Monday, January 30, 2017

Cyprian Fernandes: The nightmare of the Asian exodus from Kenya through the eyes of a Khoja mother

Thousands of Asians who left continue to seek answers as they did at Embakasi Airport in the 1960s.

In Summary
  • Next year will mark 50 years since the Great Asian Exodus from Kenya to the United Kingdom.  A new book chronicles one family’s painful journey.
  • This subtle art writing offers, how in parts, the Khojas and Swahilis interacted at the coast. Somjee’s own family is half Swahili. Here, Somjee journals with sensitive finesse such that an absolute delight awaits the reader’s artistic eye and poetic ear.
  • However, it is the women for whom the kanga sings its special song, who speak about the mixing and boundaries between the people of the two continents over centuries.
More by this Author
Title:Home Between Crossings
Author: Sultan Somjee (Author of Bead Bai 2012)
Publisher: CreateSpace (December, 2016)
Reviewer: Cyprian Fernandes

Though Asians had started leaving Kenya in small numbers since 1960, the floodgates opened in 1968 to beat the immigration deadline to enter the United Kingdom.Now a new book that chronicles in the minutest of details one family’s painful journey out of its homeland, Kenya.
Although a work of fiction, Home Between Crossings, touches on real life stories of many Asian families during the rise of African nationalism that suddenly shifted from anti-white to anti-Asian. Heart wrenching decisions led to emigration of the ‘Paper Citizens’, and virtual expulsion from their birthland. The story is told as a Khoja tale but speaks for the Asian experience through Kenyan Asian eyes.
This is another classic by the Kenyan ethnographer and writer, Sultan Somjee. It is a work of dedication and attention to detail on vibrancy of the changes that occur in 1950s and 1960s. His character, Moti Bai, suffers the pains, the joys and the disappointments of cultural changes within the Ismaili Khoja community in mid 1950s while in the country another force was stirring changes in the mighty British Empire – the Mau Mau.
During the Emergency, “the word itself was dreaded,” Moti Bai feels the loss of her culture that demanded rapid identity shifts. Who will my children be without a language we can say is our own? She asks. In the Ismaili schools a ban was imposed on speaking in any language other than English. Moti Bai’s brother-in-law, Kabir, explains: It is not the past with the present. But the present with the future.
That is how English prepares us for the future. Look forward. Khoja women’s adaptation of short western dresses breeds a new hilarity before the acceptance and comfort comes with practice.
Relentless radio propaganda against the Africans during the Emergency created suspicion and widened the distance between Asians and Africans. In the following decade of the 1960, it was the reverse. Persistent anti-Asian propaganda created suspicion of the Asians leading to sharper racial divide, insults and hate that ultimately resulted in the Exodus.
Listening to Kenyatta’s anti-Asian rants from Uhuru Park, a mixed feeling of humiliation and loss grips Moti Bai, a citizen, as it did thousands of Asian mothers who were subjected to racial slurs in the streets and on national days celebrating dignity for the rest of Kenyans.
It was not uncommon for Asian parents to be threatened with arrogance, the typical misogyny of politicians in power, “Why don’t you give us your daughters to marry?” Somjee (aka Moti Bai) will lead you by your hand as you re-live every moment of the trauma of the Kenyan citizen and two generations of rural bead merchant’s family — their emotions, pathos, hopelessness and helplessness.
It is a work that Somjee has compiled listening to personal stories kept in the heart of the community. It requires the reader to be more than attentive, sometimes having to read the sensitive passages more than once but at all times requiring to press a close eye to the words that come to life from the pages of Home Between Crossings.
Sometimes, the reader (as I was) needs to take a break to indulge in picturesque passages that the book streams in the imagination. For example, there are magical chapters on the captivating beauty of the Kenyan landscape where Somjee, working as a lone ethnographer, spent a life time among the ethnic people. There are insightful passages on the descriptions of the kanga ‘the cloth of the Indian Ocean that speaks’, and cha ka cha the dance.
