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The first person to openly demand independence in Kenya was the Asian trade unionist Makhan Sigh. For that he was detained for 11 years. The firebrand Leftist political strategist Pio Gama Pinto and many other members of the Asian community made tremendous contributions to Kenya. And how many people might know that the University of Nairobi, Kenya’s premier institution of higher learning, was intended to be a memorial for Mahatma Gandhi and that the initial funding for it came from the Asian community?

I was called to Bar here in London just over 55 years ago. June 16, 1959, to be precise by Lincoln’s Inn. A few weeks later I returned to Kenya.

The big law firms then were all European and before independence it was their stated policy not to accept Asian or African lawyers, even for articles. I was unable therefore to get any of them to accept me.

I thought of applying to the Crown Law office, and was invited for an interview by the Attorney General. I arrived at Sheria House and parked my car in the only parking space I noticed was empty.

As there was still time, I went for a cup of coffee to a nearby coffee house. When I returned, I found my car blocked by another car and a whole lot of policemen surrounding it.

A European came out of the building and spoke very rudely to me, asking why I had parked my car in the parking reserved for the Attorney General. I told him I had not seen any sign saying that it was reserved for the Attorney General. As he continued speaking rudely and almost shouting, I asked him who he was anyway to speak to me like that. He said he was the Attorney General.

Naturally I didn’t present myself for the interview.

Ten years later, I was invited to join the Office of the Attorney General as Assistant DPP and I parked my car in the same parking bay.

Throughout the colonial period Kenya, as you know, was segregated racially. Residential areas were reserved on a racial basis, so were hospitals, schools, clubs, hotels, and restaurants.

Toilets were marked European, Asian and African. Trains had compartments reserved for Europeans only. Even the National Museum was only opened to all races when Canon Leakey — the father of Richard Leaky — was appointed its curator in 1941 against outcry from the Europeans who disliked the idea of viewing the exhibits side by side with Africans who they claimed “were smelly” and Asians who they said were “over scented”.

That was in tune with Lady Delamere who had remarked that "to be within measurable distance of an Indian coolie is very disagreeable."

The Museum was established in memory of Robert Coryndon, a former Governor who died in 1927, and was officially opened in September 1930. It was initially open to Europeans only, despite the fact that the money for the forerunner of the Coryndon Museum established in 1911 was donated by Alidina Visram who paid for the one-story, two-room building.

Initially named the Coryndon Museum, it was renamed after independence as the Kenya National Museum.

Institutions racially segregated

The formation of the first Lions Club in Kenya was also provoked by the European exclusiveness of the Rotary Clubs in the country and thus has a predominantly Asian membership. Their most prominent and visible contribution is the Lions Eye Hospital.

Rotary now has several African and Asian members. As in Lions, the Asian members have played an outstanding part in various Rotary projects, including the Jaipur Foot project, which manufactures and fits artificial limbs and has to date fitted over 25,000, free of any cost to the recipient. They have also carried out hundreds of cataract and corneal graft operations.

Sadly, even the Masonic lodges, known internationally for promoting brotherhood, were in Kenya constituted racially.

It was only after Kenya’s independence in 1963 that the various racially segregated institutions slowly but reluctantly started to open up. Still, clubs such as the Muthaiga Country Club and Karen Club restricted their membership to Europeans for a long time even after independence.

In 1968 I was President of Kenya Lawn Tennis Association. The Secretary — a European — rang me to say that Thika Club was holding its annual tournament that weekend, and was keen to maintain its tradition to have the President of KLTA preside and for his wife to give away the prizes. I said it was fine with me, whereupon he asked me if I would nominate John Lang — a tennis player who was manager of the Standard Bank — to act as my representative. I asked why, and he said because as an Asian I would not be able to enter the club building.

And years after independence, Europeans still resented non-Europeans coming into the previously elite areas such as Muthaiga, which were restricted to Europeans. I bought my house in Muthaiga in 1970. On the day we moved in our dog was barking and our European neighbour — one Thornton who was editor of a Settler newspaper — shouted across the fence, telling my mother to stop the dog from barking. This is Muthaiga not Parklands, he told her. That evening I happened to see him at a cocktail party. I went up to him and told him that I was his new next door neighbour. And I said that whereas I am Indian, my dog is not. He is European — an Alsatian from Germany.

