Indians in Kenya

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Indians in Kenya
Regions with significant populations
Nairobi, Mombasa
Gujarati, Punjabi, Hindustani (native languages)
English, Swahili (working languages)
Hinduism · Islam · Sikhism · Christianity · Jainism
Related ethnic groups
Non-resident Indian and Person of Indian Origin and other Indo-Aryan peoples

Indians in Kenya are citizens and residents of Kenya with ancestral roots in the Indian subcontinent. Most are found in the major urban areas of Nairobi and Mombasa, with others living in rural areas.


There is evidence of a well-established trade network between India and the Swahili Coast that predates European exploration, as evidenced by the (by most accounts) Gujarati sailor that guided Vasco da Gama in 1497 from Malindi, where the sailor managed a trading operation, to what would become known as Goa, one place in India where goods were brought back.

Indian migration to modern day Kenya began with the construction of the Uganda railway between 1896 and 1901 when some 32,000 indentured labourers were recruited from British India.[1] Construction of the railway was a remarkable engineering feat; however, approximately 2,500 labourers died during construction (about four deaths for each mile of track laid) and the project was notorious for the Tsavo maneaters.[1]

Once the railway was completed, many of these labourers voluntarily settled in what was then the East Africa Protectorate and brought family from India. The early Asian settlers were predominantly from the Indian provinces of Gujarat and the Punjab and quickly embraced the opportunities available in the new British territory. The railway opened the interior to trade, and many soon began migrating away from the coastal cities. Most settled in the new town of Nairobi, which had been the capital of the British protectorate since 1905. Unlike black Africans, Asians were permitted to reside legally in Nairobi in what was then a burgeoning white settler town.[2]

By the 1920s, there was a sizeable Asian population who demanded a role in the developing political life of what became Kenya Colony. A. M. Jeevanjee was at the forefront of the early pioneers. He established Kenya's first newspaper now known as the The Standard. Racial hostilities gradually intensified in the 1920s; however, Indians, who enjoyed significantly greater economic strength than black Africans, had greater bargaining power with the colonial government. As early as 1920, they turned down the offer of two seats on the legislative council as this was not representative of the size of their community. Tensions with Europeans remained high until 1927 when Indians won the right to five seats on the council, compared to eleven reserved for the Europeans. Both parties prevented any African representation.

After the Second World War, Asians were found in all occupations in Nairobi and the townships: in business, the police force, bureaucracy, and the professions.[3] Their commercial skills contributed to the economic development and prosperity of Kenya and the rest of East Africa.[4]

The 1950s saw increased sentiment against the inequalities of colonial rule, and many Asians were at the forefront of the push for increased rights. These included: Pio Gama Pinto founder of the Kenya African National Union newspaper, Makhan Singh who is regarded as laying the foundations of Kenyan trade unionism, and A.R. Kapila and Fitz de Souza renowned in the legal profession for their representation of those accused of Mau Mau links.


Kenya achieved independence from Britain in 1963, and thereafter followed a period of volatility in African and Asian relations. Asians, along with Europeans, were given two years to acquire Kenyan citizenship which in turn would renounce their British passports. Out of approximately 180,000 Asians and 42,000 Europeans in Kenya at the time, fewer than 20,000 had submitted their applications by the deadline.[5] This in turn led to growing animosity and distrust from Africans, and those who failed to take up Kenyan citizenship were deemed disloyal by their fellow countrymen.[6]

Those without Kenyan citizenship soon became subject to increasing discrimination by the ruling government. Asians in the civil service were sacked in favour of Africans, the Kenyan Immigration Act 1967 required them to acquire work permits, whilst a Trade Licensing Act passed in the same year limited the areas of the country in which non-Kenyans could engage in trade.[7] In the late 1960s and early 1970s, faced with a dim future in Africa, many Asians choose to utilise their British passport and settle in the United Kingdom. There are now sizeable communities of Kenyan Asians in London and Leicester.

Present day[edit]

Visiting Kenya in the 1970s, the Indo-Trinidadian writer Shiva Naipaul referring to the inward focus of the Asian community, commented that "the Indian in East Africa brought India with him and kept it inviolate".[8] Those who remained saw a gradual improvement in their legal status, however the Asian community continued to be cautiously inward and self-reliant. Despite varying degrees of acculturation, most have retained their strong Indian ties and traditions, and are a close-knit, endogamous community.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ Hake, Andrew. 1977. African Metropolis: Nairobi’s Self-Help City. London: Sussex University Press.
  3. ^ J. Murray-Brown, Kenyatta (London, 1972), p. 83.
  4. ^ A history of the Asians in East Africa (Oxford, 1969), ch. 1.
  5. ^ Donald Rothchild, Racial bargaining in independent Kenya (London, 1973), p. 188
  6. ^ Donald Rothchild, `Citizenship and national integration: the non-African crisis in Kenya', in Studies in race and nations (Center on International Race Relations, University of Denver working papers), 1}3 (1969±70), p. 1
  7. ^ Quest for equality (New Delhi, 1993), p. 99
  8. ^ Naipaul, S. (1990).India: A million mutinies now London: William Heinemann Ltd
  9. ^ Mwakikagile, Godfrey (2007). Kenya: identity of a nation. Godfrey Mwakikagile. pp. 100–102. ISBN 0-9802587-9-0. 

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Adam, Michel. "A microcosmic minority: The Indo-Kenyans of Nairobi." In: Charton-Bigot, Hélène and Deyssi Rodriguez-Torres (editors). Nairobi Today: The Paradox of a Fragmented City. African Books Collective, 2010. start page 216. ISBN 9987080936, 9789987080939. The source edition is an English translation, published by Mkuki na Nyota Publishers Ltd. of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in association with the French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA) of Nairobi. The book was originally published in French as Nairobi contemporain: Les paradoxes d'une ville fragmentée, Karthala Editions (Hommes et sociétés, ISSN 0993-4294). French version article is "Une minorité microcosmique : les Indo-Kenyans de Nairobi", p. 285-358. ISBN 2845867875, 9782845867871.
  • Robert Granville Gregory, India and East Africa: a history of race relations within the British Empire, 1890–1939 (Oxford, 1971)
  • J S Mangat, A history of the Asians in East Africa, c. 1886 to 1945 (Oxford, 1969)