Friday, 12 September 2014 11:25

Rise Oh Phoenix (Acrylic on canvas)


The artist is the director of a company that focuses on skills development. She comes from a family that played an integral role in the history of Kenya, especially during the Emergency Period. This is her story:

"We lived with my grandfather in his palatial home in Parklands. This house also has memories of Margaret Kenyatta the late Kenyatta's sister and other siblings who often sought asylum in S.G. Amin's home – my grandfather's home."

Though I was born in Kampala, Uganda my mother wanted to have me in the presence of her cousin whose family owned a company Uganda Hunting and Fishing. Returning back to Nairobi with my father, mother and uncle who drove the whole five hundred miles plus. My birth and early childhood was just before Kenya's independence. We lived with my grandfather in his palatial home in Parklands, previously known as Pratap Road and now called Bhanderi Road. We were located behind MP Shah Hospital and there was only a forest surrounding the area. This old stone home was built on stilts and one could enter a hide out from the floor boards in the house. The area down below was my favorite place to play had 'hide and seek'.

This house also has memories of Margaret Kenyatta the late Kenyatta's sister and other siblings who often sought asylum in S.G. Amin's home – my grandfather's home. If the British authorities raided homes suspected of hiding political people, then we would hide them below the house. S.G. Amin was the only lawyer in pre-independent Kenya and was the president of the Indian Congress in the early 60's. He represented the rights of Kenyans and Indians regarding discrimination, land ownership, unreasonable taxes levied by the British and secured scholarships for Kenyans to study at Indian universities. Some of his close friends were Achroo Kapila, Makhan Singh, Pio Da Gama Pinto, and many others who fiercely fought the British colonizers. It is in this environment I grew up, attending political rallies with my grandfather, with a family album of pictures of the young Mzee Kenyatta, Senior Odinga, Daniel Arap Moi at a political speech in honor of the young Mrs. Gandhi. My grandmother a strong woman who only wore the Indian white cotton sarees as a sign of solidarity for Indian fabric, fearlessly walked the grounds of the home firing bullets from a shotgun to frighten away intruders, leopards and animals. I am proud to have the history of Kenya in my early childhood, listening to Mzee Kenyatta's charismatic voice and speeches on the local radio.

The coming of Moi into power represented the attempted coup and an incidence where my brother was pushed into a military truck to be taken to some unknown destination. This is when my mother fought like a lioness refusing to allow them to take my brother. However the experience of having to part with Ksh.3000 shillings, which was all our income of the month as "kitu kidogo" to the GSU, was painful. She pleaded and reasoned with the officers that we were praying for peace in Kenya and had no intention of committing any anti-Kenyan activities and after a long struggle they released my brother.

I am proud that my father was a high school teacher. This meant we did not grow up with the kind of affluence that many of the other Indian families had. We struggled to make ends meet, I watched my mother as a kid stitching curtains, teaching French to adults and later running her own nursery school in Nairobi West, as well as taking food and catering orders.

My father's home in Nairobi West, Tysons Maisonettes on Swara Crescent, held another equally important set of beautiful memories from 1972 onwards. We were privileged to live with the different Kenyan African neighbors, Indians, Ismailis, and many young Kenyans who had brought home wives from Yugoslavia, Russia, Czechoslovakia and Somalia. Without realizing this, I grew up accepting Kenyan Africans and Indians as one people. Some of my life changing and fondest memories come from living in Nairobi West.

Having grown with struggles to make our livelihood through sheer hard work, I always felt different, as the wealth of my family did not compare with other typical Indian families. Many Indians were business owners, doctors, engineers or accountants while we were teachers. Still I am privileged for not having a financial inheritance. Instead I gained a rich experience of the variety of people we interacted with in Kenya – the black, brown, white or yellow – whichever label we may call it.



"I am Kenyan. For a long time I have said I am a Kenyan Indian and this was a huge growth curve for me. I do not want to be called a Kenyan Indian or for it to be said that I am not an "indigenous" Kenyan."

Some of the differences I experienced growing up were that many of my classmates had access to international education as they had the financial means. Secondly, the different backgrounds of my parents – my father being a Punjabi and my mother being a Patel was a big taboo back then. These communities were good at keeping you outside their social and developmental activities, which we strongly experienced from the early 60s to late 70s. Fortunately, by the time we got into our 20s things started to change and mixed marriages became more acceptable within the larger Indian community.
I am proud of "who I am" today and the decisions I have taken to make changes both in my personal and professional life. I have learnt much from my growing children and their views and opinions and how their definition of being Kenyan is different from mine. The only regret I have in raising them is that they do not read or write our Indian languages that is a loss for them. Like any language they would lose the richness of the Indian literature, poetry, music because much is lost in translation.

As Kenyans we are too accepting of many wrong doings, which we laugh at, we don't question actions of leaders, or discrimination exercised in work places, rampant corruption and insecurity. We are so complacent and continuously say, "If God wills then this is how it is..." No one says, "If God wills then do the right thing." We are driven by the need for money, we find it easy to create justifications to corrupt and allow wrong actions to be taken. As Kenyans we are hypocrites who then say "We are god fearing people."

I am Kenyan. For a long time I have said I am a Kenyan Indian and this was a huge growth curve for me. I do not want to be called a Kenyan Indian or for it to be said that I am not an "indigenous" Kenyan.

About My BodyMap – "Rise Oh Phoenix"

"I beckon all of us to fight for the right things, build on strong virtues and to take right actions as a growing country – Kenya."

My feelings are reflected in the choice of colors and how I was responding from my heart and not my head. I chose dark colors for my early childhood and a memory of a figure in white reminding me of a godlike memory. My grandfather's spectacles reminded me of many memories which shaped my growth as a person and as an artist. The change of colors from dark murky colors to green depict the various periods of challenges and growth both for Kenya as well as in my life. The red flowers represent anger at being helpless or at the mercy of circumstances. Luminous blues, whites yellow and purple reflect my inner journey and search for meaning of life, leading to a spiritual growth which is white similar to the meaning of my name. The face is white because it does not matter what color we are we must strive to become enlightened and thus the gold color for the hair and eyes.

I beckon all of us to fight for the right things, build on strong virtues and to take right actions as a growing country – Kenya.


In the last issue of Awaaz, we introduced the "Who I Am, Who We Are" project and our work on looking for a common Kenyan identity. The project run by Xavier Verhoest and Wambui Kamiru, both artists affiliated with the Kuona Trust, seeks to create spaces for expression on responsible citizenship through art. One of the ways we explore identity is through the creation of bodymaps. These are life-size paintings created by the participants and they are reflections of their thoughts of themselves as individuals in society and as members of a society.

Please visit the project online:

Friday, 12 September 2014 09:49

Who I Am, Who We Are

"I come from a colourful mess. Parklands – down the road."

We will be the first to admit how problematic the term "Kenyan- Asian" is. Between the 25th – the 27th of April 2014, we had a Bodymapping (BM) session with 5 participants drawn from what we often consider to be Kenyan – Asians. A key part of the discussion was on what we should call this community, if anything different from just "Kenyan."

Suggestions made included;

  • Kenyan of Indian Origin
  • Kenyan of Asian Origin
  • Kenyan Indians
  • Kenindians

As expected the discussion went on a while. However the consensus was that this community is part and parcel of Kenya and as such the 5 participants identified as being Kenyan.

Here are some of the responses to various questions:

What is your origin?

"I come from a colourful mess. Parklands – down the road."

"I always have memories of myself singing at a cottage where I lived. I used to see the (Kenya Bus Service) KBS double decker buses going past from this swing."

