Photo: Asian African Heritage Trust
Photo: Asian African Heritage Trust

Asians in Mombasa

The enduring impact of transoceanic economic and cultural exchange.

The story of Indians in East Africa began centuries ago, with trading links between littoral communities around the Indian Ocean. Over the course of the 19th and early-20th centuries, Indian settlement in East Africa gradually became more established – partially as a result of Omani and British expansion in the region. During imperial rule, this migration trajectory accelerated; British East Africa was administered by the Bombay Presidency, which encouraged and facilitated the movement of Indians to serve as 'teachers' to Africans, as well as pioneering merchants in this 'new world'. Most of those who migrated were from the Kutch and Kathiawar regions of what is today Gujarat.

Throughout East Africa, colonial powers segregated Asians (as people with origins in the Subcontinent are widely known), Africans and Europeans, leaving a legacy of politicised antagonism between them. The effects of these racialised policies continue into the present; in Kenya, Asians are often referred to as wageni (foreigners or guests) or 'paper citizens' even though they have lived in the country for generations. At the same time, the accusation that many Asians keep themselves separate from wider society is not without evidence.

While the aforementioned stereotypes lump Kenyan Asians together, divisions within this ethnic minority – particularly along religious and caste lines – are well documented. In contemporary Kenya, religious denominations of people of Southasian descent include Hindus (predominantly Vaishnavites of various castes), Sunnis (Balochis, Bhadalas, Kumbhars, Koknis and Memons) and Shias (Khoja Ithna Asheris, Khoja Ismailis, Daudi Bohras) – not to mention Goan Christians, Sikhs and Oshwal Jains.

What perhaps unites these disparate communities is a strong sense of attachment to Kenya and East Africa more broadly. While Asians are generally proud of their heritage, India and Gujarat are frequently presented as far away places that have little relevance for their daily lives or concerns. Many are at pains to distance themselves not only from Indians in India, but also from recently arrived 'rockets' – diasporic Indians who have come to Kenya in the last few decades.

Mombasa, Kenya's second city and East Africa's largest port, has been part of Indian Ocean trading networks for over a thousand years. By 1932, Asians comprised approximately 30 percent of Mombasa's population. Although now much reduced in numbers, they remain a highly visible part of the urban landscape. The enduring impact of transoceanic economic and cultural exchange as well as the flavour of Asian life can still be felt in Mombasa today.

At night I dream Mombasa 

The godowns gleam
like new Toyota Proboxes.
Waiting, to send maize and steel
and Chinese plastic
"Your freight forwarding is our speciality."

I traipse through the hospitals, the pharmacies,
the schools,
the hardware stores and mithai wallahs.
President Uhuru is everywhere. So is the Syedna, the Aga Khan
and Khomeini.
Even Modi grins up from a car bumper sticker
outside Bram Samaj.

Around the market, shoppers
loiter, eyes and nostrils tempted
by hot bhajiyas, fresh laddus, ready-cut jackfruit (too slimy to touch),
or sweet-and-spicy mabuyu – dyed red
baobab seeds, portals to a Coasterian childhood.
"Everyone who's left this place, they always ask for mabuyu."

Inside Markiti, the stall owners jostle for
"Methi, dhaniya, palak… zote ziko freshi."
Piles of karela, bright green and cankerous, lie next to sticky apple
The Ugandan who sells imported grapes
counts out his customer's change, "Pachaas, so, baso."

Down the city's main arteries facades bear
witness to pioneers and trailblazers, and legacies of
Kaderbhoy Building 1921, Shri Joshi Narayan 1932.
Saifee Flats, Memon House, Parti Villas,
Jaffery Manzil, Noorhani Estate 1940. A thousand rounded balconies
of Art Deco Bombay.

Just before Biashara Street,
I knock on the wooden panelling inside
Mushtaq's Clothes and Sundry Goods.
"Burma teak," he explains. Another survivor of the journey across the kaalaa paani.
Salwar kameez and stretchy leggings
hang next to his latest import of diamante-studded hijabs.
Lunch approaches and tiffin tins
traverse the city, balanced on the bicycles
of trusted servants.
Shak, rotli, rice. Pillau, of course,
on Fridays. One man's lunch
is another family's living.

Sundays, especially, are for eating out – but Mombasa palettes
can be hard to please.
"We'd never eat there, I've heard the chefs are Hindu."
"You mustn't order that, onions produce rage in mind and body."
"I'm only going if you're sure the meat is halal."
"I'm only going if they do eggless cakes."

At least everyone can agree on Planet Yoghurt.

I take a seat at a favourite Cold House.
"We came in dhows,"
grins Kassim, pointing proudly to the model
above his café door.
A group of Swahili ladies glance over, and then return to their gossip, careful not to spill channa bateta
on tight florescent headscarves.

Some of his customers still tell that joke,
the one about difference between Jamnagar and Bhavnagar.
Kassim offers only that his grandparents came
from Kutch.
India is a place for hip
Where draping your sari on the left or right
still means
something. No one is quite sure what.
A place from which preachers
and gurus and wedding cloth is sent.
A place that needs saving
from clannishness and poverty.

7.50 pm, Old Town is a hive.
Allahu Akbar. Sunni men pile into Shikheli Mosque – Swahili?
Memon? Bhadala? Dogo? Hard and fast boundaries are not
always etched on faces.
Round the corner, Bohra families –
clad in chiti-varah attire –
make their way home from the New Burhani Masjid,
while Khoja Ithna Asheris fill up the parking lot
in front of Hydery Imambargha.
The paan houses are still open. So too are the dukas
selling Vimto, credit and miraa.

I tuk tuk to the island's centre,
where the big plots are all Muslim cemeteries
and sports clubs. The Goan Institute, Coast Gymkhana, Mvita Tennis.
Drinking dens for ageing men. Catholic,
Hindu, Sikh; friends with a penchant for
Johnnie Walker.
"We only built the tennis courts to protect the land" – but there's still
cricket on Sundays.

Nostalgia wafts through the air.

Everyone remembers Tuesdays at the drive-in, and the
meat pies at Cosy Tea Room,
the trunks that came off ships like MV Karanja,
and the atmosphere at Lighthouse
before tinted windows.
It was so safe here.

KK Security guards and Texas Alarms now protect
The old housing societies – decaying behind flimsy tin gates –
are gradually being abandoned
for carefully
enclosed tower blocks.
Their snazzy paint jobs soon succumb to humidity,
but the barbed wire is
more resistant.

"It's not just insecurity," Hassan Ali muses,
"I know my son will never sell sweets."
Further studies open up elsewheres.
Nairobi, Eldoret, Dar, Leicester;
Edmonton, Manipal, Jakarta, Qom.
Daughters, uncles, cousin-brothers.
Familiar nodes in the ever-expanding
liquid continent.
Those who do return, do so with purpose:
"I'm here to give back."

But some things never change,
and some people never go.

Everyone still makes fun of the way the Kikuyu
say "mararia".
Everyone knows you can't beat an ice-cold madaafu
on a January afternoon,
Everyone complains about corruption
and the lack of sugar in their chai,
Everyone, is more open than everyone else.

Many have relatives in Proper London.
No one speaks Proper Gujarati.

~Zoë Goodman is a PhD candidate in social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She currently lives in Mombasa, Kenya, where she is conducting fieldwork on Khoja Ithna Asheris.

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