As New Delhi seeks $500 billion trade, here are 15 things you need to know about Indians in Africa

Even as India seeks to increase its footprint in Africa, it has to contend with a complex and often fraught relationship with its diaspora.

TANZANIAN president Jakaya Kikwete has been visiting his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi this past week, and the two countries have agreed to set up a joint working group on counter-terrorism and increase gas exploration cooperation in the east African nation.

Modi said India is gearing up to hold the 3rd India-Africa Forum Summit in October in New Delhi, and has for the first time invited all 54 African countries.

Africa’s trade with India has grown nearly 35% every year from 2005, and is now estimated at $100 billion. But there are even bigger plans, unveiled by business and government leaders at a session of the World Economic Forum (WEF) India Economic Summit in Delhi last November, to boost the India-Africa trade to $500 billion by 2020.

Still, even as the world’s second-most populous nation seeks to increase its footprint in Africa, in part to steal some of the glow from its neighbour China, it has to contend with a complex and often fraught relationship with its Diaspora on the continent.

There are more than three million people of Indian origin in Africa today, and as the wave of independence was sweeping Africa in the 50s and 60s, Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru encouraged Indians living in Africa to fully identify with the African cause for independence – and many did.

But in the coming decades, people of Indian origin in Africa were all too often the target of persecution, expropriation of their property and most infamously, outright expulsion in 1972 Uganda, and through it all, their “mother country” India tended to keep them at arms length, arguing that it had its own problems to deal with.

But this is a whole new world, as Africa and India try to warm up to each other again, here are 15 facts you may not know about the Indian diaspora in Africa:

1.   The earliest accounts of the Indian presence on the eastern coast of Africa are found in the Periplus of the Erythaean Sea, written in the first century AD by an anonymous author. Through this and other writings, it is evident that Indian merchants had been plying their trade through the Indian Ocean since the days of ancient Babylon, and had even established trading posts along the coast of East Africa.

2.   South Africa is home to the largest population of people of Indian descent in Africa, at 1.3 million, mainly in Durban. In fact, Durban is sometimes called the “largest Indian city outside India” - though this claim has not been determined conclusively.

3.    Large populations are also found in Mauritius, where they number an estimated 715,000, or 60% of the population, and Reunion, at 220,000 or a third of the population. East Africa is also home to a large number of Diaspora Indians. In Kenya, people of Indian descent number about 100,000, in Tanzania, they come to about 90,000, and Uganda, 15,000.

4.    Although most East Africans believe that the people of Indian origin in the region are descendants of the labourers who built the Kenya-Uganda railway, this is not actually the case. About 32,000 indentured workers were brought in from India – mainly Sikhs from the Punjab – to build the railway, but the majority returned to India after their contracts ended. Only about 7,000 chose to stay.

5.    But laying the railway came at a high human price. Records show that 31,983 Indian workers went to Kenya between August 1986 and December 1901. Of these 2,493 died during construction; that is, about four workers for every mile of railway line laid, and more than 38 dying every month during the construction process. Most infamously, 35 victims were snatched off by a pair of man-eating lions in Kenya’s Tsavo.

6.    Still, the railway opened up East Africa for trade, and large numbers of “free” emigrants, both Hindu and Muslim, mainly from Gujarat, followed in the years after the Sikh labourers had left. They set up trading posts deep in the interior, and became the traders and merchants of East Africa.

7.    A similar trajectory is found in South Africa, where slaves and indentured labourers were the first people of Indian descent to settle in South Africa, working as domestic and agricultural workers in the sugarcane plantations of Natal Colony. Later, they were joined by “free” emigrants, a community of traders who hailed mainly from Gujarat. 

8.  Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi first employed non-violent civil disobedience as an expatriate lawyer in South Africa, in the resident Indian community’s struggle for civil rights.

A bust of Mahatma Gandhi at apartheid-era prison at Constitutional Hill, Johannesburg. (Photo/Flickr/ Nagarjun Kandukuru).