"Me being born in Kenya and my grandparents talking about the history of Kenya, politics and history is a part of my history."

"We don't choose whether we will be born in the White House or Kakuma. I was born in Kindu Bay."

Education is an essential part of upbringing and identity.
In the discussion one participant mentioned how there was a decision taken to enroll him at Hospital Hill School rather than the traditional Oshwal Academy. This meant that he interacted with people of different backgrounds and races. The hardest part for this participant was adjusting to the different cultures.
One participant with Indian, Arab and Luo roots found equality through education.

"Education is held in high regard by the Luo. I was light-skinned enough to be adopted by an Asian woman."

He spent a lot of time in the library of the Islamic school he attended.

"I found the stories about Indian gods fascinating because they had moral stories. I found these stories similar to the ones of the Luo community. I was raised by my grandfather who came to Kenya from India in 1917."

Religion also plays a key role in identity.
For one participant, her family moved back to India upon independence because of the uncertainty felt in the country over security and opportunity. She grew up speaking Hindi before her family moved back to Kenya, where she had to learn English and adjust back to living in Kenya. While in India she attended a Catholic convent school even though she was Hindu.

"Coming from a Hindu family and going to a Catholic convent school, it brought a lot of turmoil. I ended up with no fear of religion but an expansive mind of different religions. No fear of conversions but people unified under religion."

This Hindu participant later married a Kenyan Ismail man. She refused to convert to Islam and instead has held on to her religion.

"I would never change, I always was me. It is my identity."

Through the discussion it came out that Kenyan identity is a choice. One participant, who is in her 40s, has recently began to look at India as an option. She is considering it because of the growing level of insecurity in Kenya (carjackings, robberies etc.). Although she does say that it does not matter where in the world, for her, India is an option because she has friends and some family there.

"I am the only one in my family who has never wanted a second passport. This is the first time that I want to go back to India.

"I see myself as a convergence for other people."

It should be noted that until she was 25 years old, she admits that India was the last place she ever wanted to go because she felt no affiliation to the country. This participant had grown up on a coffee farm in rural Kenya. It was only upon the invitation of a friend that she first visited India at 25 years of age.
According to the participants it was interesting to note perceptions about the younger generation Kenyans of Asian origin.

"I grew up being told not to marry a Black or White person, and I was Black. There are different types of half-castes. When I came to Nairobi, I suddenly did not have the pressure to be like anyone else. Today, I go to Village Market and I see interracial dating and it makes me happy because it didn't happen when I was growing up. Being coloured means that you are a minority."

What are the key moments in your life?

Another participant said that her children don't see themselves as being one race over another.

"My children say they don't want to learn our Indian language because they don't see the need for it. They don't see the colours; black, brown, white – that I grew up with."

Of culture and the role it plays in society, this female participant had this say:

"Culture is meant to unite us."

In the last issue of Awaaz, we introduced the "Who I Am, Who We Are" project and our work on looking for a common Kenyan identity. The project run by Xavier Verhoest and Wambui Kamiru, both artists affiliated with the Kuona Trust, seeks to create spaces for expression on responsible citizenship through art. Please visit the project online:

Peter Nazareth's book, Literature and Society in Modern Africa, became one of the strongest statements on the East African literary scene on the dire alienation that has gripped the East African society and went ahead to advocate commitment as a redress to that alienation. The book stood in a dialectically opposite poise against the works by Taban Lo Liyong and Ali A Mazrui, especially The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, which sought to portray the individual as too important to be in service of the society. According to Peter Nazareth's theoretical framework, writings by Taban Lo Liyong, Okot p'Bitek, Charles Mangua, and David G Maillu do not add up as a revolutionary programme towards freedom in East Africa. In Peter Nazareth's construct we see writers who pursue their own self -fulfillment in literature, and totally refuse to be of service to the people who have sacrificed so much to prop up their existence.

Peter Nazareth portrayed Ali A Mazrui in 'The Trial of a Juggler' for the Journal of East African Literature and Society(JOLISO), and commented on Ime Ikiddeh's play, 'A Kind of Churchillness,' in Transition 19,2-1965. He operated in the socialist realist mode to unravel Mazrui's poverty in literary thought and imagery and pointed at the insipid words, sentences and paragraphs in Mazrui's novel, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo. Nazareth showed how Mazrui's novel was littered with the 'use of stilted language and use of clichés,' and demonstrated how Mazrui often used 'nyktomorphic words,' or 'vague words in the hope that the reader will fill in the blanks out of his own imagination and experience.' From Nazareth's portraiture, Mazrui is a lame duck which props itself up by the support from strong well-known writers and thinkers in such a way that, left on their own, Mazrui's writings would have 'nothing of value'.

Ironically, however, Peter Nazareth is more mild on the writings of his Nigerian colleague, whom, in spite of having 'no overt message,' is rated as committed because of the humour in it. Ikiddeh's play was written and produced at the University of Leeds. There was nothing in that play to show that Ime Ikiddeh was an African writer. Its setting was alien, and its point of view skewed.

Peter Nazareth was Ngugi wa Thiong'o's contemporary at Makerere University College and his background has a lot to say about his critical perspectives. He was born in Uganda on 27 April, 1940 of Goan parents of Malaysian ancestry in a closed and privileged society with cultivated bourgeois values, a background which brought forth his novel, In a Brown Novel. Like many writers and critics of his generation, Nazareth was a Roman Catholic and he has to unlearn some of the values that informed his perspectives to become the more cosmopolitan and enlightened critic of which he is now an integral part.

Nazareth's upbringing compares unfavourably with that of Ngugi wa Thiong'o, a son of a peasant mother whose background has been crafted in his autobiography, Dreams at a Time of War. Ngugi wa Thiong'o grew up in poverty, exploitation and land alienation, and, on going to mission schools, imbibed values from his Christian education, whose vestiges he was later to renounce.

The literary values of the two literary figures, however, coalesced in a remarkable way, as they studied English at post-graduate levels at the feet of the socialist literary critic, Arnold Kettle, and, together, discovered the writings of Karl Marx, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, Jean- Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon of The Wretched of the Earth fame.

Indeed the whole batch of East African writers and literary critics who graduated from the University of Leeds in the 1960s : Peter Nazareth, Pio and Elvania Zirimu, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Grant Kamenju and their West African counterparts - Ghanaian , and Nigerian counterparts, Jawa Apronti and Ime Ikiddeh, respectively formed a formidable team. Ime Ikiddeh, Pio Zirimu, Peter Nazareth and Grant Kamenju were literary critics whilst Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Elvania Zirimu were the creative writers. Peter Nazareth and Ime Ikiddeh were so close to Ngugi wa Thiong'o that whatever criticism they wrote on Ngugi's works were tinged biographical observations. They grew up as intellectuals in the mid-sixties when the continent of Africa was being decolonized. As Ime Ikiddeh was to observe later: 'The place was Leeds and the period was the eventful years leading into the mid-sixties when many African countries were regaining their freedoms. But they were also years of interminable crises. The headlines included the murderous betrayal in the Congo, Ian Smith's rebellion in Zimbabwe, the overthrow of the Kabaka in Uganda, and the military intervention in Nigeria and Ghana, all in a continent still smarting with bullets of Sharpville.'

The bulk of Peter Nazareth's essays during this period were selected for their consistent address to social issues. They were published in volumes like Literature and Society in Modern Africa (1972), Peter Nazareth ventured into what George A Heron was later to call, 'socialist literary criticism'. His literary criticism can be divided into three phases: at the Makerere days when he was fascinated by English literature, the period of the University of Leeds and the return when he and other writers argued for commitment in their writing, and the post-Amin period when he found himself an exile seeking to anchor his works in a new world. He became increasingly aware of the social function of literature, and the need for the African writer to be committed. His stand became very clear in his article entitled 'The African Writer and Commitment,' which he wrote from the Post-Graduate Division of the School of English at the University of Leeds in England.

