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relearning history through a discovery of my african roots

I started writing this article with the intention of exploring and uncovering my connection with East Africa as a British Indian with Kenyan and Ugandan heritage. I researched and reflected on whether I or my grandparents can claim to identify as African as a result of the time that two generations of my family spent in East Africa and reflected on what I feel I share or don’t share with Black Africans.

A brief context for readers who don’t know how Indians ended up in Africa: during the 19th century, there was a huge Indian diaspora. Three and half million Indians were transported to various colonies of European powers as indentured labourers, a system not dissimilar to the slave-trade. A large proportion of Indians were sent to British East Africa (now Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania) in 1896 to help with the construction of the Ugandan Railway and many stayed after the railway was built to exploit new economic opportunities. 

The process of learning this history was long and exhausting: I read lengthy and dense academic journals, even renewing my JStor subscription, to educate myself on the history of British colonialism in East Africa and why Indians ended up there. In order to fully understand the impact of British colonial forces on the lives of my ancestors, I spoke to my remaining grandparents, for hours at a time, to access their precious first-hand accounts and learn about their lived experience in East Africa. I spoke to my generation of British Indians to find out if they are acquainted with their African past or if, like me, this part of their history is largely overlooked.

I gradually pieced together an explanation for the widespread disregard amongst Indians towards their African past, attributing it to the historical trauma of forced labour (19th century); Indophobia (widespread anti-Indian prejudice in East Africa) and Idi Amin’s racist expulsion (20th century) or “ethnic cleansing” of Asians from Uganda, which resulted in cultural disassociation from the site of trauma. Starved of this knowledge in school curriculums and history textbooks, I became obsessed with this period of history and immersed myself in an education of the wider atrocities of the British Empire, not just on Indians but on other races too.  

In learning about the oppression of my own community, I began to comprehend the sheer scale and resolution of imperial oppression inflicted by the British on all non-white communities. I developed a strong affiliation with Africa over our shared colonial history: a mutual experience of having our motherlands violently exploited and stripped of their natural resources at the hand of powerful white rulers. Their people have suffered like my people. It’s why I have so many black friends, I thought. Wanting to conjure a sense of reconnection with East Africa, I romanticised my grandmother’s occasional use of Swahili words and glorified Indian ‘Mogo’ chips (a popular snack made from Cassava) as a recipe influenced by my ancestor’s time in Africa.

In light of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, following the cruel death of George Floyd, this sentiment of mutual suffering that I was trying to express in the original draft of this article, felt awkward and vain. I might share a historical colonial oppression with Black people but it does not compare with the continual and contemporary oppression faced by the Black community every day. It should not have taken countless cruel and unnecessary deaths of innocent Black lives to make me realise this.  

I have come to understand that Indians were and still are a privileged race. In the 20th century, free from the indenture system, the Indian population in East Africa acquired leading roles in the cotton and banking industries which granted them a degree of economic power and status in society. My grandfather’s stories of society in Kenya revealed that Black Africans were more subjugated than the migrant Indian community: they were treated as second-class citizens in their own country, physically segregated from white-inhabited areas and only accessed roles as servants to the British settlers. This is important to acknowledge. Black people were significantly more oppressed than the Asian community in East Africa and I was wrong to fixate on Indian suffering in my earlier draft.

Transposed into modern day, the situation is not dissimilar. While South Asians will experience contemporary institutional racism and daily microaggressions, we are not being violently murdered, imprisoned and cruelly discriminated against in the way that Black people have faced for hundreds of years and continue to combat against relentlessly every single day. To all my Indian relatives reading this, with whom I have had relentless arguments over the past weeks condemning your ‘All Lives Matter’ perspectives, if there is one thing you take away from reading this, let it be that.   

Now I am going to be really transparent. Not only are Indians privileged but we have occupied status as the Oppressor. When researching my ancestry in East Africa, I discovered many articles pointing towards India’s historical racism towards black people (eloquently summarised by Sharan Daliwhal). I forced myself to confront the injustices committed by my own race. It is common knowledge that anti-colonial activist Mahatma Gandhi held extreme anti-black views: he called for impoverished Africans in South Africa to pay more taxes and ignored the brutality of the British Empire towards them, solely prioritising justice for his own race (Ashwin Desai). Watch a few Bollywood films and you will comprehend Indian mentalities towards Black people who are largely portrayed as criminals or romantically unworthy. While I was not personally taught anti-black values growing up, I remember hearing the word ‘kalu’ (a gujurati racist slur) used liberally amongst my grandparent’s generation; a linguistic reminder of the long-standing but rarely acknowledged casual racism of Indians towards Black people. 

I attribute these views, which unfortunately still linger amongst my grandparent’s generation, to years of white conditioning under British colonial rule. While in East Africa, my ancestors were oblivious to the atrocities being committed by the British back home in India and lacked modern resources to educate themselves on social issues. I think they assimilated culturally and mentally, succumbing to the belief that the white race is superior. It is easier to assimilate and accept one’s domination than attempt to combat it, especially if there are others being treated worse than you are. Even now, I recognise this behaviour diluted down into my parent’s generation whose views echo a culture of ‘keeping your head down and getting on with it’ rather than standing up and fighting for those less privileged than you. I refuse to adopt this attitude.

It is not enough to disregard our connection with East Africa and the oppression we witnessed as well as imposed on thousands of Black Africans, like many first-generation British Indians have done. I pledge to educate my grandparents and great aunts and uncles and encourage them to unlearn their adopted anti-black views. It is not enough to passively appear to be ‘not racist’ like many second-generation British Indians do. I pledge to engage my parents in conversations about race and help them to understand the spectrum of oppression.

It is not enough to show solidarity “optically” but not “non-optically”. This process of unpacking, writing this article then relearning and rewriting it, was crucial in learning about my own history, my own privilege and helped me to finally understand my family’s connection to East Africa. My relationship with East Africa is not something to be romanticised in a blog post about my journey of discovering my African identity but instead was a moment of history that played a significant part in the historical oppression of Black people. In order to progress individually and collectively from the current racist society in which we live, I pledge to take responsibility for this and not attempt to whitewash or tone down history. Telling this story of writing and rewriting, using what I have learnt to help other relearn truthful history is the very least I can do in the fight for justice for Black lives.

nikita karia is a theatre producer and aspiring writer from South London. She specialises in small-scale fringe theatre with an emphasis on collaborative, creative theatre-making. New to writing, she is experimenting with short form, long form and essays within the personal and cultural realms as well we theatre criticism.  See her and read her on twitter or her website

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