Throughout the colonial period the Europeans were entitled to be tried by an all-white jury, the Asians and Africans by a single judge assisted by three assessors who gave their opinions individually; they were not binding.

Winds of change

It was not surprising that it was only in August 1960 when winds of change were indicating that Kenya would be independent before long, that Peter Harold Poole a 28-year-old engineer who owned an electrical shop on the then Government Road, was the first and only white person to be hanged in pre- or post- independent Kenya. He was found guilty by an all white jury of killing his house servant who had thrown a stone at one of Poole’s dogs which had bitten him.

“May courage be rewarded in heaven,” shouted a white man, but “Justice has been done,” said an African who was promptly arrested by prison warders.

The Governor refused to exercise his prerogative of mercy. The settlers reacted with anger because they said “he had only killed a black man.” The then-Labour Under Secretary disagreed with the Governor’s refusal to grant a reprieve and said it was a mistake, while a Labour MP described it as “callous”. But a London newspaper — I believe it was the Times — commented saying, "all men regardless of colour became equal at the end of a rope."

The civil service then was almost entirely Indian with Europeans in managerial positions. The Post Offices, Railway and other establishments were run by Indians. There were a handful of African lawyers. This changed dramatically soon after independence, except for the judiciary which for several years after independence was still dominated by European judges and magistrates. So too was the case of lawyers in private practice until the 1970s when the focus shifted to African lawyers.

The medical profession too during the colonial period was dominated by Europeans and Asians. Government medical hospitals were run mainly by Asian doctors, most of whom were LCPS or LMP, a qualification less than MBBS.

Asian immigration to Kenya had began in earnest in 1895 when the British decided to build a railway and brought out workers from India to build it.

The first group of Indian workers to arrive consisted of 350 men who came in a dhow from Karachi in 1895. Each paid 35 rupees per person, inclusive of rations for the passage from India to Kenya. Each was allocated under a Government of India regulation nine square feet of deck.

Man-eating lions of Tsavo

More followed and disembarked at Mombasa, and by the time the railway reached Lake Victoria in 1901 there were 31,983 Indians working on the railway. Of these, 2,493 died in the construction — four workers for each mile of line laid— more than 38 dying every month during the six years.

A number of them were eaten by the man-eating lions of Tsavo until the lions were killed. One of the Indian workers had been devoured just outside his tent. All that remained was his skull, a few fingers, one of which had a silver ring. The ring along with his teeth were sent to his wife in India.

Lt Co. Patterson, an engineer ,commissioned to oversee the construction of a railway bridge over the Tsavo River had for many years stalked tigers in India.

He expected unquestioning obedience from the workers to their white master, but acknowledged that he had an obligation to protect them even, if they belonged to a lesser breed for which the lions "had conceived a most unfortunate taste", having taken fancy to the Indian vegetarian and organic flesh.

He managed to kill one of the lions on December 9, 1898, and the second on December 29, 1898, narrowly escaping being killed in the process. Both lions were over nine feet long from nose to the tip of the tail and at least eight men were needed to carry each to the camp. To this day, they are displayed in Chicago’s Field Museum.

The principal British Administrator at the time was John Ainsworth, who arrived in Mombasa in 1899 at the age of 25 to work with the British East Africa Company, and retired 31 years later as the Protectorate’s Chief Native Commissioner. One of the important things he did was to plant Tasmanian Blue Gum, or Eucalyptus, trees all along the edge of what was a swamp to drain it while beautifying the town. A typical colonist with a racist bent, he stamped his segregationist authority by marking Nairobi into seven districts, leaving the Africans to fend for themselves.

The Nairobi police station and jail were wood structures under corrugated iron sheets. They also accommodated the office of the Provincial Commissioner, the Magistrate, Inspectors and Indian sub-inspectors of police and supporting staff, mostly Indian who sat cross-legged on the floor behind tiny desks. All records in those early days were kept in Urdu.

Economic threat or competition

The structures were built by A.M. Jeevanjee who had been given by Ainsworth all that land from the Ainsworth Bridge, now the Museum Bridge, as far as Jeevanjee could run. Instead Jeevanjee, with Ainsworth’s agreement, asked his Pathan servant to run. He was given all that land up to just beyond the present Jeevanjee gardens and just before the now Biashara Street.