This thinking and that of his contemporaries set the pace for post-colonial discourse on African literature where writers and literary critics exposed colonialism and exploitation in all their changing manifestations. As a literary critic he saw those who write art for art's sake as uncommitted writers whilst those who dealt with urgent issues facing their societies as committed writers. During the period of his advocacy for the writer's commitment, he addressed the themes of alienation that the writer was to deal with, namely, the exploitation and loss of human values - weighing African socialism and socialist commitment as antidotes to alienation. According to Nazareth's analysis, capitalism is the wrong system for the new societies. African societies had good social organization whose quality was to be carried to the present reality. His vision for the African writer in independent Africa was a commitment to 'a kind of socialism – that is to a society in which there are no inequalities by the very way it is ordered'.

Nazareth rightly proposes Bertolt Brecht as the greatest playwright of the 20th century and as the best example of a committed writer. Nazareth argued for an example of implicit commitment in Achebe's A Man of the People where he considered Chinua Achebe as a progressive writer because the masses portrayed in the novel are what they are because they must survive: 'It was no mean feat for them, and for Afro Americans, to survive slavery,' he wrote. He predicted from the time of Weep Not Child (1964) that Ngugi would view Kenya's problems from a perspective of 'a kind of socialism'. He stands for good committed literary works.

Peter Nazareth encouraged East African literati on East African literature. I was one of the beneficiaries of his wise counsel. He encouraged me in so many ways not only when I was doing my doctoral research on East African literature , but in my editorial work on Standpoints On African Literature, Journal of East African Literature and Society (Joliso). He always wanted to hear from me and asked me to furnish him with information on what was being published in East Africa. He felt cut off from East Africa when Idi Amin threw him out of Uganda, not only as a senior civil servant in Uganda's Ministry of Finance, but also from his fervent and energetic contributions to literature as a writer-critic; all because he was an Indian.

In the third phase of his criticism, Nazareth was forcefully separated from Uganda, the land of his birth. He would have wanted to remain in touch with the more progressive forces in East Africa. He was forced to widen his universe to include the literature of South East Asia and the Third World, a geographical term which implied the margin vis-à-vis Euro-North America which enjoyed a social and cultural centrality. On landing in the US, Nazareth was confronted by a new universe: 'Like thousands of people, I am upset about the Chilean coup. I believe the US was behind it and that Allende was for peasants and workers against imperialism and its local (class) agents. As Nkrumah would have said, there is clearly a class struggle in Chile. The West only permits 'democracy' in the neo-colonies when it operates in the interests of the middle class. And look at Latin America today, to see Africa tomorrow.'

Nazareth's essays are now about literary migration which is a form of alienation which he shares with such writers in the Western tradition, setting the pace for men living with varying degrees of unease in lands of conflicting cultures. The example of Peter Nazareth's alienation can be compared to that of Narayan, Anand, Mascarenhas and Carrimbhoy - all writers of Indian extraction.

By Chris L Wanjala, PhD, EBS
Professor of Literature
University of Nairobi, Kenya.

In order to understand the way and the purpose of using languages other than English in, at least, selected works of Moyez Vassanji, it would be reasonable to answer at least two questions. One - how and for which purpose does the author use what I would call 'language-mixing devices' (such as code-switching and code-mixing). Two - what does he write about languages, including English, but mostly African and Indian ones, and which roles, according to the writer, do these languages play in the lives of his characters and societies he describes. I will try to answer these questions using the text of his debut novel The Gunny Sack (1989), since I believe in this book the necessary linguistic material is contained not only in abundance, but is used in the way that allows to fulfil the above-set tasks.

It is quite obvious that Vassanji profoundly uses the local languages in the ways traditional in African literature (as described by Paul Bandia) - to spice up his texts with 'local colour' and to introduce and describe the local cultural phenomena. However, using them for this rather 'conventional' purpose, Vassanji also goes far beyond it, using language-mixing as an important instrument of shaping the novel's message.

Some scholars refer to The Gunny Sack as 'a book that in the most penetrating manner captures the Asian people's search for identity in the sub-region' (Ilieva and Odiemo-Munara, 197). And exactly this search for new identity is reflected in the linguistic 'landscape' of the book.

In colonial times, where everyone was shown a place in hierarchy, Indian immigrants and their descendants seem to start occupying their own niche in East African society. Through the life of the main character of the novel's first part, India-born Dhanji Govindji, and also his relatives and children, the author speaks of the established and strengthening position of the Indians in the region. He stresses that the Indian newcomers managed to establish good relations not only with their neighbours, a 'respectable and prudent Swahili company' (21), - but even with the Germans; for example, when the German soldiers searched all the houses in Matamu looking for three maji maji rebels, Indian houses were spared from search (19-20).

Vassanji does not specify (except in very few cases) the language in which Germans and Indians, or Indian and Africans communicate in colonial Tanganyika. However, it appears that even 'by default' it should be Swahili, for exactly Swahili, according to the historical sources, was the language of communication in German East Africa (see, e.g., Malik 1996).

After British advent, although facing certain difficulties, the descendants of Dhanji Govindji successfully go on in major East African cities, again managing to acquire a niche in the local society. And those days Swahili again seems to enter quite firmly into the everyday life and mentality of the community. Salim and his siblings, growing up against the Swahili background of the immediate neighbourhood (87), acquire the habits of language mixing very quickly, and soon Salim's elder cousin Shamim tells him stories with ' "Once upon a time" in English and then mixed with Cutchi and Swahili' (97).

After Independence, the old colonial world has fallen apart, so Salim and his numerous relatives are again trying to re-acquire a distinct identity, a sense of belonging to the new East African milieu, where the previous hierarchies seem to vanish. 'Salim and his like now have to adopt and adapt to an atmosphere of an unknown, unfamiliar environment that is East Africa after independence' (Makokha 69). And one of the ways of this adaptation is the re-acquisition of the language, namely, Swahili, through which Salim and 'his like' seem to procure for a new Tanganyikan and, later Tanzanian, identity. For Salim it is even more important – his grandmother, Govindji's first wife, was an African slave woman named Taratibu, and this drop of her African blood in his veins is still one of the major concerns of Salim.

Even on the eve of independence, preparing for the elections to Tanganyika's first self-government, the most prescient Indian candidates were using Swahili in their campaigns. In the newly independent Tanganyika the language acquired topmost importance – and especially for the local Indians. This importance is stressed in many episodes. In the march to support the President the men and boys of the Asian community carry slogans and sing songs in Swahili. 'And when we reached State House, Nuru Poni made a speech in Swahili that did us proud' (184). Swahili serves the Indian community's different needs, from begging the African neighbour to return the fallen cricket ball (117-118) to resolving the conflict with the same neighbour if the boys misbehaved. In the end, it looks like Swahili, as a symbol of their new nation and identity, becomes really part of the personality of young Tanzanian (already) Indians, relatives and friends of Salim.