This subtle art writing offers, how in parts, the Khojas and Swahilis interacted at the coast. Somjee’s own family is half Swahili. Here, Somjee journals with sensitive finesse such that an absolute delight awaits the reader’s artistic eye and poetic ear. However, it is the women for whom the kanga sings its special song, who speak about the mixing and boundaries between the people of the two continents over centuries.
They speak in soft tones and a gentleness that has forever been a signature of the ancient people of mixed races at peace. The book, in fact, begins with the plain handloom cloth from Gujarat reaching the Swahili coast and its evolution into a piece of art.
Nothing, it seems, escapes Somjee’s ethnographic scrutiny of the period in history which Jomo Kenyatta and his MPs made the sacking of the Asians the highest priority of Independent Kenya. Kenyatta himself publicly humiliated the Asians calling them “whores”, “thieves” and “exploiters” of the poor Africans lighting the fuse that ignited the absolute denigration of the Asian in the street.
His Ministers and other highly placed Africans in the public sector followed suit. The Asian had to go. He was not an African and therefore not a citizen. The echo that was resounded by Idi Amin in 1972 just four years after the Asian Exodus from Kenya.
Don’t let me mislead you. This book of stories written in episodic dioramas as Somjee explains in his Notes on Writing at the back, is not just about leaving Kenya. It is a kaleidoscope of the Ismaili Khojas of Kenya, a fictional expose that reflects on the exclusive cultural enclaves of the broader East African Asian community – their beliefs, values and dilemmas which sound all so suspiciously true, warts and all.
Eventually, like everyone else, the once ‘loyal to the country’ Khojas, leave. Most would end up in Canada which welcomed them with open arms. Others go to the United Kingdom, the USA, Australia and several countries in Europe. As was the case of the other Asians leaving Kenya, many would speak of their emigration today as perhaps the best move they ever made. Yet, in the same breath some would long for their birthland be it Kenya, Uganda or Tanzania as the first generations of ex-East Africans age into the nostalgic memories of what happened, so suddenly and so ruthlessly, half a century ago.
Somjee’s seminal work is a must read to understand the story of ‘the other Kenyan,’ the ‘Paper Citizen Kenyan’, the ‘Kenyan of Asian origin’, the Kenyan ‘sitting on the fence’, ‘the mhindi’, the term itself came to be derogative. The one who refused to marry his daughter to the African. The one who provoked ‘the Asian Question’. The Shylock who had similarly provoked ‘the Jewish Question’ earlier in Europe.
The author puts this in family dilemmas and conversations, confused as they were at times, secretive at times and at times simply as spaces of withdrawal and silence. He writes through the other’s eyes without holding back. For the new Kenyans of all races and ethnicities, Home Between Crossings, is a book to read, and learn about post-independence race relations as they were manipulated by the politicians and echoed by the media. Something that they cannot avoid when migrations of non-Africans to Kenya today is on a scale that’s unprecedented in history.
At the very core of Somjee’s work, this real life work of fiction, are questions, questions and more questions that thousands of diaspora Asians ask of themselves as they did in vain and desperation waiting in hordes at the Embakasi Airport in 1968. Questions that will not have answers until their put-away memories are relived and processed, and the big question “What happened?” asked again. Until they understand the mechanisms of nationalism be it religious, black, white or brown that continue to trouble and destabilise several parts of the world today pleading for pluralism. 

Sultan Somjee is the former Head of Ethnography at the National Museums of Kenya. He curated Ma Aging Gracefully, an exhibition on the arrival and early settlements of Ismaili Khoja to East Africa (1994), and later the Asian African Heritage Exhibition (2000-2005).
He writes from British Columbia, Canada, where he lives with his wife, Zera. The book is available on

  Cyprian Fernandes is a former Chief Reporter of the Nation and one of the first Kenya-born Goans to be employed by the Nation. He is the author of the recently published Yesterday in Paradise available at and Balboa Press,

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