An Indian safari in Nairobi, with samosas and biryani (Letter from Nairobi)

May 3rd, 2009 - 1:43 pm ICT by IANS  

By Manish Chand
Nairobi, May 3 (IANS) Chapatis are for Christmas and biryani is for weddings. And samosas are forever. Traces of India and Indians can be found just about everywhere in the leafy, sunlit streets of the Kenyan capital that is fast emerging as an economic magnet for the East African region.

If you are not feeling hungry and looking for a bit of an escape, take a ‘gaddi’ (vehicle), ask your driver to put on a Bollywood number (he is sure to have the latest CDs), and go on a safari to one of the game parks Kenya is famous for.

Cultures and languages intersect effortlessly in Nairobi. There are all-Indian malls, the Indian Bazaar, any number of Indian restaurants offering a mouth-watering variety of Indian cuisine and theatres showing Indian films.

With waiters dressed in colourful Indian attire and sentimental Hindi film songs sweetening the air, Haandi in Westlands is a big draw with Indians as well as Africans and expatriates craving for Indian food and a taste of India. You can get the best chilli paneer, chicken madras, methi naan, fish masala and paneer lababdar at Angithi in Parklands. Mayur Restaurant, above the River Road roundabout, exudes a quintessential Indian ambience, leaving you with a feeling that you never left India.

Indian words and expressions have flowed seamlessly into Swahili, the lingua franca of Kenya, East Africa’s biggest economy and home to nearly 75,000 persons of Indian origin.

“Indians are everywhere here. They have been living here for many years. They are known for their smart business sense,” says Fred Maganda, a manager of a telecom company at City Centre, the business hub of Nairobi.

Maganda points out that most retail businesses in Nairobi and other main cities like Mombasa are controlled by Indian ‘dukkawalas’ (shopkeepers).

Trade is clearly the forte of Indians.

“The heady whiff of trading opportunities has been bringing Indians to Kenya and the East African coast for centuries much before the large-scale migration started during the construction of Uganda Railway,” says Blanche Rocha D’ Souza, a Kenyan of Goan origin.

She has authored the book, “Harnessing the Trade Winds: The Story of the Centuries of Indian Trade with East Africa using the Monsoon Winds.”

Kenyans of Indian origin now contribute 30-35 percent of Kenya’s GDP.

Businessmen like A.M. Jeevanjee, who made a fortune in Zanzibar and Kenya in the early 20th century, have become part of folklore among the Indian diaspora here. Manu Chandaria, the owner of Comcraft Group of Companies and perhaps the richest man in East and Central Africa, is lionised among the Indian community.

Not only men but a new breed of businesswomen of Indian origin too has been making a splash in the Kenyan business circles.

Zarina Patel is an institution of sorts in Nairobi. She publishes AwaaZ, a magazine highlighting the achievements of the South Asian community in Kenya and issues relating to them.

Patel also organises the SAMOSA (South Asian Mosaic of Society and the Arts) festival. “It showcases the South Asian community within East Africa through exhibitions, discussion forums, concerts and dance performances,” she said.

The commercial success of Indians and the high visibility it has given them has, however, sparked a mixture of admiration and envy among Kenyans. It has spawned prejudices and stereotypes like “rich Indians” who are invariably good at business and chasing money, but stay aloof.

Rasna Warah, a Sikh and a fourth generation Kenyan Asian, attributes such misconceptions to the “social insularity” of Indians and the tendency to stick to their own community for social and cultural interaction.

“Apart from superficial integration at the workplace or at the odd official social function, what is sometimes referred to as ‘cocktail integration,’ meaningful integration of the races has been rare in Kenya,” said Warah, a columnist for Kenya’s leading newspapers, the Nation and the Standard.

(Manish Chand can be contacted at

-Indo-Asian News Service


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