The importance given to the language by the government is also obvious. Amina, Salim's African girlfriend, whom he met at the National Service camp, was asked to give lectures to the cadets in politics and culture. The girl was in no doubt about the language of her lecturers – 'She decided she would read to her class. First she gave them Abdel Latif Kofi (a Swahili poet from Lamu, one of the characters – MG), then Shaban Robert. She translated excerpts from Chinua Achebe' (221). And it is exactly through Amina, through their love relations and spiritual bond, that Salim's serious, self-conscious attempts to acknowledge his current and acquired new identity got their start. Identity, ethnicity, race were already the topics of their very first conversation – and already then the language issues became involved. And later, exactly through the involvement of the language the first major step on the way of two communities towards each other is made. When Salim's old grandmother, Ji Bai, performs a Swahili dance, surprised Amina (later she and Ji Bai become as close as relatives) asks: 'We Mswahili, nini?' To which Ji Bai replies: 'Yes, I am Swahili... and Indian and Arab... and European' (228). It seems that it is not just by chance that Amina tries to manifest her affection to Ji Bai by suggesting the commonality of language. Of course she knows that the old Indian woman is not a 'Mswahili' – but by calling her one, she acknowledges their common belonging to this land, fertilized by the bones and blood of their ancestors, the land which they are now supposed to share on equal grounds (and in Ji Bai's vision it extends over everyone who lives on it – Africans, Indians, Arabs and Europeans). How serious was Amina's determination from now on to treat Indians as her compatriots and equals, and how important, in her opinion, was the role of language in that, is shown in another episode, when matured and sophisticated Amina, back in Tanzania after her overseas studies, at the gathering of her 'comrades-in-thought' again raises the questions of belonging and identity of East African Indians, stating that 'Tanzania is different, its Asians more truly African', and their 'Africanness' is mostly demonstrated in their fluent use of the language and their contribution to it, for Swahili contains so many Indian words. Salim heartily thanks Amina – for in her he met a genuine (even if maybe a sole) attempt, made by a person from 'the other side', to verbalise (and maybe even to formulate) his own hopes and aspirations, to acknowledge his equality. At that, in the same way as people from Salim's community do, Amina does it through language.

Summing up the aforesaid examples, I tend to conclude that the presence of languages other than English, mostly through the use of what I conditionally call 'language-mixing devices', serves in the novel the purposes reaching far beyond the conventional use of such devices for the needs of reproducing the local colour or specific cultural realities. Languages in The Gunny Sack perform multiple functions. Through masterful use of the non-English words and expressions he manages to express the characters' ethnicity, cultural background and social stand. In the long run, it allows him of East Africa, to describe various aspects of social relationships in East African society in various periods of history, to create their specific atmosphere, to draw a panorama of East Africa as a contact zone of various cultures, reflecting its diversity. One of the main functions is expressing and constructing the characters' identity in various times and contexts. Of these, the most prominent role is delegated to the Swahili language, which plays cognate, but slightly different roles in the lives of the novel's main characters. For Salim, it is a way to reconcile with his African ancestry, his African blood inherited from his slave grandmother, with the long and turbulent history of his community and his land.


Bandia, Paul. 1996. Code-Switching and Code-Mixing in African Creative Writing: Some Insights for Translation Studies. TTR : traduction, terminologie, rédaction, 9 (1), 139-153.

Ilieva, Emilia, and Lennox Odiemo-Munara. 2011. 'Negotiating Dislocated Identities in the Space of Post-Colonial Chaos: Goretti Kyomuhendo's Waiting'. Negotiating Afropolitanism: Essays on Borders and Spaces in Contemporary African Literature and Folklore. Wawrzinek, Jennifer and J.K.S.Makokha (eds.). Amsterdam-New York: Rodopi, pp. 183-204.

Malik, Nasor. 1996. 'Extension of Kiswahili during the German colonial administration in continental Tanzania (former Tanganyika), 1885-1917'. Swahili Forum 3, pp.155-159.

Vassanji, Moyez G. 1989. The Gunny Sack. London: Heinemann.


GromovMikhail D Gromov
United States International University – Africa

Mikhail Gromov has a PhD in African Studies from Moscow Lomonosov State University; currently he is an Assistant Professor of Literature at the United States International University, Nairobi, Kenya.

Since the period of formation of post-colonial theory, the notion of identity has occupied its rightful place as one of the key concepts of this theory. This paper tries to explore the changing identities in M.G.Vassanji's novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003), specifically focusing on female characters, for, in our opinion, the evolution of these characters in the novel may be considered paradigmatic for societies that went through colonial to post-colonial stage.

Two main female characters of the novel - Mrs Lall, mother of Vikram, the narrator, and her daughter and Vikram's sister Deepa – represent two generations of the Lall family. And in terms of their self-identification, both women reveal a very sharp contrast to male personages of the book. The older generation of the family – Vikram's grandfathers Anand and Verma – demonstrate firm attachment to British empire, in fact eagerly identifying themselves as its subjects. The same attitude characterises Mr Lall, the head of the family, whom his son Vikram describes as 'proudly Kenyan' (Mr Lall even dislikes India, his ancestral land) and 'hopelessly colonial'.

Contrary to them, Mrs Lall (her first name is Sheila, but it is mentioned very few times in the novel) demonstrates a strikingly different, even opposed, type of identity, which, paraphrasing her son, may be called 'proudly Indian and hopefully anti-colonial'. She kept all her life her devotion to India, the country of her birth and youth, and it always remained for her a criterion of what is good and acceptable ('This is India' – a compliment she pays to Mombasa town, the stay in which she thoroughly enjoyed –111-112). Also all her life she nursed the dream to come back to the land of the ancestors, but, by bitter irony of fate and post-colonial developments, she never returned there, her last decisive attempt being cut by terminal disease. Mrs Lall never perceived Kenya as anything but, in her own voice, the land 'where I have married and made my home, [...] my husband's and children's country' (106). Along with her devotion to the motherland, Mrs Lall strongly disliked the British, and occasionally dared to demonstrate this – she disapproved of her children keeping friendship with a British settler's family, and refused to accompany her husband to London ('I have no desire to see London, anyway' – 294). Moreover, Mrs Lall seemed to have a genuine empathy to all the other people around her who were subjected to the colonial powers, first of all Africans, which is demonstrated by her kind treatment of Njoroge, the son of their servant and gardener Mwangi.

However, the further development of events show that Mrs Lall's mentality harboured quite a lot of pre-colonial and especially colonial ethnic and other prejudices, directed, surprisingly, at her fellow colonial subjects. She is harshly disparaging to Bengalis, because traditionally they were considered by her people, the Punjabi, an inferior race, and despises them even more than the British – she scorns Chandra Bose, Indian freedom fighter, for the mere fact that he was a Bengali.

The strength of these prejudices is also clearly demonstrated by her further treatment of Njoroge - she was kind and sympathetic to him as long as he remained a fellow victim of hateful colonisers; but things changed radically when Njoroge, already after Independence, started wooing her daughter. This turned Mrs Lall into a furious warrior, defending her worldview based on hierarchical differences in gender, age, race, class, on the foundations of patriarchy, compartmentalisation and nativism, which found the concise expression in her phrase: 'There is nothing wrong with being an African or Asian or European; but they can't mix. It does not work' (178).

Thus, we assume that Mrs Lall was also, in fact, the bearer of an identity very close to that of her husband and his father – only in her case it can be considered as a 'reverse' type of colonial identity. No matter how different or even opposed the sentiments may be, the founding traits of these two types of identity are similar. We seem to notice the loss of initial Indian identity, largely destroyed by ideological, political, and emotional fractures, and shift to an identity of a colonial subject (be it that of 'unwillingly Indian' or 'proudly Indian'), identity founded on various well-soaked and/or newly generated prejudices – racial, social, gender – and largely stipulated by the same colonial and even pre-colonial structures.