Interestingly, not so well-known nor publicised is the fact that the first lot of Indian immigrants to the United States also went there looking for jobs in the railroad, lumber and agricultural sectors. An estimated 7,348 Indians migrated to the US and Canada between 1899 and 1920. Some 2,000 of them, mainly Sikhs, worked on the Western Pacific Railroad constructed between 1903 and 1908, including a 700-mile stretch between Oakland and Salt Lake City, Utah. As in Kenya, they too encountered resistance and were perceived as an economic threat or competition to native farmers. They were prohibited from owning or leasing land, and an Immigration Act was passed in 1917 to prevent Indian labourers from entering the United States.

To make the Kenya railway viable, Governor George Eliot recommended the colonisation of the Kenya Highlands — which one Briton had said was tailor-made for English farms — and reserved the Highlands for the whites. "East Africa", he said, "is not an ordinary colony. It is practically estate belonging to His Majesty’s Government on which an enormous outlay has been made and which ought to repay that outlay."

White man's country

There were then 13 British settlers. Eliot sent his Chief of Customs, A. Marsden, to South Africa to attract more immigrants. Almost immediately every steamship that arrived from Durban or Capetown brought at least three dozen South African colonists.

They were followed by British, Australians, Germans and Europeans of other descents who came to live what they perceived a privileged lifestyle, compared to what they were accustomed to in Europe.

Not surprisingly, Indians and Africans were subjected to discrimination at the hands of these European settlers — a majority of whom then were from South Africa and had come with the ambition of making Kenya a White Man’s country.

In an effort to attract immigrants, the Foreign office had even considered establishing a colony of Finns, which did not come off. An idea was floated by Joseph Chamberlain, who was Colonial Secretary at the time and sympathetic towards the Zionist movement, to hand over a large part of Kenya to Russian and Polish Jews.

He confirmed the offer on a visit to Kenya in 1902. He offered the Jews 5,000 square miles or 3.2 million acres on the Mau Range northeast of Londiani station, with full self-government, a Jewish Governor and the right to practice their religion and customs.

The proposal was resolutely opposed by the settlers who felt offended that land ideally suited to them should be handed over to “Jews from the ghettos of Russian and Polish cities”. To the Jews, though, it was unthinkable that the Children of Israel might settle anywhere but in the Promised Land.

Colonel Ewart Grogan came to Kenya in the early 1900s and acquired sizeable portions of land. To term him a racist would be a gross understatement. His strong views regarding Africans can be summed up by what he had said and done.

“A sound system of compulsory labour would do more to raise the nigger in five years than all the millions that have been spent in missionary efforts," he said.

In 1908 he along with four friends flogged two rickshaw boys so viciously and for so long that one died and the other was hospitalised for three months. He was charged with murder but, as was the norm in the colonial Kenya, he was discharged by an all-white jury and convicted of common assault. He was sentenced to two months imprisonment with hard labour, which he spent sitting in a prison opposite the Norfolk Hotel.

Nor did he have any liking for the Asians. "We Europeans have to go on ruling this country and rule it with iron discipline," he had said. Echoing the sentiments, the Governor had said, "The average Englishman tolerates an African but he cannot tolerate dark colour combined with an intelligence in any way equal to his own."

Settlers were deeply disturbed

At the first session of the Indian Congress held at Mombasa in 1914, the Indians passed a resolution demanding equal rights for all and a common roll. The settlers were deeply disturbed at this demand.

Embittered by the oppressive government legislation aimed at them and the Africans, the Indians boycotted from 1919 to 1920 all government organisations, including the Legislative and Municipal Councils. There were no African representatives in those councils at that time.

The movement was spearheaded by M.A. Desai who revived the failing Nairobi Indian Association and was elected President of the East African Indian Congress in 1922. He remained President until his death in 1926.

The first generation of Western-ducated Africans were dissatisfied with the colonial practices and joined up with the Indians who constituted another group of underprivileged subjects. A prominent African nationalist at the time was Harry Thuku, a Kikuyu, who joined hands with influential Indians, including Desai, Mangal Dass, Suleman Virjee and A.M. Jeevanjee.

Over the years there had been notable contribution of several Asians to the fight against racism, a common role, and generally to the nationalist cause.

