Being Indian in Kenya Feels Like ‘Having An Abusive Lover’

Aleya Kassam

Aleya Kassam

For weeks now, I have been trying to write this piece. It has been agonizing. I worried about laying it bare – or starting to. You see this one is really important to me.

In reality, I have been trying to write this piece for the last decade. I popped my storytelling cherry a few months ago, and was preparing to tell Trupti’s story from John Sibi Okumu’s theatrical work, Role Play. I usually force my family to listen to me practice. They normally indulge me with a litany of polite oohs and aahs.

This time was different. By the end, my mother’s face was streaming with silent tears. Trupti tells the story of how her sister was raped by the military, in front of the whole family during the failed coup attempt against President Daniel arap Moi in 1982 coup.

“It was like that and worse Aleya,” she tells me. “So much worse. They went from house to house, forcing their way in. The stealing was one thing, but they raped every woman they found. Every single one. In front of their brothers, fathers, grandfathers. So many of our Asian women.”

It is the first time my mother has ever spoken to me about these things.

“A respected leader in the community stood outside his house, in only his underwear, wailing, crying, pretending they had stolen everything, just so the military would think his house had already been ransacked, and would leave them alone,” she continued. “Those were not fake tears Aleya. He was protecting his three daughters hiding in the house.”

What does it take for a man to do that? Stripped of his dignity. Forever.

I read about the coup, when junior rebel officers tried to overthrow the government of President Moi. Madness reigned the streets, and there was an orgy of looting and more. 1982: the year I was born.

I start digging and find this published in the New York Times in 1982:

“Many Asians say that in the hiatus between the start of the rebellion led by an air force private and the reassertion of government control, they came face to face with the unleashed hatred of some of Kenya’s 16 million African majority…. The silence is filled with whispered stories of gang rape and horror.”

Is that why I sometimes see fear in my grandmother’s eyes when a black man she doesn’t know enters the house?

My friend asked me once: “Why is it if I am alone in a lift with an older Muhindi woman, she shrinks back in fear, as if I am going to attack her?”

He asked me only after he had become comfortable enough with me to ask the uncomfortable questions. We both burst out in hollow laughter. The idea that he could attack anybody is simply absurd. He has the gentlest soul. Imagine. A whole community living like that.

But we inherit our fears, just as we inherit our prejudice.

But we don’t talk about the inherent fear so many women in my grandmother’s generation feel towards black men. This is the prejudice they pass on to their daughters and their daughters after that. It is ok to be friends with black women, but not ok to be friends with black men. Because you never know. The demonization of all black men. The fear of which, the basis we ourselves don’t understand, but we so often blindly adopt.

I am not interested in being politically correct anymore.

I have lived a truly sheltered life. My working class parents have worked tooth and nail for that privilege of shelter. My father does not hide his opinion that I should have settled abroad. That was Plan A. Work hard. Save. Send kids abroad to university. They settle abroad. They live life in a country where they aren’t scared of getting kicked out some day.

There are the memories from the 1990’s when there were anti-Muhindi pamphlets making the rounds. Whipped up frenzy around the slogan “Asians must go!” An entire campaign based around the fact that Indians were the scourge of Kenya, that they were stealing Kenya from Kenyans. There was a large enough visible consensus vocalizing these sentiments to shake the nerves of an already jittery community. Families advised each other to have a small bag packed. Ready to flee. Just in case.

But flee where?

I was born here. My parents were born here. My grandparents were born here and have never even been to India.

I have heated arguments with my father.

“The problem with us Muhindis, is that we just live in our own bubble and refuse to participate in the country’s governance, and then we cry foul when we are treated differently, when we are told we are not Kenyan,” I say.

“We tried Aleya. We tried,” he says. “When the country first gained independence, and started being cut up and doled out to relatives and friends, we raised our voices and on the front page of the national newspapers it said, ‘Asians if you don’t like it, get out!”

So, what was the response from many of my parents’ generation? Shut up. Burrow deeper into the bubble. Keep their heads down. Work hard. Make enough money so that their children have a choice.

They set down tentative roots. They made friends. They were buried here, and yes many of them gave Kenya their hearts, but always too afraid to love too much, because you never knew when your love would be stamped on by a steel boot. So they protect us from heartbreak, because they know our belonging here is tenuous. Because they know to give your whole heart is foolish.

I have given my whole heart. It lies nestled in Kenya’s mouth. I have nowhere else. I am alive nowhere else. But it is like having an abusive lover. One that beats you up, humiliates you, taunts you about whether you are worthy of belonging to them. But I love. And for that reason, I can never leave.

What does it mean to be Kenyan? For me right now, to be Kenyan is to feel helpless.

I watch this inane sweep of alleged illegal immigrants in the name of squashing terrorism, and it chills me to the core. It is illegal. Unconstitutional. Yet I don’t know what to do. I talk about it at the dinner table. It could be us. It has been us before. My father looks me at and says, that is why I told you to stay abroad. That was the plan A. I tell him, “Dad, there is no plan A. This is my only plan.”

A version of this article originally appeared on Aleya Kassam ’s blog. It has been reprinted with permission. Follow Aleya on Twitter @aleyakassam.

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