At least that’s what the Lonely Planet will tell you. And indeed, you see many restaurants all over Nairobi that offer authentic Indian cuisine. You also see Om signs on buildings, men wearing the traditional turban of the Sikh creed and women wearing saris. In short: Kenya is home to a lot of people of South Asian descent.¹
Many of their forefathers and -mothers were brought to Kenya by the British colonialist rulers to build railways and serve them as clerks. But there was also some independent immigration from India, which was looked upon favorably by the Empire. Supposedly, they thought that a little influx of people from one of Britain’s most stable and successful colonies into one of the newer ones would benefit the economic development of the latter.²
Nairobi is a very diverse city, which becomes quickly apparent to the beholder. Of course, the majority of its inhabitants are black Kenyan natives, belonging to over 40 different tribes. Then there are the wazungu, many of them expats who are working for one of the seemingly countless international organizations here.
Of course not all immigrants are white: There is also a constant movement between Kenya and several Asian countries, mostly due to econonomic ties, as well as an influx of Refugees, like from the failed state Somalia.
And somewhere in between, there is also a layer of Kenyan natives of Indian descent. They have their own temples, markets and neighborhoods. On average, the standard of living of an Indian Kenyan seems to be far above that of their black compatriots.
Indeed, Indians are a force to be reckoned with in Kenya’s economy. Even before the British colonialists, Indian merchants were active on the country’s coast, as well as in the lesser exploited interior. Good estimates for today’s situation are hard to find, but it’s commonly said that while constituting only around one percent of the population, Indians control about 30 to 40 percent of Kenya’s economy.
This economic imbalance, in combination with the limited efforts to mingle with one another on parts of all ethnicities, contributes to many Kenyans’ rage about the inequal distribution of wealth. A short bust for the reputation of Indian Kenyans among their fellow countrymen came with the attack on Westgate mall, during which some of them reportedly showed extraordinary courage, sacrificing their own lives for those of others.
Kenyans of Indian descent have a difficult task to master: balancing their Kenyan patriotism and the pride of their Indian heritage, all while being eyed suspiciously by their surroundings for signs of them not being “Kenyan enough” or “Indian enough”. As bloggerwrites: “My blood, sweat and tears belong to Kenya. But the sweat probably smells a little like curry.”
¹ In colloquial Kenyan language, the term “Indian” is used to refer to all people of South Asian descent. “India and Pakistan were one country until 1947 and most of the immigrant in East Africa today immigrated to the region before Indian independence in 1947 when the sub-continent was split into India and Pakistan. So, in a way, the term ‘Indian’ is the appropriate designation even for those who came from Pakistan.” Godfrey Mwakikagile (2007): Kenya: Identity of a Nation, pp. 100/101
² See Ingrid Laurien (2015): Kenia. Ein Länderporträt, p . 37