Mrs Lall's daughter Deepa, the most attractive personage of the book, presents a totally different identity. The main difference between the worldview (and, in that, identity) of Deepa and of the other characters in the novel lies, in our opinion, in the fact that the world views of Vic's sister is largely based on idealism. In this case, we interpret the term 'idealism' positively, as the vision of a new world, the world where all the currently existent prejudices about race, ethnicity, gender, culture, religion, etc. will cease to be, and in which one will become a sole decision maker in the matters of his or her life. The vision of such a world is expressed by Deepa through her love relationship with Njoroge.When Njoroge shares his concern about their relations – 'Your father and mother, he began. They will surely object' – Deepa firmly answers: 'This is a new Africa, Njo [...] We are the next generation' (177).

Deepa's evolution of identity also seems to be accelerated by another idea – that of self-independence, self-made decisions; the first episode that caused the major concern of her parents was, in fact, her statement – in reply to her mother's umpteenth marriage arrangement, this time to a friends' son – that 'I'll marry whom I want, mother, and I am not going to marry Dilip' (174). Apparently these ideas are not 'internally generated' – Nairobi, a cosmopolitan city, is open to the world, and one of the strongest arguments that Deepa poses against racial and ethnic divisions is that 'the rest of the world does not behave in this manner' (278).

Deepa's tolerance and respect to people from different races and cultures is genuine and natural – she easily made friends with an African woman, a street vendor outside her school; later Deepa adapts successfully to an altogether different environment in Canada. We can see that in these and many other aspects Deepa's identity drastically differs from the colonial one – she is far from bowing to the British masters, she wants to remain an Indian, a Kenyan, but an Indian Kenyan free from the shatters of both patriarchal and colonial subject-hood, when, in both cases, she is not allowed to make choices and decisions about her life, where she is 'told'whom to like and whom to despise, and decisions are made by dominating others. Similarly, while retaining her Indianness, Deepa seeks to break from the fetters of nativism that dictate to her, through her parents, that people of different races can't mix. Deepa feels the contrary – she wants to break from all the forms of subject-hood, be they indigenous by nature or created by colonial and post-colonial structures. And Deepa does it in no less radical a way – as her brother stated with a mixture of sympathy and regret: 'Times were changing, certainly, but Deepa in her typical impulsive way had leaped ahead of them' (175) – for their love had an abrupt and disastrous ending.

We suggest calling this new identity, demonstrated by Deepa (and her sweetheart Njoroge) a hybrid identity. Of course we suggest it conditionally – since even the identities of Deepa's parents and grandparents, as well as that of Njoroge's granddad and other African characters in the novel, are also characterised with their own kind of hybridity. We would, however, refer to the hybridity featured in the characters of Deepa and Njoroge as constructive hybridity, featuring, on the one hand, their own cultural background that they do not deny, but are deeply devoted to, and on the other – tolerance to and respect of other cultures, religions, races (note the devotion with which they visit the temples of each other's religions - 197), fascination with Western idea of individuality and personal independence and genuine concern for the fate of their newly born country. Although largely based on idealism, this hybridity gives an idea of a new world, a world in which, as put by Homi Bhabha, 'The people are now the very principle of dialectical reorganisation, and they construct their culture from the national text translated into modern Western forms of information, technology, language, dress. The changed political and historical site of enunciation transforms the meanings of the colonial inheritance into the liberatory signs of the people of the future' (Bhabha 2008:157). For Deepa and Njoroge this future was not going to happen, but through them the author seems to send a message about the general possibility and, moreover, desirability to build a new society, free of all the artificial divides.


Bhabha, Homi K. 1985. "Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree Outside Delhi, may 1817", Critical Inquiry 12 (1), Autumn: pp. 144-165

Vassanji, Moyez G. 2003. The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. New York: Vintage Books, 2003


Alinaby Alina Rinkanya
Alina Rinkanya is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Literature, University of Nairobi. She is a PhD holder from the Gorky Institute of World Literature, a research institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

In an essay titled 'Comparative Cosmopolitanism', Bruce Robins, points to the two senses in which the term cosmopolitan is understood: In its negative sense it is used to mean freedom from national limitations or attachments and, from this point of view nationality is insignificant in all respects. The second more positive one refers to 'belonging to parts of the world other than one's nation.' The two senses, Bruce points out, exist in tension with one another. Indeed, reading East African Asian writings as projections of diasporic/cosmopolitan subjectivities one notices the underlying tension between the articulations for post-national identities and the desire for a rootedness of some kind. In their reconstruction of the (hi)stories of Asian presence in East Africa, East African Asian writers contest the history of the postcolonial nation-state, but their critique does not, as in certain cosmopolitan critiques of the nation, necessarily feature the nation as completely irreconcilable with cosmopolitan subjectivities nor does it present cosmopolitan subjectivity as the ultimate remedy for nationalist absolutism. The nation may be problematic in its exclusionary tendency but it is not insignificant to the cosmopolitan subject's attempt to locate oneself within past histories.

In some studies the concepts of cosmopolitanism and diaspora have been mobilized to critique the institution of the nation and the forms of stable and homogeneous cultural identities it claims to constitute within its supposedly sacrosanct borders. For instance, in dominant discourses of diaspora, particularly those constructed around ideas of Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall and Homi Bhabha, diaspora is posited antithetically to nationalist formations and their underlying ideologies and is offered as an alternative system of cultural values to essentialist projects of modernity, of which nationalism and ethnicism feature as predominant references. For Gilroy, the 'rhizomorphic, fractal structure of the transcultural, international formation' that he calls the Black Atlantic answers the 'desire to transcend both the structures of the nation state and the constraints of ethnicity and national particularity.' He assaults nationalistic thinking for its insistence on rootedness and in designating particular people in specific locations, a situation that his notion of diasporic culture as a hybrid formation—dynamic, unsettled and opened-ended—is meant to remedy.

On the other hand criticisms of this trans-atlanticist and post-national theoretical positions have focused mainly on the apparent neglect of 'the historical conditions and experiences that produce diasporic communities and consciousness, or lack thereof' (Zeleza). In fact, a critic like Puri Shalini in her book The Caribbean Postcolonial thinks that the post-nationalist denunciation and rejection of the nation-state as a key axis of power and reproduction constitutes a theoretical and methodological weakness of some sort which, to her, leads to the neglect of Africa and the Caribbean in these discourses. What Shalini proposes is a method that synthesizes the affiliations of nation and diaspora/cosmopolitanism and which she borrows from Edouard Glissant's Caribbean Discourse.

I find this method constructive in so far as it demonstrates the fact that the nation has not ceased to function as an axis of power and as a significant site of the politics of identity formation. For instance, I detect in East African fiction a tense and ambivalent but nevertheless productive conceptual relationship between national histories and diasporic subjectivities and even between what Radhakrishnan in Diasporic Mediations between Home and Location has called diaspora's theoretically produced hyper reality and the material, social and political realities lived by subjects of diaspora. The critical concern then becomes for me how East African Asian writings work through diasporan and cosmopolitan paradigms such as those assumed in theoretical texts and, the extent to which they resist the de-historicization of the diasporan/cosmopoloitan experience apparent in such texts. Where fiction tends almost always to confront the often bleak material conditions of diasporans and the histories that have led to them, theory in its cosmopolitan abstractions, threatens, through decontextualization, to evacuate diasporic subjects from such historical specificities.

