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Kenyans Of Indian Descent Seek Greater Recognition


For more than a century, Kenyans of Indian descent have played a big role in East African society, but they're also often seen as foreigners. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports that there's now a movement to change that. Asians in all their diversity want to be recognized as the country's 44th tribe.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Chanting in Hindi).

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Satish Shah shows me around the BAPS Hindu temple in Nairobi. It was built using African wood that was shipped to India, where it was intricately carved and then was shipped back to Africa.

SATISH SHAH: So it's unique and it's of its own kind.


PERALTA: Every morning at 6:45 without fail, dozens of faithful come to the temple. It's just outside downtown. And at sunrise its sandstone walls beam in the light, becoming one of the most stunning buildings in the city.


PERALTA: It becomes a symbol of the life that many Asians, as they are called here, have built in Kenya. Just across the city, I meet Farah Mannzoor at Sarit Center, which was the city's first modern shopping mall. It was also built by Kenyan Indians. Mannzoor is a fifth-generation Kenyan. Yet every now and then, she says, she's told to go back to India. She's treated like a foreigner. But she says...

FARAH MANNZOOR: My home is Kenya. I'm Kenyan by blood and soil. My forefathers are buried here. This is where I will die. This is where I will be buried.

PERALTA: Mannzoor blames a lot of this tension on the complex history of Asians in East Africa. Many were brought during the colonial period by the British to build the railroad. The Asians stayed on and became economic drivers. But social integration did not match their business integration, and through the '70s they were scapegoated and ultimately expelled from neighboring Uganda and Tanzania. In Kenya, former President Arap Moi would malign Asians and accuse them of exploiting Africans. After a failed coup to oust him in 1982, Kenyans reacted violently.

MANNZOOR: Our houses were looted. Our businesses were looted. Our women were raped. So Asians, out of fear, left this country.

PERALTA: Mannzoor and her family stayed. Despite the sting of rejection, she says, she's always felt Kenyan. And that reaction in the '80s always seemed out of place in a country as diverse as Kenya, which today is home to 43 tribes. This month, the Asian community led by Mannzoor officially asked the president to recognize Asians as the 44th tribe. In essence, he would be declaring Asians an intregal part of Kenyan society. For Aleya Kassam, an Asian writer who has been tackling issues of identity, that recognition would be a mind shift not just for black Kenyans but for Asian Kenyans, whom she says for reasons of survival and even because of some racism have always kept their eyes elsewhere, never really accepting that Kenya is their home.

ALEYA KASSAM: There was this thinking - and there still is - I'll put my head down, work as hard as I can, send my kids to private school, get private health care, build high walls, employ a lot of security guards and I'll be fine.

PERALTA: But things are not fine, Kassam says. In the past two years, her own family was violently robbed and they lost all their wealth in a bank scam.

KASSAM: We can't keep building higher walls. We've got to start participating and actively engaging for a better country for everybody. We can't keep thinking of just ourselves because that is not going to work.

PERALTA: Kassam went to college in Canada. When she was done, she had to make a choice - stay within the comfort of Western society or come back to Kenya and fight endemic corruption, poverty and tribalism to build a better country. She chose home. She chose Kenya. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.