Girdharilal Vidhyarthi founded in 1933 the Colonial Times and he and his editor Haroon Ahmed, both outstanding journalists, played prominent roles in the development of nationalism in Kenya. Under the motto “Frank, Free and Fearless,” Vidyarthi’s radical and unwavering fight saw him convicted and sentenced to prison on three separate occasions.

First person in Kenya to demand independence

Collective post-war African Asian anti-colonial agitation was also reflected in Kenya’s growing labour movement. The movement was consolidated under the energetic leadership of Makhan Singh. Makhan Singh, who joined the Indian Trade Union in 1927, opened its membership to all workers regardless of race.

Makhan Singh was the first person in Kenya to demand independence. On May Day in 1950 he made an impassioned speech at Kaloleni Hall, Nairobi, where he demanded Uhuru sasa [freedom now!]. Two weeks after that speech, Makhan Singh was arrested and restriction orders were served on him. He was released in October 1961, after nearly 11 years.

On August 15, 1947, India became independent. Exactly a year later, Pandit Nehru appointed Apasaheb Pant as Commissioner General of India for East and Central Africa.

Pant played a strong part in Kenya’s struggle for independence and it was during his term of office that Kenya’s fight for independence intensified. When the British banned the Kenya African Union and sought to hunt down its leaders, he often gave them shelter and even hid them at his own residence.

He also provided them moral and financial support, which prompted Colonial Secretary Oliver Lyttelton to remark in a press interview in November 1952 that the Indian Commissioner’s office was acting "far beyond the Diplomatic propriety”. They raided his home and office, in spite of its diplomatic sanctity, and asked and succeeded in having him recalled to India

One other significant achievement by Pant was to organize the first ever scholarships for African students to universities in India. There are currently some 4,000 Kenyan students in India.

The trial of Jomo Kenyatta and five others — Ramogi Achieng Oneko, Bildad Kaggia, Fred Kubai, Kungu Karumba and Paul Ngei, who were arrested with him — took place in Kapenguria in a remote part of Kenya before specially appointed Magistrate Ransley Thacker. The six were defended by a battery of lawyers led by Dennis Pritt QC from London, Dewan Chaman Lal, a prominent Indian lawyer sent from India by Nehru, Dudley Thomson QC and a number of Indian lawyers. Prominent among them was A.R. Kapila who had recently established private practice.

"A Son of Africa"

Two Indians stand out more than the others for their direct support to Mau Mau — Ambu Patel and Pio Gama Pinto. Ambu Patel, a devout follower of Gandhi, arrived in Kenya in 1947. He sold books on Gandhi and soon became known to African leaders. When Jomo Kenyatta was imprisoned at Maralal, Patel took his daughter Margaret to work with him in his bookbinding shop. Most significantly, at great risk to his life, he distributed medical supplies and foodstuffs to Mau Mau fighters.

Pio Gama Pinto, was described by Joseph Murumbi as “A Son of Africa”. In 1954, five months after his marriage, he was detained. Following his release from detention after five long years, he once again immersed himself in the struggle for Kenya's independence and the release of Kenyatta.

On February 25, 1965, Pinto was shot at very close range on the driveway while waiting for the gate to open. He was with his daughter at the time. His assassination remains a mystery (although one Kizili Mutua was convicted for his murder.)

There were others like A.B. Patel, Fitz DeSouza, Channan Singh, K.P. Shah. J.M. Desai, Gathani and several others who were involved actively in the struggle for equality.

In 1972 Idi Amin ordered Asians to leave Uganda within 90 days. Sixty thousand Asians left Uganda almost overnight, which caused apprehensions among Asians in Kenya.

The majority of Asians remained in Kenya, despite these tensions. There was no large-scale Asian emigration, compared to that of the Europeans who were leaving Kenya in large numbers. The only exodus, as it was known of Indians, took place when Britain in 1968 announced changes to the Immigration laws meant essentially to restrict Asian immigration to the United Kingdom.

It had the opposite effect and many Asians who otherwise would have remained in Kenya decided to leave Kenya and enter Britain while they could. This was compounded by the Government introducing legislation purporting to correct the imbalance, which resulted in mass cancellations of licences of Indian-owned shops.