Read from this perspective most East African Asian writings persuade us to consider cosmopolitan subjectivity, even with its apparent oppositionality to a national consciousness, as enactments of the same. Although the postcolonial nation-state in its official manifestations often claims sole legitimacy in the formation of a collective identity and a national culture through a dominant discourse that imagines national identities in homogenous and monolithic terms, it never does so absolutely. Instead the national space is always open for contestation and transformation by other resurgent forms of nationalisms. In East African Asian texts, such contestations are achieved through the mobilization of pluralist and hybrid politics that are always latent in the very form of the nation itself. In the sense the political project of this literature is not very different from that of the pioneer postcolonial African fiction that contested the alienating nationalist project of the neo-colonial bourgeoisie without necessarily abandoning the quest for relevant forms of nationhood, or what Frantz Fanon would call genuine populist national consciousness. [The Wretched of the Earth]

M G Vassanji's novels for instance gesture toward the diasporic imaginary while at the same time persistently returning to the site of the nation to enact the difference of the diasporic subject. In other words, one notices in his fiction a kind of back and forth movement of denying and at the same time re-inscribing the nation-state and this suggests to me the continuing significance of the nation-state as a site of enacting the politics of identity.

If Vassanji at times appears to understand the Asian experience in East Africa and in Europe / North America through the prism of cosmopolitan paradigms espoused by cultural theorists like Bhabha, it is not perhaps because he wants to affirm these theorists' post-national politics or their apparent de-historicization of diaspora experience; it is because the in-between position (i.e. between colonialism and African nationalism; being a migrant community that was neither master nor servant) of subjects of his fiction demand articulation in metaphors and poetics of liminality, hybridity, disjuncture and mobility. But these metaphors do not necessarily lead to a devaluation of the nation as the site that enables performance of discrepant cultural identities.

Certainly Vassanji has to confront the difficulty of migrating Asian histories into the national memory of the host nations. One reason for this is that the Asian attempt to relate to the national memory in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, is often circumscribed by the perception that they do not share, in equal measure at least, the experience of colonial oppression and the history of decolonization, events that provide defining moments in the construction of nationhood in these countries. And yet, the very act of writing the Asian presence in East Africa is itself an attempt to uncover connections to histories of resistance that get suppressed when the stereotype of Asians as collaborators of colonialism is amplified within the official discourse of nation building.


SimateiPeter Simatei

One of the refrains by historians of Africa is that Africa doesn't have an appropriate archive for reference. The response to this argument is that Africa is an oral society. But this is a disingenuous proposal. All societies are oral and in any case Africa is actually the origin of writing. There has been enough time to produce an archive that Africans can refer to in search of knowledge about the continent and its people.
Today Kenyans talk of historical injustices. Kenyans accuse the state – and its agents – for deeds of omission and commission, most which have been prejudicial to the different Kenyan tribes, regions, social classes and people not in the mainstream of the society. Even here, there is little in history to refer to. Where are the books on the Mau Mau atrocities, written by the victims or by Kenyans? Where are books about the inter-ethnic tensions we hear of so much of in the media? Where are the books on tribalism and unfair distribution of resources that supposedly are afflicting Kenya today?

I ask these questions because today Kenyans are said to be more polarized than at any one time in the short history of the country since its formation, rule by the British and independence. Kenyans are said to be hiding in tribal, social class, religious or regional cocoons. It is this separation from each other that leads to production of stereotypes about 'others', which stereotypes then become socially institutionalized as the knowledge of those others. In order to become truly cosmopolitan or inclusively Kenyan we will have to start to develop a 'collaborative archive.' Such an archive would be made up of stories that all Kenyans can relate to honestly and sympathetically.

I think that Awaaz magazine has been undertaking such a task. To read Awaaz is to encounter another world, that of Kenyan Asians. Awaaz gives the reader a chance to hear the stories of Asians in Kenya throughout the history of modern – and often pre-colonial – Kenya. These are stories of early migration by hundreds of Indians into the rest of the world, especially the British Empire. They are stories of adventure, discovery, settlement, resettlement and founding of business empires, political ideologies, academic institutions etc.

But Awaaz also offers the Kenyan reader insights into the early struggles by Asians to settle and integrate in a racially segregated society that colonial Kenya was. These stories are carried as anecdotes by descendants of those early Asian immigrants or critiques of books on individuals or special reports on specific historical moments. This is a very important task considering that the teaching of history in Kenya is hardly worth talking about. Either history – such as those of Asian contribution to anti-colonial struggles in Kenya and the global connectedness of such struggles – is being erased or deliberately revised.

The consequence of the marginalization of history is that everyday struggles by ordinary people, across the racial, tribal, class and political divides are either not recorded; or facile versions of these struggles masquerade as the history. This artificial history claims that struggles for various freedoms in Kenya have only been waged by particular groups of people. So, for instance, the Mau Mau uprising is a linear narrative without contradictions owned by a specific community or group of people. The story of the fight for political pluralism, despite its supposed inclusiveness, is today attributed to only a few people. Kenyans lose a lot when narratives of collective experiences are presented as stories of particular segments of the society.

It is in this context that I see Awaaz as playing a role beyond its founding aim to represent the experiences and voices of Kenyans of Asian ancestry. By inviting Asian-Kenyans and Kenyans of other races to a conversation, this magazine continues to broach the subject of our collective identity. But significantly Awaaz insists on a progressive understanding of this supposed Kenyan identity as a collage of several identities, where none is superior to the other. Now, this is an intractable problem in a country where Asians tend to be collectively stereotyped as 'Indians.' Many Kenyans hardly know that there are Asians here from Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh or Pakistan.

It is such knowledge, of even the diversity within the Asian/Indian community in Kenya – a diversity that includes differences of religion, culture, social class, region, political beliefs etc – which Awaaz voices and thereby educates its Kenyan readers on. Awaaz often reminds me of my ignorance when I joined high school in 1989. I was admitted to Kisumu Boys' High School at a time when the head of the English department was Mr Chaudhry. Mr Chaudhry left the school for retirement and rumours suggested that he had relocated to Pakistan. At that time I knew little of the school's history and hardly much about Pakistan. But I was in class with tens of Indian boys. They were known for three things: either they outperformed everyone in class or they were studying to mature and then take over their fathers' businesses or they played outstanding hockey.

Years later I learnt that Kisumu Boys' High School had started as the Indian Primary school in 1925 and later became Government Indian High School in 1948. Indeed Mr Chaudhry could have left for Pakistan. I guess some of my Indian classmates are still in Kisumu managing businesses. I believe some migrated to Canada, England or the USA. But I know for sure that our co-existence was forced by circumstances – we were in class together because we had been admitted to the same school or we visited a classmate's shop because we had to buy something. The only other interaction was through Bollywood.

In the end we knew a lot more about life in India, as brought to us on the film screen than we knew about those Indians we spent four years with in school. There was hardly a way to breach the artificial boundary wrought by colonialism, and later on Africanization and the Indians' own inwardness. I am not surprised today when I hear stereotypes about Indians or Asians. There is just too much ignorance doing the rounds about other Kenyans' eating habits, love life, rituals of birth, initiation, marriage and burial, etc, for Kenyans to ever begin to talk to each other, know one another and live together amicably.

Publications such as Awaaz and festivals such as Samosa are breaching and bridging these false divisions but a lot more will have to be done. Conversations about Kenyanness, about inclusivity, about cosmopolitanism or if you like, tolerance, will have to be more persuasive, insistent and repeated, all the time, everywhere. Awaaz exists at a time when the archive has incalculable possibilities for multiplying, disseminating and convincing. But it is also competing with countless other voices whose main agenda is to divide people. The history of Kenya has been monopolized by voices that preach national unity – really an attempt to erase difference – but whose practices can best be described as divisive and producing racial, ethnic, religious, political, regional and class cleavages. Only when Kenyans begin to produce a collaborative archive, one that acknowledges the shared history as well as the differences, only then will this country begin to honestly envision equality and progress.

Tom-Odhiamboby Tom Odhiambo: - teaches literature at the University of Nairobi.


