Kenya's highly visible Asians: prosperous but isolated

Turn a corner in downtown Nairobi and you enter an Asian bazaar. The smell of onions, curry powder, and chili peppers wafts from open storefronts that stretch for two blocks on both sides.

The bazaar is much more than an object of curiosity. These Asian shopowners, most of whom are of Indian or Pakistani descent, are struggling to find a new sense of identity in Kenya. The outcome of their effort could be vitally important to the economy of this once prosperous but now troubled African nation.

A coup attempt in Kenya eight months ago underscored the precarious existence of the Asian minority of about 70,000. The coup bid quickly turned into a binge of looting and lawlessness against the Asian community. Shops and homes were destroyed, men were beaten, and women raped.

It doesn't take much imagination for Kenya's Asians to see themselves being eventually hounded or expelled from the country, as happened in neighboring Uganda during the tyranny of Idi Amin.

''After Aug. 1 (the date of the unsuccessful coup bid) many eyes were opened, '' says Indian business consultant Shaelesh K. Adalja. ''We saw clear proof that the previous relationship between Asians and Africans was wrong and unsuccessful , and to continue it was to ask for more violence.''

He says there is considerable ferment in the Asian community now as it assesses its role in Kenya. Asians have faced hostility in Kenya since the British sent them here to build a railroad at the turn of the century. Nonetheless the Asians have prospered.

Mr. Adalja has stirred heated debate with a series of articles in the Nairobi newspapers calling on Asians to ''reform their attitudes'' in order to end friction with the black African majority.

Mr. Adalja has chastised his own neighbors and friends for being ''racially ignorant'' and considering themselves Asians first and Kenyans second. Many have tried to live a best-of-both-worlds existence by enjoying business profits in Kenya while illegally sending large amounts of money overseas and holding foreign passports (mainly British) in case they want to leave the country some day, he says.

The African view that the Asians are profiteers is apparently widespread. Kenya President Daniel arap Moi criticized the Asian community prior to the coup for smuggling currency out of the country and hoarding essential goods while Kenya was experiencing economic hardship.

The idea of assimilating more into the Kenyan culture no doubt offends many Asians. There is very little social integration between black and Asian Kenyans, say close observers. Interracial marriages are considered taboo.

Adalja says his campaign for Asian reassessment of their attitudes and role toward black Africans is making headway, if for no other reason than many Asians realize they have little choice if they are to remain in Kenya.

The other option is to leave the country. While the fears of a mass exodus after the coup bid have proven exaggerated, members of the Asian community say a number of families have begun ''diversifying.'' By that they mean sending a daughter or a son overseas, to Britain, Canada, or the United States to establish a ''foothold'' for the rest of the family, should they later decide to emigrate.

Any serious exodus of Asians would hurt Kenya severely. Although Asians represent less than 1 percent of the population, they control more than 60 percent of the retail businesses in the country's cities and towns.

This means the Asians are a vital cog, far out of proportion to their numbers , in Kenya's free-enterprise economy. By the same token, however, this prominence also puts them in a position of high visibility to the African consumer.

It is this high visibility that has led to friction and made Asians a scapegoat for the frustrations of black consumers, who are being battered by inflation of more than 20 percent per year and a worsening economy, say observers.

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