Monday, 26 September 2011

Kenyan Indians - Wahindi


Before starting for Nairobi, we already knew from our internet research that there are a lot of “Indians” in Kenya. But after we land, the numbers still hit us. The land did not seem to be “foreign” at all – there were Wahindi all around. Locals constantly talk to us in Kiswahili assuming we would know it – the kind of people that they are used to can speak it fluently. We were amazed to see Bollywood movies not only being screened here, but new movies being released here the very same day as they were being released in India. When we were house hunting, we did not come across any apartment block which did not have a Mhindi. In fact in our current apartment, where the houses are practically touching each other, we have cross window Hindi exchanges with Wahindi neighbours. The way the locals pronounce Mhindi – the word for all South Asians in Kiswahili, it sounded like Mwindi or Muindi. Only when I started writing this down, did I realize that it was Mhindi (plural Wahindi) – and now it makes perfect sense.

You go to any mall, any decent sized shop – the owner turns out to be a Mhindi (like all construction contractors are Wachina – before you know it plumber will tell you how bad the plumbing is, the driver will tell you how bad the road is). Even when we have travelled to places outside Nairobi, for instance Nakuru, we have seen businesses run by Wahindi. I am yet to see the coast, so can not comment on Mhindi population there – am eager to see their coverage - the sea would have been seen many journeys to and fro. My driver told me once that Mhindi and Kikoyo are the two races who know how to run businesses, but they would not teach that to others. They will only uplift their tribes. 

All butcheries (where you get meat from beef to fish) that we have been to are owned by Pakistanis. Only exception that I have found so far is an exclusively fish shop owned by a Bohra. The extra thin Pakistani Shan Sewai is available here (unimaginable in Pune), so there was absolutely no struggle for a culinary challenged person like me to prepare the Eid sewai. I remember one time that I prepared with the Pune sewai, the sewai turned out to be more like thick chocolate strings. After that fiasco, sewai was imported from Allahabad every time.

Socially Wahindi are part of the elite. Like all Nairobi elites, they stay in electric fenced apartment blocks with askaris & sniffer dogs guarding them. They travel in cars with blackened windows put up (especially the newly arrived ones). They have local house keepers, nannies and drivers. In fact in elite joints like malls, they thrive as almost the majority. They are part of the elite who occasionally get mugged. In Nairobi, we would come across people walking all across the city – but very rarely find a Mhindi walking outside malls or parking areas.

So who are these Wahindi – some are obviously the new age “follow the job” travelers like us. But Wahindi in Kenya have a long history spanning multiple generations. To get some answers I Google. It all started long back – Periplus, a first century AD document describes Indian trade ships at East African coast. Vasco da Gama went to Kozhikode from Malindi with the help of a Gujarati navigator. Although Portuguese conquest of the coast from 1497 onwards resulted in a decline in the trade, the Indians managed to hang on by becoming the accountants and bankers. Sultan Said’s transfer of court from Oman to Zanzibar in 1840 and British East Africa Association operating from Bombay in 1887 and its later avatar Imperial British East Africa Company (reminds me of East India Company) operating out of Mombasa in 1888 marked the turning points in trade and migration. Indians also came as indentured laborers with British to build the railway from East African coast to Lake Victoria (1896-1902). Most of the laborers returned to India at the end of the contract, but the news that spread brought many others. So here we have an assortment of people mostly from Gujarat and Punjab – all seeking prosperity in one way or the other and eventually deciding to settle.

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