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Wednesday, 24 May, 2000, 20:11 GMT 21:11 UK
Kenya's Asian heritage on display
Kneayn Asian exhibition
Some rail-road builders were killed by lions
By Ruth Evans for BBC News Online

In the Kenyan capital Nairobi, the National Museum is running an unusual exhibition of historical photographs, documents and displays marking the centenary of the construction of the Mombasa-Kampala railway.

I have always been uncomfortable about the way my people have been represented

Exhibition Curator Sultan Somjee
It is an unusual exhibition because it shows the contributions made by the Asian labourers who came to Africa to build the railway.

It is the first such exhibition of modern Kenyan life by the museum - which is famous for the archaeological treasures that established East Africa as the cradle of mankind.

The exhibition, which opened in March, has proved so popular that it has been extended to run until October.

Indentured Indian labourers

A party of Kenyan school children steps gingerly onto a creaking replica of a wooden dhow.

Boats like this brought the early Indian traders and settlers to East Africa, establishing Asian communities all down the coast from Lamu and Mombasa to Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam.

Kenyan exhibition
2,500 workers died during the construction of the Mombasa-Kampala railway
It was the building of the Uganda railway from 1896 to 1901 that brought the biggest influx of Asians to Africa, with some 32,000 indentured Indian labourers imported to East Africa by the British colonisers.

Many of the workers already had experience of building railways in India.

Nira Kapila's great grandfather was amongst them, arriving in Kenya with three of his sons to work as a cashier on the railways.

"A lot of people were not aware of where their roots were, " says Nira.

"We are getting a lot of very interesting material that people are digging out about their history."

Man-eating lions

The railway was notoriously difficult to build and the price paid was enormous.

Now I know who I am. This has been the missing link

Young Asian at Kenyan exhibition
About 2,500 workers died during the construction of the railway - four for each mile of track laid.

Much of the track ran through the inhospitable territory of what is now the Tsavo Game Park, and some of the workers were killed by man-eating lions.

Wonderfully detailed contemporary sketches by an Asian surveyors, Mohamed Sadiq Cockar, displayed in the exhibition, show workers sleeping in trees to avoid being attacked by wild animals.

Sultan Somjee, a fourth generation Kenyan-Asian, is both the creator and curator of the exhibition.

Kenyan Asian exhibition
The railway was notoriously difficult to build
"I have always been uncomfortable about the way my people have been represented," he told me.

"There has been a remarkable vacuum or lack of understanding in the way African-Asians were represented and this is what I wanted to bring out in this exhibition."

His efforts to put the record straight have taken six years to bring to fruition.


The author Shiva Naipaul once described the East African Asian as "the eternal other".

A lot of young Africans have only heard about money-making Asians, but now they realise that there are others who are as Kenyan as they are

Nira Kapila
Anti-Asian feelings and resentments, especially over their perceived economic successes and commercial pre-eminence, were fuelled in the 1970s when 80,000 people of Asian heritage were expelled by Idi Amin in neighbouring Uganda.

In Tanzania, anti-Asian feelings spurred the programme of nationalisation in 1980, and in Kenya, Asian homes and shops were looted during the unsuccessful coup attempt of 1982.

This prejudice against them has been inadvertently reinforced by the Asian community itself, with its custom of holding itself culturally and economically apart.

They tend to live separately, be educated separately, shop separately and rarely mix or marry outside their own groups.

They are perceived as a homogenous and exclusive community, despite the fact that the differences between the different religious and cultural groups within the Asian community - between Hindus and Moslems, between Goans and Punjabis - can be as deeply divisive and mutually exclusive as those dividing Asians from their African neighbours.

All Kenyans?

So, can an exhibition like this do anything to improve understanding and defuse the dangers of ethnically-based politics?"

There's a lot of excitement about this

Nira Kapila
A lot of young Africans have only heard about money-making Asians, but now they realise that there are others who are as Kenyan as they are," says Nira Kapila.

"People think the photographs are splendid. They never realised they had such a rich heritage. There's a lot of excitement about this. For Asians themselves it is overwhelmingly emotive."

Exhibition organiser Sultan Somjee hopes that the exhibition will improve understanding between the various communities in Kenya and enable Kenyan-Asians to play a fuller role in their African home.

The organisers hope the exhibition will both reflect changing times and challenge the stereotypes about the Asian community, acknowledging that the Asian community is as much a part of modern Kenya, as any other tribe.

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See also:

10 Apr 00 | Africa
Kenyan land grab call
03 Nov 97 | Africa at 40
Forty years of African history
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