9.  Gandhi was 24 when he arrived in South Africa in 1893 to work as a legal representative for the Muslim Indian Traders based in the city of Pretoria. He spent 21 years in South Africa, where he developed his political views, ethics and political leadership skills, and returned to India in 1914 where he put them into practice on a large scale.  But critics charge that he actually held racist views about Africans, at some point.

10.  By the 1950s, people of Indian descent in East Africa numbered 360,000. In East Africa, many had joined black Africans in the fight for the labour rights, and had set up newspapers agitating for greater representation.  In Kenya Pranlal Sheth, Chanan Singh, Fitzval de Souza and Pio Gama Pinto were leaders in the journalistic campaign for independence.

11.  In 1972, military dictator Idi Amin announced the expulsion of all persons of Asian origin in Uganda, then numbering about 60,000, and their property was expropriated. The majority of those expelled went to the UK, Canada and Kenya.

12.  Some returned to Uganda after 1981 when Milton Obote returned to leadership of the country, but most after 1986 when Yoweri Museveni became president and welcomed them back. Though the law for their return was passed during Obote’s government, he didn’t have the political clout to action it, which Museveni had lots of.

For Ashish J. Thakkar, a young Ugandan entrepreneur with rock-star status, his family was among those expelled by Amin in 1972, and they settled in Britain, then moved to set up business in Rwanda in 1992. 

But two years later, the Rwandan genocide forced them to flee a second time, and the family settled once again in Uganda, where Thakkar began to try his luck in business. Today, that small trading operation has grown into the Mara Group, a diversified conglomerate with approximately $100 million in revenues.

13.  One of India’s biggest cultural exports to Africa has been Bollywood, and it’s popular not just among the Indian diaspora. One unlikely place where Bollywood has long enjoyed immense popularity is Nigeria, particularly in the Muslim-majority north – which does not have any significant Indian immigrant community whatsoever. 

According to the High Commission of India in Nigeria, only about 35,000 Indians live in the country of 170 million, primarily in Lagos. But Lebanese businessmen began importing Bollywood movies a few decades ago as they were cheaper than American movies - to roaring success. 

Bollywood posters in Kerala, India. The films are hugely popular in northern Nigeria. (Photo: Flickr/ Christian Haugen).

According to South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection (Samar), one of the most popular of all Indian films in Nigeria remains the three-hour classic Mother India, a 1957 epic melodrama starring the legendary actress Nargis. Attending a viewing of the film at an open-air cinema in Kano, in northern Nigeria, Samar’s correspondent in 2013 noted that some people in the audience had already seen the movie 15 times and sang along to all the Hindi songs (although their native language is Hausa).

“I have been showing this film for decades, and it can still sell out any cinema in the north,” a distributor told Samar.

14.  In Ethiopia, a large number of Indians had been employed from the late sixties on a contractual basis to teach in the country’s primary and secondary schools. But with the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie by Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1974, the new communist regime introduced a policy of “Ethiopianisation” which meant that foreigners were not allowed to teach in Ethiopian schools. Consequently, the vast majority left the country.

15.  The Indian connection with Mozambique dates back to at least the late 15th century; Vasco da Gama found some Indian traders when he landed on Mozambican shores in 1499. Soon after, Goa in India became a Portuguese colony, and Goans began to emigrate to Mozambique to serve as bureaucrats, soldiers or clergy. Today, the Indian diaspora in Mozambique is estimated at 20,000.

BONUS: There is also an African diaspora in India. The Siddi, also known as Habshi or Makrani, are an ethnic group in India and Pakistan descended from Bantu people from Southeast Africa. 

Siddi children in Sasan Gir, Gujarat. (Photo: Nagarjun Kandukuru).

Some were merchants, sailors and mercenaries, but the majority were slaves brought to India by Portuguese traders. The Siddi community is currently estimated at around 20,000–55,000 people, mainly in Karnataka, Gujarat and Hyderabad in India, and Makran and lower Sindh in Pakistan. Most are Muslim, but a few are Hindu or Catholics.


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