After Westgate Siege, New Respect for Kenya's Indians

Indians in Nairobi showed extraordinary courage in Westgate mall shootings.

Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

Bushan Vidyarthi is the kind of Kenyan one used to see often at ArtCaffe.

He has the cordial and casual air of someone who's done well for himself, but also watchful eyes that suggest that in a lifetime in a young and turbulent country he's seen things he might have wished not to.

When I met him in a living room in his home on a leafy road in Nairobi earlier this week, Vidyarthi, who is 76, was wearing a pressed shirt and sandals with socks. He invited me to sit down on a leather sofa across an immense coffee table from him. "Please have some tea," he said, as a domestic hurried off to make it.

ArtCaffe was on the ground floor of the Westgate Shopping Mall, a favorite destination for successful Nairobians, many of whom, like Vidyarthi, are not African by ancestry but South Asian. Kenya has one of the largest and longest established Indian populations in the world outside India; Vidyarthi's family has lived there for five generations. People like Vidyarthi, who helps to manage a family-owned commercial printing company, have been essential to the country's development.

Yet many black Kenyans, especially poorer ones, would still consider him an interloper, a muhindi, even a kind of economic colonialist. Although a minority, Indians control many Kenyan businesses, big and small, and much of its urban real estate. Walk into a store in Nairobi, and it's a good bet you'll find an Indian behind the register and a black Kenyan stocking the shelves. The domestic making my tea was, it goes without saying, black, not Indian.

Vidyarthi was sitting on ArtCaffe's terrace with his brother a little after eleven on Saturday morning the weekend before last, he told me, when they made to leave. But as he motioned to the waiter for the bill, they fell back into conversation. They were still talking when, about 12:15, "very, very heavy and very loud gunfire" rang out, Vidyarthi said.

He turned to look at the parking lot next to ArtCaffe. There were people with assault rifles. They were shooting into cars and at pedestrians.

Before he could process what he was seeing, grenades were landing at the terrace wall.

Soil and ceramic shards flew up around Vidyarthi. The gunfire grew louder. Now bullets and blood were flying on the terrace. Someone yelled, "Everyone on the floor!" He lay down next to his brother. People fell around him.

I asked Vidyarthi what he thought as he lay there. "I was so dazed and confused and worried," he said. But he didn't scan for an exit. His mind drifted into the past. He thought back to his cousin, a photographer, who died in cross fire covering the civil war in Nigeria in 1968.

"I said, 'I hope we're not going to end up like him.'"


Kenyan Roots

Vidyarthi's grandfather, Shamdass Horra, arrived in Kenya in 1896. By that point Indian merchants had been active along the Swahili coast for three centuries, moving ivory, skins, tropical resins, and spices. By the 1800s they'd gained a reputation for their business acumen and their willingness to go into parts of the interior where others didn't dare. Predictably, they became known as "the Jews of Africa."

One British official described the typical Indian merchant as "crafty, moneymaking, cunning, intensely polite, his soul bound to its body by the one laudable and religious anxiety of its helping him to turn his coin to better advantage." Such remarks were typical of the British tendency to diminish the importance of Indians to British imperial ambitions. In fact, Indian clerks, soldiers, artisans, and laborers were indispensable to the empire during the "scramble for Africa," when Europeans divided up control of the continent.

Indians and the Business of Empire

Some commentators were more honest. The British explorer John Kirk remarked that it was "entirely through the Indian merchants we were able to build up the influence that resulted in our position in East Africa." Indeed, it wasn't long before British East Africa came to be known in India as a more opportune appendage of the Raj, the "America of the Hindu," as a colonial administrator put it.

Like thousands of Indian men unable to find adequate employment at home, Horra moved to Kenya to build the railway between Mombasa and Nairobi. The British had entered Africa under the banner of abolition, but Horra and his countrymen were contracted into indentured servitude. Even the educated among them were known as "coolies."

Horra, a stationmaster from Lyalpur (now Faisalbad) in Pakistan, was tasked for a time with overseeing the spur at Tsavo, now famous for its national park but known then for its man-eating lions. "One night a British engineer was sleeping in the caboose at his station," Vidyarthi said. "A lion jumped through the window of the caboose and took him away."

Of the roughly 32,000 Indians who worked on the railway, 2,500 died, while another 6,500 were felled by disease and mishap. But they completed the line. They also left Kenya its national motto, Harambee, which roughly translates as "pull together." It's believed to derive from a Hindi work chant and is the only word to be found on the country's crest.

As locomotives spread into Africa, so did Indians. You can still find Indian markets from Dar es Salaam to Addis Ababa, Kampala to Khartoum. (And throughout East Africa, tea, chapatis, and samosas are staples.) By 1905, a British official estimated, 80 percent of businesses in Kenya belonged to Indians.

Anti-Asian Backlash

One thing Horra was not permitted to acquire, however, was land. As the colonial powers consolidated their territorial gains by luring European immigrants to Africa, the "Indian Question in Kenya" became a matter of anxiety. Anti-Asian policies were introduced. Ironically, their injustice was clear to a young Winston Churchill, among others. "The Indian was here long before the first British official," wrote the future prime minister and opponent of Indian independence.

In 1933 Horra's son, G.L., Vidyarthi's father, founded a radical newspaper, the Colonial Times, which decried the treatment of black soldiers returning from the battlefields of World War II and supported the independence movement in Kenya Colony, as it was then known.

