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History About African Asians or The Afro-Asians in East Africa
This report is compiled thanks to efforts of Kenya National Museums of Kenya, in particular Josephine Thang'wa and Dr. Sultan Somjee (Curator, Department of Ethnography) with awareness funding from AfricanMecca for dedication to display the diversity treasure in our homeland.

Kenyans of Asian comprises Kenyan citizens who know Kenya as the only home they have ever had and will ever have, as their families have been in East Africa since the turn of the eighteenth century. Because they originated from the Indian sub-continent, but are fourth (or more) generation Africans, they prefer to be called 'Asian African'. An Asian African Advisory Committee was subsequently formed, and charged with the massive responsibility of representing the community's identity in a changing East African and global context; it then set itself to gather material objects, oral histories and photographs of the community for the establishment of a special exhibition.

As Dr Sultan Somjee, an ethnographic research scientist and curator of the Asian African project at the Museum puts it: "The Asian question is "Who are these people and what are they doing here?" They form a community that came from one continent, and has its homeland in another. It is not possible to satisfactorily understand this question without getting the Asian African community to define itself in the East African context. Naturally, a community that feels that its social identity is misinterpreted is usually also characterized by great uncertainty due to such misinterpretations. Dr Somjee feels that it is the responsibility of the present generation to define the Asian African identity question before history misrepresents the facts. Says Dr Somjee, "When I walk on the streets I am a chute or mhindi; both words have derogatory connotations; I belong to a people who are seen not to fit, or even to adjust to the perceived mainstream culture and lifestyles of the other communities in East Africa." Dr Somjee further explains his dismay at Asian Africans being defined by their economic contribution to this country. This definition is invalid in the African context, as materialism is viewed as a western ideology. Africans are a social people who define others by their customs, ethnicity, social setting by their culture in general. He feels that the definitions of Asian Africans as a "hardworking", "clever-minded" people create a stereotype that undermines the community and invites criticism from others.

Painstakingly, the Asian African Heritage Trust has collected pictures, furniture, and literature (both oral and written), from which they have created an impressive exhibition on the history and lifestyle of their community in East Africa. The exhibition, which had a colorful opening ceremony with over 1,500 guests in attendance - focuses on three levels: labor, intellectual, and social histories. The Asian African communities in Kenya have roots that go back to the first contact between the East African coast and India. History based on facts that were not recorded either in pictorial form or in writing, tends to be mythical and one-sided. But the history of Asian Africans can be clearly traced to 1896 when thousands of Indians migrated to Kenya to work as laborers and artisans on the new railway line. Starting in Mombasa, they laid the line piece by piece, without any machinery. In 1898, the railway reached Nairobi, then a scenic grassland that was referred to by the Maasai people as Enorobi, the place of cool waters. In this "place of cool waters", a tented-camp site was turned into a modest town over the next 30 years by masons, carpenters, and artisans from the Indian sub-continent. After the completion of the railway in 1902, a number of Asians remained in Kenya.
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The community continued to grow by further immigration and natural reproduction. The first Asians in this region were laborers, and it follows that Asians at this time constituted a large majority in the urban work force. It then comes as no surprise that one of the founders of the labor movement in this country was Makhan Singh who in 1949, together with Fred Kubai, formed the East African Trade Unions Congress, the first central organization for trade unions in Kenya. Asians settled most major towns along the railway line, like Nakuru, Kisumu, Voi, and Mtito Andei, and there are still reasonable numbers living in these towns today. One must only look at the early architecture of these towns to see the definite Asian influence. The exhibition vividly depicts the little thought about sacrifices that Asians endured to build and complete the railway; this is best summarized in one of the text panels: "2493 of these contract workers died. For every mile of the line laid four coolies died, averaging more than 38 workers dying every month in the period of construction from August 1896 to December 1901". These deaths were due to both disease, and terrible working and living conditions. The Man-Eating Lions of Tsavo were also a continuous threat while the Tsavo Bridge was being built. The lions were eventually gunned down by Lieutenant Colonel Patterson, an engineer in charge of the railway; for his efforts he was thanked in' a very demonstrative poem that is included in the exhibition. While much is known about Asian Africans as laborers and astute business people, little is known of their contribution in politics and law in Kenya. Yet over the years there has been notable contribution from people such as Joseph Murumbi, Kenya's second Vice-president, who was in the forefront of the struggle for independence during the emergency period. Murumbi was a member of the Kenya African Union (KAU), from which he represented, and sought support for, the views of oppressed colonized people in India and later in Britain, together with Mbiyu Koinage. Another prominent Asian African is Pio Gama Pinto, who was detained during the struggle for independence and whose assassination in 1965 remains a mystery (although Kizili Mutua was convicted for his murder).

