The real reason why Kenya's Indian population were named as the 44th tribe of the country

The tale of a community that has for long suffered invisibility in the nation's political and historical discourse.

Kenyans of Indian origin have recently acquired recognition as the 44th tribe in the country after a declaration by the country's president Uhuru Kenyatta.

This was supposedly as part of an effort to integrate them into mainstream society, and to secure their rights in the country’s social and political fabric.

While making the announcement last week, the country’s Acting Cabinet Secretary for Internal Security Fred Matiang’i explained that the decision had been taken because “the government is committed to promoting national cohesion and integration”.

He added: “Now we don’t have to treat you as foreigners. We embrace you as our brothers and sisters. We will include you in all our country’s procession.”

Even though the acknowledgment was welcomed by many as long-due, others saw it as an extension of the skewed and divisive reality of tribal politics in Kenya.

And with the elections just a few days away, it seems as though the government has pulled an election stunt; hence undermining the community’s place and contribution to Kenyan society long before and after independence in 1963.

History of Indians in Kenya

The presence of the Indian diaspora in Kenya can be traced back to the 17th century. With British colonial rule being established in India, and then later in East Africa, the migration of Indians to Kenya received a newfound thrust.

The community has played a key part in nationalist uprising in Kenya and made several robust contributions in ensuring the country’s independence.

Despite all this, Kenyan-Asians and their relationship to Kenya has been somewhat fractious from the beginning.

Going back to the mid-1890’s when Indian migrants moved to Mombasa to construct the railway line, many of them lost their lives building the Lunatic Express, beleaguered by hungry lions and diseases.

They also faced challenges with acquiring citizenship and holding public service jobs. That did however not deter them from becoming successful entrepreneurs.

Economic Success

By the time Kenya became independent, 2 per cent of the population was composed of Indians where a good number of them were part of the retail, wholesale and manufacturing sector and also provided skilled labour.

The early 20 century saw a fresh inflow of Indians make their way into Kenya to emerge as the petty bourgeois class, serving semi-skilled labour to Europeans, Indians and Africans.

Their economic success has however been a tumultuous affair often viewed with suspicion and accusations of exploiting Africans. Even so, the community has made strides in joining upper echelons of society and securing positions in private and public sector firms.

Affluent members of the community such as the Aga Khan from the Ismaili Muslim community invested in independent media outlets, while those from the Sikh community built community centers, schools, temples, and hospitals all across the country.

To date, the number of Kenyan-Asians in the business sector has grown and it is no surprise to see them play a significant role in sectors such as the motor-vehicle industry, insurance, medicine and health care, banking, ICT and the legal profession among others.

Take for example tycoon Vimal Shah, whose wealth  Forbes once estimated at $1.7 billion. The 57 year old runs BIDCO, (one of the region’s largest consumer goods company), whose annual turnovers are in excess of $400 million.

Likewise, Manu Chandaria, a known philanthropist and manufacturing magnate in the country owns Comcraft Group, a billion dollar enterprise that has a presence in over 40 countries and whose annual revenues totalled to $2.5 billion in 2015.

Add to this list the likes of young Trushar Khetia who owns Tria Group, an out-of-home advertising company worth over $1 million,Atul Shah of the $400 million Nakumatt Supermarket, the once powerful deputy Chief Justic Karpana Nawal, among many others.

The Indian community's political and economic value in the country cannot be understated.

And for a community that has for long suffered invisibility in the political and historical discourse of the nation, the latest move by the Kenyan government to recognize Indians in Kenya as a tribe may be viewed as part of an effort to integrate them into the country's social and political fabric.


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