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Friday, 30 March, 2001, 12:37 GMT 13:37 UK
Identity problems in Kenya
Rasna Warah at home with Gray
Rasna Warah relaxing with her husband Gray
Rosie Goldsmith reports on the continuing difficulties of integration for Kenya's Asians.

Rasna Warah speaks English, Swahili and Punjabi; she dresses in the salwar kameez of Asia but wears African necklaces.


Rasna is opinionated, flamboyant and one of only a handful of Asians in Kenya to marry an African

I walk into her flat in Nairobi, hear South African music on her CD, sit down on her Rajasthani mirror cushions and eat North Indian food - with a group of Sikhs, British friends, and her Kenyan African husband, Gray.

He has also invented the perfect African-Asian fusion food, so that they never fight about what they eat: maize meal with Indian sauces. In Rasna's flat the cultures sit happily together but in Kenya, as I found out, they do not.

There are only 70,000 Indians in Kenya - about a quarter of 1% of the population. The majority are descendants of the workers on the Mombasa-Kampala railway.

Multiple identities

Rasna is fourth generation Kenyan Asian - her great-grandfather came here from Lahore, then part of India. When it became part of Pakistan her family lost their ancestral home.

Building the railway in the nineteenth century
Asians arrived in Kenya to help build the Mombassa-Nairobi railway
So, is she from the Indian sub-continent or from Kenya - where she was born - or is she really Western - she was educated in the West, after all?

Rasna has written a book called Triple Heritage - trying to sort out where she belongs - but one book and a lot of publicity later she is still not sure. "It's so exhausting being Asian in Kenya," she groans.

She has herself to blame for her notoriety: most Asians here keep their heads below the parapet. They beaver away in business, doing well, shop in their own shops and do not really mix much with the Africans.

Speaking out

But Rasna is opinionated, flamboyant and one of only a handful of Asians in Kenya to marry an African.


It's so exhausting being Asian in Kenya

Rasna Warah
She and Gray married secretly and it took her a long time to tell her mother, who still does not accept him.

"She's been practising voodoo on him," Rasna laughs," she is always sending us her pickles and without fail Gray and I have an argument after we have eaten them.

"Finally I admitted to him that it was my mother sending them and he said: 'That's the reason! You know, in Africa we never eat food sent by our enemies!"

Rasna's story is about misunderstandings and persecution.

Targets

In 1972 she was 10 years old. She remembers standing on Nairobi station with her father watching the trainloads of Ugandan Asians pouring in from Kampala. Idi Amin had just expelled 80,000 of them for - as Rasna said - "their economic visibility".

Then in 1980, in next-door Tanzania, she remembers the government nationalising Asian businesses and in 1982, during the chaos of Kenya's military coup, Indian shops and homes were looted and Indian women raped.

The Asians of East Africa have often been scapegoats.

Idi Amin
Idi Amin expelled Asians from neighbouring Uganda in 1972
Today the economy in Kenya is going from rocky to rock bottom. The Asians, who are the country's main traders, bankers and manufacturers, are seen as the successful ones and, as told to me by one African friend, "taking our jobs away while we live in poverty".

As Rasna tries to shout down the barriers and stereotypes - on both sides - she also criticises her own people for their social and cultural isolation.

But, she explains they had to be self-sufficient: abandoned by British colonialists and post-war governments, they had to make their own way. And they have not been allowed to turn their economic success into any political representation and remain politically powerless.

Election pressure

Next year Kenya goes to the polls - only the country's third democratic elections. The first two were unhappy experiences for Kenyan Asians.

Race and tribal allegiance mean everything in Kenya - whatever your roots - and ethnic rivalry is actively exploited to divide and rule.

"Some politicians," Rasna says, "still talk about expelling Asians from Kenya and try to blame us for what's happening here. But the truth is," she continues, "the economy is doing so badly many people are having to leave anyway - and not just the Asians, anyone with ideas and energy.

"The worst thing that might happen to us as a group is that we just dwindle and fade away."

Rasna will not leave. Today she says she is lucky to have this triple heritage and with a mischievous wink promises to be more subdued: "I'm not going to make a fuss," she tells me, "if the country is on fire you don't complain because everyone is in the same boat."

And it is true, everyone I meet is moaning about corruption and chaos, drought and poverty.

But in her claret-coloured salwar kameez, flashing red lipstick and chunky Ethiopian jewellery, Rasna Warah is the embodiment of integration.

I cannot imagine her fading meekly into the background.

She has boldly exposed her own story and that of the Kenyan Asian community, warts and all, and says "Look a hundred years have passed! Here we are! In spite of our roots we are Kenyan too!"

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See also:

24 May 00 | Africa
Kenya's Asian heritage on display
06 Feb 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Kenya
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