'Who I Am, Who We Are' is a project about the idea of Kenyan nationhood and how this is embodied through our sense of identity and our everyday interactions. It is a concept animated by the notion that today's world reflects a reality both multiple and unique. Nowhere is this idea truer than here, in Kenya, at 50. The project is run by two artists, Xavier Verhoest and Wambui Kamiru.

The project incorporates two techniques. First, the Body Mapping Tool inspired by the Memory Tool method. This is a creative process that brings together bodily experience and visual artistic expression. This process which takes place over several days leads to the creation of life size paintings that essentially allow participants to make meaning, through the creative process of symbolism. It allows the participants to develop a map that (re)connects different aspects of one's being and the path one has taken through their life. The painting of the body maps takes place in a safe and confidential group setting and is interwoven with personal story telling, group discussions, guided visualization and bodywork. This part of the project creates an exceptional opportunity for a selected number of Kenyans (groups of 8 in different spaces) from different age groups, gender, religion, sexual orientation, racial backgrounds, socio-economic classes to process their life (past, present and future), reflect on questions of choice, freedom, aspirations, identity and diversity .
Ultimately, these artworks in the form of huge paintings and accompanying narratives, once exhibited in a public space, will act as a mirror for the public.

The second part is called 'In A Silent Room.' It is a confidential and intimate space that creates the adequate conditions for self-reflection and expression in an individual way. The installation for 'In A Silent Room' entails an insulated room where the public, - one person at a time - is invited to reflect on the question of identity. Inside, each person listens and responds to a set of questions related to identity, memory and history. Each participant, once out of the Silent Room, has the opportunity to take a photograph that acts as a self-portrait. Each of these photos cover the entire external part of the Silent Room, thus reflecting the Kenyan identity in an individual and collective way.

A key part of 'Who I Am, Who We Are' is in understanding if there is at all a common Kenyan identity. If there exists one, what does it look like? Since November 2013, the project has spoken to over 600 people through the Silent Room and 22 people through the Body Map Workshops. The project focuses on eight key questions:

  1. Are you Kenyan?
  2. How are you similar to other Kenyans?
  3. How are you different from other Kenyans?
  4. What makes you proud about Kenya?
  5. What does not make you proud about Kenya?
  6. Are you Kenyan?
  7. In five years' time, where do you see yourself, in Kenya?
  8. What does it mean to be Kenyan?

Is there a common Kenyan identity?

The discussion over results collected thus far is based on preliminary findings. It is not exhaustive of the material collected and the results are currently limited to populations within Nairobi. The project will in time travel to Lamu, Kisumu and Turkana in order to sample voices from outside Nairobi. Key preliminary findings can be summarised as below:

  • Kenyan identity is fluid
  • Kenyan identity is an option
  • Religion plays a key role in the idea of a common Kenyan identity

An inclusive society means one where all are accepted, treated equally regardless of race, class, education background, religion, race or sexual orientation. It also means that basic services such as security are rendered, not on the basis of one's ability to pay the premium, but by virtue of the fact that it is a right.

During one of the Body Mapping Workshops the discussion was directed specifically towards the definition and conceptualisation of a collective Kenyan identity. The group consisted of seven people including an artist, a conservationist, an activist, a pastor and a domestic worker, with ages ranging from 28 – 62.

Implicitly the group discussed the possibility that there is no collective identity. Further, the group said that if there existed one, it was self-serving. Some individuals in the group saw themselves as being different because they were empathetic to others in society.

'There is no collective Kenyan identity.'
'I think the collective identity comes once our own; me and my family is taken care of.'

On different races, despite having generational roots in Kenya, 'Kenyan-ness' may not be related to birth/origin. However, an otherness that accompanies those who are not 'like other Kenyans' because they are not Black, means that there is sensitivity to a perceived animosity directed to non-Blacks.

'There is growing aggression towards foreigners.'

In the discussion over the services provided by the police, askaris and generally those served with the duty to protect, the provision of protection is based on the theory of premiums and reciprocation, possibly emphasizing the divide between economic classes. The same applies to other basic services such as access to health.

'I will save your time if you pay me.'

Severally, differentiation was highlighted through a perceived solitude and uniqueness in being sympathetic to humanity.

'I am different from other Kenyans because I acknowledge other people as people.'

It is evident that the participants saw cracks in the system and the definition of classes and economic development based on the conventional measure of double - digit growth. The group felt that this measure is not representative of the situation on the ground.

'We don't have to wait a hundred years for an attitude change.'
'We should change how we measure economic growth.'

An interesting conclusion made by one of the participants was that Kenyan-ness consists of a fluid identity. To be Kenyan is to be a different thing depending on the context. For example it suits one particular individual to be female, Somali, dark-skinned, private school educated, upper-middle class, artistic, etc. depending on whom she is trying to identify with in order for the sense of affiliation to translate to the fulfillment of a need or the provision of a service.

In another group, the discussion on a common identity led to the idea, that Kenyan identity is optional.

One participant, who is in her 40s, has recently begun to look at India as an option for resettlement. She is considering it because of the growing level of insecurity in Kenya (car-jackings, robberies etc.).

'I am the only one in my family who has never wanted a second passport. This is the first time that I want to go back to India.'

It should be noted that until this participant was 25 years old, she admits that India was the last place she ever wanted to go because she felt no affiliation to the country. This participant had grown up on a coffee farm in rural Kenya. It was only upon the invitation of a friend that she first visited India at 25 years of age.

Perhaps Kenya-ness is embodied through the diversity of the population of Kenya. The diversity of differences creates the colourful fabric of society. Two participants could not describe their Kenya-ness without tying it to religion and religious influence. Religion also plays a key role in identity.

In this particular case, the participant is half Luo and half Kenyan Asian.

'I found the stories about Indian gods fascinating because they had moral stories. I found these stories similar to the ones of the Luo community. I was raised by my grandfather who came to Kenya from India in 1917.'

For one participant, her family moved back to India upon independence because of the uncertainty felt in the country over security and opportunity. She grew up speaking Hindi before her family moved back to Kenya, where she had to learn English and adjust back to living in Kenya. While in India, she attended a Catholic convent school even though she was Hindu.

'Coming from a Hindu family and going to a Catholic convent school, it brought a lot of turmoil. I ended up with no fear of religion but an expansive mind of different religions. No fear of conversions but people unified under religion.'

This Hindu participant later married a Kenyan Ismaili man. She refused to convert to Islam and instead has held on to her religion.

'I would never change, I always was me. It is my identity.'


In looking at the responses collected thus far from the project – the key limitation being that the project has focused on Nairobi, it is becoming increasingly apparent that when one says 'I am Kenyan' there is likely to be no singular description to what that means. Rather it is likely that being Kenyan is to embody all the diversity that the country affords.

A reason for this might be the fact that Nairobi, itself is a cosmopolitan city and this brings about an identity amongst its inhabitants that is at one time several iterations of possibilities. These iterations allow for affiliation to a larger or more powerful group depending on the context.
The project raises questions about 'othering' and whether in building a more inclusive society, we should focus on incorporating, accepting and strengthening diversity, rather than striving for a homogenous society by classifying all as one.

For more information please contact us on: or Xavier on +254 721 842 231 and visit

WambuiWambui Wamae Kamiru
Born in Kenya, Wambui Wamae Kamiru holds a MSc. in African Studies with a focus on Kenyan History from the University of Oxford. She has been developing works around the theme of colonialism, identity and independence in Africa.






Xavier Verhoestxavier
Born in DRC, Xavier Verhoest studied film editing in Belgium. From 1992 until 2001, he worked for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). Since 2001, he has worked in Kenya as a multimedia artist, curator and public art project coordinator.

