani six days a week. Three years ago, the Hindu religious festival of Diwali was legalized as a national holiday.

In return, Asians take pains to demonstrate their patriotism. After the 1982 coup attempt, they took to the streets with pro-government demonstrations and sent cables of support to Moi.

But the 20-million-odd Kenyans of African origin treat this professed allegiance with some skepticism. The Africans -- sometimes with just cause -- have accused the Asians of dabbling in smuggling and of taking money out of the country on the black market.

Meanwhile, experience has demonstrated to the Asian diaspora that it can not sink its roots very deep in Africa. The history of Asians on the continent has been marked by one exodus after another.

In 1972, Uganda's former dictator, Maj. Gen. Idi Amin Dada, expelled nearly all of his nation's Asian population of 45,000. Nine years later, Milton Obote, who returned to Uganda as President after General Amin was ousted in 1980, invited the Asians back. Only about 2,000 took up the offer. Many of those who were thrown out have since turned their business acumen to becoming millionaires in Britain.

During the 1960s, when Tanzania's nationalization program routinely included some Asian shops and buildings, thousands of other anxious Asian community members emigrated to Canada and Britain, fearing that their means of livelihood would be seized. In Kenya, more than 100,000 Asians have emigrated since independence in 1963.

Most of those who remain are Kenyan citizens, such as Salim Manji, the Ismailian managing director of a large food manufacturing company here.

``There is no fallback position and none is sought. Ours is a long-term commitment in terms of generations,'' he argues, dismissing the often-repeated accusation that he and his colleagues have ``one leg out of the country.''

Mr. Manji has never been to India, even though his grandfather came from there. The senior Mr. Manji arrived in Kenya as a trader in the wake of the arrival of 20,000 Gujeratis, Sikhs, and Punjabis who were brought here between 1895 and 1902 to build the railway line that links the Indian Ocean to Lake Victoria.

Under British colonial rule, Asians were not allowed to own land in the fertile highlands farmed by British settlers. Instead they engaged in trade and occupied mid-level positions in the administration, forming a social and economic buffer between whites and blacks. The British settlers discriminated against them just as they did against the Africans. One odd legacy of this discrimination is that many of today's Asian adults did not learn to swim until they were middle-aged -- largely because they were barred from public swimming pools in their youth.

But they have not turned their former lack of privilege to their advantage by using it as a badge of national identification. Comparatively few have held political office. The last Asian to be elected to parliament was Krishna Gautama, whose term ended in 1983.

Individual Asians here are often generous in their personal contributions to charities. But Asian communities -- be they the Hindus, the Muslims, the Jains, the Parsees, or other sects -- have failed to create a reputation for commitment to development through community support. It is only the Aga Khan's Ismaili sect that has had the vision to invest in Kenya's infrastructure and social services. The Aga Khan's business empire sponsors 15 schools and three hospitals.

The Asians are fragmented into separate religious communities here. As such, they are essentially leaderless. They have no ultimate spokesman to barter for their rights, no institution of last resort to protect them when guns are fired and soldiers strut the streets.

The multiple Asian sects are introverted and closely knit; they rarely intermarry or operate together commercially.

This lack of Asian solidarity is perhaps the greatest deterrent to the Asians' much desired security of tenure in their adopted continent.

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