The policy to bring Africans into commerce was understandable but what was first described as Kenyanisation fast turned out to be a campaign of Africanisation. But it did not bear fruit, as most of the shops vacated by Indians were taken over by the only few Africans who were in a position to do so.

A number of Asians who took up Kenyan citizenship were appointed to senior positions in the Government, recognition unknown in the colonial period. They distinguished themselves in the Police, the Judiciary and the Civil Service.

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 all sectors, including education, health, social and welfare organisations. Though their early contribution in establishing schools and hospitals was to provide for their own community, these soon opened up for other races and today the Africans are the largest benefactors of that philanthropy.

Asian contribution to Kenya's health

The University of Nairobi is one such example. Not many who have graduated from it or are currently pursuing courses there are aware that the Nairobi University was intended to be a memorial for Mahatma Gandhi and the initial funding for it came from the Asian community. Today a bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi, clad in a simple dhoti and striding with his customary staff in hand, stands in the Gandhi wing on the second floor of the building. That statue is all that remains of the Asian contribution to the university, and Gandhi’s memory.

Asian contribution to Kenya’s health came at a very crucial time when hospitals other than the Kenyatta Hospital — then called the Kings African Rifles Hospital and later King George V Hospital , did not admit Asian or African patients.

The Platinum Jubilee Hospital built in Nairobi in 1958 was the first non-racial hospital in Kenya. The hospital is now known as Aga Khan University Hospital and is the most modern and one of the best equipped hospitals in Nairobi. It also houses a university.

The M P Shah Hospital is second only to the Aga Khan Hospital and, except in a brief initial stage, is open to all races. The hospital opened in 1958 and was named after Saldhana a Goan benefactor, and a wing was named in honour of the principal donor, M.P. Shah. Pandya Memorial Hospital in Mombasa is also one such example.

Less than 80,000 Asians now remain in Kenya and constitute less than 0.02 percent of today’s 40 million population. Their contribution in almost all sectors of the Kenyan economy and their contribution and support to various educational and welfare causes is therefore all the more remarkable.

Individuals and trusts — such as Manu Chandaria’s Chandaria Foundation, Naushad Merali’s Zarina and Naushad Merali Foundation and several others — contribute generously to several projects in Kenya.

The Jains, the Sikhs and a number of institutions through the Hindu Council and own their own initiatives have been active in putting up wells and connecting electricity in rural areas. They are providing free food to close to 10,000 needy people on a daily basis. The list is endless.

While the Asian contribution to development of Kenya is assessed principally in economic and political terms, it is important to appreciate that they opened up and expanded their activity to the remotest parts of Kenya and contributed in the education, health and welfare sectors.

Thus, the history and development of Kenya cannot be separated from that of Asians who are an integral part of that process.

Due largely to the segregationist policies of the colonial government before independence, the Asians lived, worked and socialised within their own communities and maintained what may be described as ‘only essential contacts’ with Europeans and Africans. This has changed over the years. The children of even the most uneducated Asian Dukawallas are today educated overseas and adept at mixing with people of all races.

Three elected Asian members of parliament

The hitherto rigid social patterns are undergoing changes and in time will further liberalise social contacts between Asians and Africans.

Many already have close business and social relationships, particularly with the equally well-trained and sophisticated Africans, and there is mixing within their own and with people of other races at various levels of society.

There are three elected Asian members in Parliament, all elected from predominantly African electorates, and one Nominated member. The President has made some high-profile appointments – Mrs Rattansi, for instance, as Chancellor of the Nairobi University — showing a very welcome non-racist bent.

Kenya we have today

The civil service is now almost 100 per cent African. The majority of lawyers, doctors and engineers are African and the Africans have a major participation in trade and commerce.

The women perform astoundingly well, be it in politics, as lawyers or in senior executive positions. The transformation that has taken place in the 50 years since independence has rarely been achieved in a developing country anywhere in so short a time.

Speaking during the visit of President Obama, President Uhuru Kenyatta said Africa is the world’s newest and most promising frontier and of limitless opportunity.

Gone are the days when the only lens through which to view Africa was one of despair and indignity. This country — this continent, he said, does not claim perfection but it claims progress. We are, he said, at the beginning of a great journey.

* Veteran Kenyan lawyer Sharad Rao is the Chairman, Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board.