Being a South Asian in Kenya

Q&A: What’s it like being a South Asian Kenyan?
Kenya is the country I call home. It’s where I was born and brought up like thousands of other South Asians. However, there are several myths that surround what the country is like and in order to combat them, I asked my non-Kenyan friends/followers on my various social media accounts to send any questions or assumptions they have of people living here. Additionally, I also got my Kenyan friends/followers to send in any interesting questions that they have been asked in the past. I picked ten questions from all the responses I got and here are the answers:

1) Where is Kenya?

Unfortunately, a lot of people have no clue as to where to place the country on a world map. This is often the case for a lot of countries on the African continent. Kenya is located in East Africa and borders the nations of Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia, and additionally has a coastline along the Indian Ocean. It lies on the equator and has a pleasant tropical climate with its capital city being Nairobi.

2) Are there a lot of South Asians in Kenya? If so why?

In 2019 the South Asian population in Kenya consisted of 90,527, with most of them being located in Nairobi. Even though the number is not that high, you probably cannot go through a street in Nairobi without seeing a South-Asian person.

This does not mean that there aren’t people in other towns and cities in the country – who don’t identify as South Asian Kenyans. In fact, as part of a controversial decision, the Kenyan president in 2017 recognised the community’s contribution to the country by declaring it as the 44th tribe within the country.


(This is an overly simplified version of how we came to settle in the country – If you are interested, I would recommend looking it up further)

The migration of South Asians to the country can be traced as far back as the late 1800s, with many having settled along the coastal region of the country due to trade. However, a huge influx of migration was prompted by the British empire, which at the time had colonised both the regions of East Africa and South Asia.

The empire brought many South-Asian people to work for them at different levels. After Kenya gained its independence in 1963, a few people moved back to India (where the majority of the South-Asian population hailed from) or moved to the UK, but many decided to stay in Kenya as they began calling the country home and it was all they knew.

Those that did move away barely did at their own accord, as despite wanting to stay on, they were forced out of the country due to the first president’s make Africa for Africans policy. It is at this point that the Indian government turned away many that wanted to go there, and so did the British despite originally recognising their role in putting that population there in the first place. However, as generations passed, those that were fortunate enough to stay on created rather comfortable lives for themselves.

In fact, my family happens to fall under this category. Although they migrated because of reasons related to trade they have now been residing here for four generations now. Throughout living here, we have seen many other South-Asians migrate into the country for various reasons and this has led to an increase in our population here.

3) How do you know Swahili?

This was asked to someone that I went to high school with, to which she replied, “I’m a fifth-generation Kenyan”.

I can assure you that many others have been asked the same question too. It would be a bit worrying if people in our shoes didn’t know one of the national languages of the country they called home. In fact, there are so many people who aren’t aware that there is a language called Swahili. Kenya has two national languages, one being English and the other Swahili.

Swahili is a language that is spoken by people all over East Africa and those that live in other parts of the word that have some sort of connection to the region.

In fact, I have met people who have been born and brought up in the UK but still know a few Swahili words due to their parents/ grandparents having lived in East-Africa before migrating to the UK.

Another language question that I get bothered by is – “how is your English so good?”. Well, that’s all because of a little thing called British colonisation, leading to most of the population being able to speak the language fluently with a few people having a basic grasp of it.

4) How do you do the British curriculum/school system in Kenya?

Kenya has many international schools. Most of these schools follow the British curriculum, whilst others follow the International Baccalaureate (IB) and a few also follow the American system. Ultimately it depends on what you think is the most suited for your career/ university plans.

Although Kenya does have its own national education system, most people of South Asian descent go to an international school.

5) Have you developed a new style of cooking because of the cultures?

To an extent yes, but also no. South Asian cuisine is of course different to Kenyan food. For one thing, Kenyans aren’t as keen on spicy food as those of South-Asian descent. However make no mistake – we love Kenyan cuisine and there are some South-Asian foods that have become Kenyan staples.

An example of such is the savoury snack Bombay mix which is also commonly known as Chevdo/chevda. I can guarantee you that once you have eaten some that is made in Kenya, there is no going back!

I could go on writing about what makes the Kenyan cuisine so great, but that would involve a lot of explaining so here is an article all about popular foods in Kenya.

Interestingly enough you will find the list includes samosas, bhajias (also known by most South-Asians as Bhajis), Chapatis and even masala chai.

6) Do you have electricity and Is it less developed than (insert country here)?

This is a question that annoys anyone who is from Kenya because the stereotypes associated with the countries from the African continent are frankly just ridiculous.

We live in actual buildings and houses as opposed to the huts shown by the western media, we do have electricity too (in fact all houses with more than three rooms are powered by solar panels), we have Wi-Fi, we have phones, we have cars, we have roads, we have malls, we have cinemas etc. You name it and the country has it.

So anytime you meet someone from Kenya, South-Asian or not, never ask them such a question. We do find it offensive.

Western countries are hardly compared in their development, yet many think that it is okay for African countries to be compared in such a way.

Just like every other country in the world, Kenya has it’s good and bad, unfortunately, it’s always the bad that is shown in western media.

Another popular belief is that we are a war-torn country. This is definitely not the case. Just like countries in the west, we have fallen victim to a few terror attacks. The hypocrisy of some western countries is that as soon as something of this sort occurs in Kenya, they issue travel bans. However, when similar incidents occur in the west there is no such thing.

All things considered, I know so many people who have visited the country from abroad and been shocked by the development, diversity and beauty of the country.

7) Do you live with lions?

Unfortunately, our life does not involve walking into the street and seeing a lion roaming around freely. The lions along with all the other wild animals are in the national parks.

One thing I love about Kenya is the access we have to the amazing wildlife. In fact, Nairobi is the only capital city to have a national park within it.

Kenyan safaris are well known by everyone in the world, although many think that the whole of the country is a game reserve where wild animals roam free.

When in reality, you have to go out of your way to go to different parts of the country to access some of the best safari parks such as the Masai Mara, Amboseli, Tsavo etc…

I would really recommend looking these national parks up, you will not be disappointed.

Source: Wikimedia commons

Although all this information may feel like a lot, I hope you found it interesting.

Also make no mistake just because we live in Kenya does not mean that we have forgotten our South-Asian roots, in fact, we have found a way to embrace both cultures just like other South-Asians living as part of a diaspora community.

Overall, I know that I, just like many other South-Asians, am proud to call this country home.

bio: Sonaili is currently pursuing journalism in the UK and is an avid writer who loves exploring topics related to arts, lifestyle, culture and representation. Her journalistic aspirations also involve investigative reporting but outside of this she also enjoys indulging in poetry, acting and dancing.
Instagram: @sonaili_ , @sonailiwrites
twitter: @sonaili_

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