(Inhabiting) the Space between Black and White: Indian/Sikh Community in Kenya

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Much of my early childhood in the late seventies and early eighties was spent growing up in Kenya (Nakuru and Nairobi), giving me fond memories of a nostalgic past. Having been back a number of times since, it is inevitably not quite the way I have preserved it in my recollections. Childhood memories are filtered, sedate and full of innocence. The contemporary is much more austere, different and distant. The Sikh community in Kenya is small, perhaps only a few thousand. It is close-knit, largely urban based and relatively wealthy. The wider South Asian community originate from a handful of places like Gujarat, Punjab and Goa but it does reflect microcosm of Indian society with its myriad of ethnicities, languages, religion and cuisine but one in which no one community dominates.

There is of course a long history of trade from the west coast of Indian subcontinent to the east coast of Africa from about the second century AD. However, most of the people of Indian origin moved during the British colonial period, initially as indentured labourers, who were brought to Eastern Africa to help with the construction of the Ugandan Railway during 1896 to 1901. The Indian labourers helped with the construction of the line that went from the coast of Mombasa to Kisumu near Lake Victoria (then-known as the Ugandan Railway). They already had experience from constructing the railways in British India, which started much earlier in the 1850s.

The Asian African Heritage Trust notes that:
“In these six years, these labourers and artisans, through difficult terrain, laid 582 miles (931 kilometres) of railway. They built the Salisbury Bridge, over 1,200 feet long, joining Mombasa Island to the mainland, 35 viaducts in the Rift Valley, and 1,280 smaller bridges and culverts. All this was done by hand. No machines were available to them in these massive and technical tasks. 31,983 workers came from India during these years on these contracts. 2,493 died in the construction. That is, four workers died for each mile of line laid; more than 38 dying every month during the entire six years. A further 6,454 workers became invalid. They also built the subsequent railway towns of Nakuru and Kisumu”.  (Asian African Heritage Trust: http://asianafricanheritage.com/index.htm)

Pascale Herzig notes that most of these indentured labourers left after the completion of the project but they were then followed by voluntary migrants (with a large Muslim population, from Gujarat). This second group moved to explore trade opportunities but within this group were also professionals such as teachers, doctors, administrators. And with globalisation, the Kenyan Asians have become much more of a transnational community. Today the petty trader with a small family run business exists alongside the transnational globe-trotter. The former is declining in numbers and latter is adapting with the new business opportunities in an interconnected world.

Many of the Sikhs that came to East Africa were skilled workmen from the Ramgharia community and were associated with the carpentry, blacksmithery and masonry. Quick to adapt and take advantage of these opportunities, they moved into construction and mechanical engineering in order to up-skill themselves. Over subsequent years, the community increased and established its roots in Kenya. The population census of the South Asians (India and Pakistan) below provides a good overview of how the population has grown and declined over a hundred-year period.

Year Population ±% p.a.
1911 11,787
1921 25,253 +7.92%
1931 43,623 +5.62%
1948 97,687 +4.86%
1962 176,613 +4.32%
1969 139,037 −3.36%
1979 78,600 −5.54%
1989 89,185 +1.27%
1999 89,310 +0.01%
2009 81,791 −0.88%

At its height, the Asian population of Nairobi was almost one third Asian in 1962 and 2% of Kenyans were of Asian origin, at the time of Kenya’s independence in 1963. Since then though, the numbers have declined considerably. Within the colonial racial hierarchies, the Indians occupied the spaces between the white and black, a legacy that has been hard to surrender (See further Burton, Brown over Black). They lived, and continue to do so, in their own communities, segregated from the rest which is a source of tension but also emanates from a source of fear. Indians often occupied the middle ranking positions in the colonial period, acting as the buffer between white and black, and, with the top layer gone, the privileged position of the “brown” people became a source of much antagonism and resentment. They were privileged in terms of education, job opportunities and many had established successful businesses. They lived in palatial houses and socially only mixed within their own communities and, thus unsurprisingly, were caught up in the wave of euphoria brought in by African nationalism. The outgoing colonial power however offered a fig-leaf:

“When Kenya received independence in 1963, the Indians were offered the choice of obtaining either British or Kenyan citizenship. Because the painful, post-independence experience of the Congo was still fresh then, and because many Indians felt that the growing demand for position and power from the newly educated African middle class would lead inevitably to their exclusion from the job market, only about 10 percent of the Indian population applied for Kenyan citizenship. The rest chose what later turned out to be “devalued” British passports”. [https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1971/10/07/the-lost-indians-of-kenya/] Ian Sanjay Patel suggests that around 20,000 Kenyan South Asian applied to register for Kenyan citizenship between 1963-1965, out of total population of 176,613. (P.214)

Patel’s recent book, We’re Here Because You Were There (2021) provides an interesting discussion on citizenship and belonging, while focusing on Kenya where his own ancestral roots are. He highlights how Kenyan South Asian British citizens appeared to belong to three different states, as they were resident in Kenya, but some had assumed British citizenship and of course their ancestral roots were in the sub-continent. (Patel p 215). The 1950 Indian Constitution had granted Indian citizenship to persons outside India, if they had parents or grandparents born in India. However, at the same time Apa Pant, the first Indian high commissioner in Nairobi, urged Indians to identify with Kenya rather than India. By 1955, India’s Citizenship Act further removed the possibility of duel nationality. (Patel, p 215).

During the unsuccessful coup attempt in Kenya, against then-President Daniel arap Moi in 1982, many of the Asian shops and homes were also targeted. The fear of violence, looting and nationalisation of business further reinforced the need to remain segregated and aloof in order to survive and preserve their livelihoods. Although many of the Asians fled and relocated, a sizeable Indian diaspora still exists in Kenya, which is quite distinct in character. Old established businesses still exist, and they are still one of the most prosperous communities in Kenya. And interestingly, in 2017, the government announced that the Asian community would be officially recognised as the 44th tribe in Kenya, perhaps an indication of the acceptance that Indians are an integral part of Kenya.


Aiyar, Sana. Indians in Kenya. Harvard University Press, 2015.

Burton, Antoinette M. Brown over black: Race and the politics of postcolonial citation. Three Essays Collective, 2012.

Herzig, Pascale. South Asians in Kenya: Gender, generation and changing identities in diaspora. Vol. 8. LIT Verlag Münster, 2006.

Mangat, Jagjit S. A History of the Asians in East Africa, c. 1886 to 1945. Clarendon Press, 1969.

Onyango Omenya, Gordon. ‘A Global History of Asian’s Presence In Kisumu District of Kenya’s Nyanza Province.’ Les Cahiers d’Afrique de l’Est/The East African Review 51 (2016): 179-207.

Patel, Ian Sanjay. We’re Here Because You Were There. Verso, 2021.



  1. Very interesting article, strikes a chord with the experience of my family, although I was only 5 years old when we left Nairobi in 1961. I have been back a couple of times in recent years and had mixed experiences. I saw some mixing between cultures and socialising between the various communities, but many choosing to live quite separate lives while running businesses in the country where their families have lived for so many decades.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very captivating piece. The dynamics of Afro-Asian integration have changed especially in the western parts of Kenya where we find cases of Afro-Asian marriages.

    Liked by 1 person

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