The new 'Asian African Heritage' exhibition further highlights and acknowledges the contributions of other political activists like Alibhai Mulla Jevanjee, who donated Jevanjee Gardens in Nairobi's city centre as a public utility. Together with M. A. Desai, they sought to have equal rights for all people living in the colony. Their activities led to the Devonshire Declaration of 1922. Although Asian Africans were still not able to secure equal rights, the move contributed to the prevention of a fully blown racial segregation situation, as was the case in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Jevanjee was also the Editor of the East African Standard, a publication that exists up to this day (under different management).

In the early 1900s a concern of the Asian African community was representation in the country's Legislative Council. The Kenya Indians Congress dissolved itself and its records were handed to the National Archives. This was because the community considered that political activity should be based on nationality and not racial origin. The big issue was now Africanization versus loyalty to one's ancestral home. It was a time of great soul searching for the community, as they had to choose their citizenship. Those who chose Kenya as their country did so as a deliberate and conscious choice. The first Asian African Member of Parliament for Parklands constituency was Satish Gautama, who was elected by a large majority. Other aspects of Asian African lives are portrayed by an amazing array of pictures and other materials donated by Asian African families from their private photo albums or other personal collections.

There are collections from individual s like Mohammed Sadiq Cocker, a surveyor assistant who made explicit drawings of various places in the history of Kenya during the building of the Mombasa-Nairobi road; these include the Tsavo railway station and Kibwezi, among others. These drawings have remained in his family until they were offered for the exhibition. Also depicted is the Asian African contribution to agriculture, like 'Punjab Farm' owned and run by Kaherchand Kent. He had initially bought a farm in Limuru, but on realization by the colonial authorities that he was an Asian, the sale was revoked (Asians were not allowed to settle in the "White Highlands"). Consequently, "Punjab Farm" was located at Dandora, then in Ukambani province, which was not found suitable for white settlement. The exhibit also displays life-size dioramas of Asian African shops with the various merchandises that were typically found in them. While many of these original shops are gone, many architectural features can still be seen on Nairobi's streets today, like Bulls Café located on River Road and the Diamond Building on Moi Avenue. The photographs in the exhibition show the unique nature of Asian African culture through examples of clothing, weddings, prayers, family lives, and households; more importantly, they show how the community has maintained, respected and protected their colorful traditions over the decades.

In as much as Kenya's Asians are seen to be secluded, the community has over the years responded to the needs of the Kenyan society and has made notable contributions in education, health, literature and sports; the Social League, in the health sector, is run by volunteer doctors to provide health care for the needy members of society. There are over 300 books written by Asian Africans on different subjects, ranging from science to creative writing. Meanwhile, Shekhar Mehta and Joginder Singh are household names for motor rallying sports fans; and the late Mohammed Amin was internationally recognized for bringing the plight of drought-stricken Ethiopians to the world's headlines through his explicit and candid photographs. So after more than 100 years of being away from the Indian subcontinent, the Asian African community is commendably tackling the question of who they are and what their identity is in a homeland where they are visibly different from its other citizens.  They are not pure Africans, as their traditions derive from the Indian sub-continent; yet they are not pure Asians, as many generations know Africa as their only home.
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