He also started the first private newspaper printed in Kiswahili. He was the first Indian Kenyan to be tried by the British for sedition and, in 1945, was imprisoned. "I used to go and see him in the prison," Vidyarthi told me. "Someone had to lift me up to the bars."

Indian Rights

G.L. was part of a generation of Indian intellectuals agitating for equal rights around Africa. (Gandhi got his start representing laborers in South Africa.) He and his colleagues aided Kenyan nationalist groups and represented the activist Jomo Kenyatta in court.

Nonetheless, in the 1960s, once Kenyatta had been released from prison and become president, he wrested control of Indian-owned businesses and handed them over to black Kenyans. Thousands of Indians, including many of the Vidyarthis' friends, left. "I don't blame the Africans," he told me. "They're in the majority here. They don't have jobs, and they see Indian faces at the counters, doing jobs they can do."

When the Vidyarthi press put out a book about corruption under Daniel arap Moi, Kenyatta's successor, written by an opposition figure, Kenneth Matiba, the offices were raided and Vidyarthi's son put in jail. Matiba lobbied for his release. But when he was running for office a few years later, Matiba coined the slogan "Asians must go!" And then, Vidyarthi told me, without a hint of irony, Matiba called him up and asked for a rush job on some campaign literature.

He took it in stride. "In those days it was a fact: You want to get popular with your community, abuse the Indians," Vidyarthi said laughing. Later, his brother was arrested for printing a magazine that criticized Moi. He was the last Indian Kenyan to be charged with sedition. (The case was dropped.)


Over the years, as Moi grew more brutal and Kenya lost its forward momentum, suspicion of Indian Kenyans grew. In 1982, after a failed coup, Indian businesses were ransacked.

The week after the coup attempt was the only time Vidyarthi could remember being as frightened as he was in the wake of the attack on the Westgate mall. "The soldiers were everywhere. They were looting; they were killing." He was giving an Indian man a ride in Nairobi, he recalled, when he was waved over by soldiers. They pulled the passenger from the car, emptied his bags, and then set upon him. "Through the rearview mirror I saw they were beating the daylight out of him."

By the time of the attack on Westgate, relations were improving. Since Moi left office a decade ago, a new generation of educated black Kenyan entrepreneur has come up. They don't resent the Indian success in business but admire it. Now it's Kikuyus, the predominant native ethnic group, who sometimes refer to themselves as "the Jews of Kenya."

There are more Indian members in the new parliament than in any since independence, and at the Vidyarthi press, more orders than ever before are being placed by black-owned businesses. The press employs 130 people on the shop floor, all of them black.

Farther down the economic scale, however—and there is still much more down to the Kenyan economy than up—the resentment persists.

Selfless Courage

One desirable outcome of the attack, perhaps the only one, is that it may serve to soften the resentment, Vidyarthi hopes. Indian Nairobians were disproportionately affected by the killings, and they reacted with outsize selflessness. At the same time, Indian and black Kenyans were thrown together in a way they haven't been since the independence movement.


Perhaps the most horrifying scene of the day took place in an outdoor parking area in the mall's rear, where gunmen fired, for minutes on end, into a crowd of children, most of them Indian, who had assembled for a cooking competition.

I arrived at Westgate soon after the attack began to find that the number of unarmed Indians who'd rushed to the mall to help exceeded the number of armed Kenyan police who had.

Doctors and medical students had come from nearby Aga Khan Hospital; Indian shopkeepers were using their trucks as makeshift ambulances; Indians who lived near the mall came from their homes with trays of food and water. More quickly than seemed possible, a triage center had been set up at a Jain temple across the road from the mall. Volunteers at the temple fed soldiers, police, and reporters and hosted counseling sessions for days afterward.

Last weekend the temple mounted a 24-hour ceremony of music and dance to see off the souls of the departed and wish peace upon Kenya. On the dais a devotional statue was flanked by two Kenyan flags.

When Vidyarthi's mind came back to the present, as he lay on the floor of ArtCaffe, he pulled out his phone and called his son, Sandeep.

"The mall is under attack," he said. "Don't come here."

Sandeep, who had joined us in the living room by this point, took over the story. After assuring Vidyarthi he wouldn't come, he asked where he was so he could send help. Then he promptly got into his car and sped to the mall. The shooting outside had ended, and the ArtCaffe waiters helped Vidyarthi and the other survivors out through a gate on the terrace. He found Sandeep. They hugged. He didn't reprimand his son for disobeying him.

In 1998, when the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi was bombed, the Vidyarthi press was located nearby. Sandeep evacuated the staff and then drove to the embassy, and for the rest of the day he helped get the wounded and dead out.

The same instincts took over at Westgate, he said. He suspected the government would be slow and inept in its response, and indeed it was. "We know to respond. It's inbuilt in us," he said. (President Uhuru Kenyatta has since admitted that the attack has exposed serious weaknesses in the country's emergency services, while evidence has emerged that after—and perhaps even during—the siege, security forces may have looted the mall's stores and depleted its restaurants' alcohol supplies.)

Together with other civilians, Indian and black, Sandeep went into the mall. As a gunfight raged and explosions shook the building, they searched for the wounded. When there were no more wounded to help, they brought out the dead. They worked through the afternoon and into the evening—Sandeep and a black Kenyan man he'd never met carried corpses together.

Vidyarthi chimed in. "The ordinary African came out to help," he said. "He was not scared." Consciously or not, he did not distinguish between Indian Africans and black Africans. That day, they were the same.

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