Friday, 12 September 2014 07:40

Enchanting Africa

Adepiction of Africa by one of the great Bengali writers of the Bengal Renaissance, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhya

'Chander Pahar' or 'The Mountain of the Moon' (in translation in English) is a novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, a renowned Bengali author who lived from 1894 to 1951 in a village of Bengal. The novel is an adventure story where the protagonist, 20 year old Shankar Roy Choudhury, a villager from an impoverished but educated family, travels to Africa to delight in the beauty and wild life of the continent. It was also the place for the yellow diamond and gold. After landing in Mombasa in East Africa, he goes to Nakuru to be the station master there, in the back of beyond. There he is attacked by a lion, watches Maasais dancing, and was raided by a mamba- the deadly snake. He was not deterred by these misadventures. Then a Portuguese adventurer /traveller, Diego Alvarez arrives whom Sankar nurses back to health. Shankar is mesmerized by Alvarez' past adventures. He decides to join the Portuguese in his journey to Rhodesia, to find the famous yellow diamond. Shankar resigns from his job to begin his adventure with Alveraz. They cross Lake Victoria, pass Mwanza, then cross the veldt to reach Rhodesia where lies the Mountain of the Moon. Here Alvarez is killed by the dreaded animal Bunyip who hungers for blood and who guards the diamond. Shankar buries him, then treks through the desert of Kalahari where he nearly dies without food and very little water. He takes shelter in a cave where he finds rough diamonds in the discarded boot of an earlier traveller. Yet Shankar really doesn't value the rough diamonds for his basic intention was not acquisitive. He had travelled to Africa to see the flora and fauna, the terrain, the physical beauty of the continent which he hoped would satisfy his hunger for adventure. In an utterly debilitated stage he comes across a group of prospectors who transport him to Salisbury where he is nursed till better. There he writes about his adventure and uses the money to travel back to India. He alleviates the poverty of his parents, helps other young students in his village and buys a boat to travel by sea to Africa again. Africa, the unknown continent still beckons for further adventures.

Bibhutibhushan was a true child of the Renaissance, traversing the unknown through reading and imagination. He learnt of the contemporary life in Africa by reading on Africa, among them Ryder Haggard's 'King Solomon's Mines'. What was the spirit of the Renaissance in 19th century Bengal, India? The effect of it was a plethora of writers of novels, short stories, poetry, essays and also dramas which made Bengal one of the richest states in India in culture which also included song, music and dance. The spirit of Renaissance also included a hunger for the unknown, an intense desire to search for knowledge, a desire to be filled with adventure, enriching the spirit and mind. It also included wealth. Unlike the desire to conquer lands by force and religion, which the British colonists did in India and more in Africa, the Renaissance spirit was totally secular. It fostered a love for humankind which was not bound by caste, creed, the familiar or the similar. The yearning and search for adventure in the unknown could only be done without prejudices which often create barriers and boundaries in our quests. Bibhutibhushan, just a village school teacher, was a true child of Renaissance. Shankar, his creation, also carried this spirit! All other areas on earth were known. Africa was the terrain waiting to be conquered! It appealed to the desire for adventure which urged early missionaries, especially David Livingstone and Stanley. What Bubhutibhushan couldn't do himself, his protagonist Shankar did!

'Chander Pahar' can be considered to be the first novel for young adults in Bengal, perhaps India. Stories for this age group proliferate when education is high and Bengal in the east of India was noted for its advanced learning and education. This indicated that Bengal was progressive. Though Bibhutibhushan placed this young adult story in 1909 which was prior to the 1st world war, his novel was published in 1938 and took his readers by storm. They longed for adventure perhaps outside India.

Bibhutibhushan was a school teacher with an avid interest in Geography - nature and wild life, fresh and new topography. To many in India and specially Bengal, Africa was the dark Continent because little was known about the place. Many from western, middle and south India, had come to Africa at different times on posting in the army, trading, and as workers in the railways. Memoirs of their lives and experiences were practically non-existent as they were not literate. The unique quality of Bibhutibhushan's story was that he has created realistic details of Africa without ever visiting the continent. His knowledge was gleaned from detailed research of the continent. He had received much inspiration from Ryder Haggard's 'King Solomon's Mines. In Bengal, education was an important aspect of life and there were many village schools, where the book, written in the vernacular, was read voraciously. The author lived in one such village where his love of nature led him to take long walks in the forests near his house.

In December 2013, a film on the novel directed by Kamaleshwar Mukherjee was shown in the cinema halls of Kolkata, in Bengal in India. The film was shot on location in South Africa and graphic art was used to depict, vividly, the many scenes of animals for which Africa is so famous.
I have chosen to discuss this novel to mainly point out the wrong impression that Africa was only known to people from the west of India, mainly Gujarat, north, mainly Punjab and south, mainly Andhra Pradesh and Madras. Indians who first came to Africa in the late 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century were extremely poor with little or no literacy. However, people from Bengal who came in a much smaller number were literate. Not one came as a trader or railway worker. They were appointed to Africa by the British Government and the British army which were the colonizers of India and Kenya. Some Bengali families have settled here for over three generations but are not as ubiquitous as other Asians.

The South Asian population is known for its wealth. It is commendable that the people have risen from paupers to princes through hard work and grit. The Bengalis have generally remained modest. Many have migrated elsewhere from this small community; yet, about seven families have settled here. Interestingly, they have merged well with the African and Asian population and some have married into them. The integration is so complete that many have been named in the African way. Our Njoroge (Pradeep) is one such person. Most of the present Bengalis have not come here with the adventurous spirit of the early settlers. They are expatriates who are here today and gone tomorrow. Yet they contribute immensely to the cultural situations in Kenya. To a Bengali, even today, the apex of all festivities is the Durga Puja. For four days Bengalis indulge in the festive air of religion, feasting, cultural activities and merriment. Nothing is complete without the dedicated involvement which is begun at least two months prior to the festival. There is a saying 'where there are at least three Bengalis, there is Durga Puja.' Bengalis are known to merge well with the indigenous people. Shankar, the protagonist, also exhibited the Bengali desire and love for friendship and adventure. It needed grit and determination to continue in this unknown terrain, which was often dangerous. What Bibhutibhushan had done in creating a naïve village boy to undertake such an incredible journey is truly what dreams and adventures are made of. And may they continue.

Bengalis, settlers and expatriates, have attempted time and again to unite with the indigenous people. In the earlier 20th century, 2 Bengali brothers with the surname Gupta, were responsible among others, to set up Makerere University in Uganda. Nearer home, Mrs Chandan Sengupta roped inAfrican ladies who had studied in Lucknow in India, to sing Bengali songs, namely Rabindrasangeet, on stage in our Bengali cultural shows. Then again, Sumitra Kargupta had included African dances in her stage presentation of an ensemble of dances called 'Moods in Dancing' where Asian children danced African dances. In 2011, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore's birth, yours truly, Jayanti Shome recited Tagore's poem 'Africa' to an African dance, by Bengali youngsters and three African girls.
We pray that these events continue to show the heterogeneity of Kenya.

jayantiby Jayanti Shome
Jayanti Shome is an academician in English Literature and Language. She has given lectures in Nairobi University on Rabindranath Tagore, the 1st Indian Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1913 and the Mahabharata.

Transformative Constitution

The Katiba Institute, the British Institute for Eastern Africa, the Judicial Training Institute and the Kenya Human Rights Commission held an international conference on interpreting and shaping a transformative constitution from 9- 11 June 2014. The conference brought together judges, state officers, academics and civil society from the three East African countries, and seven internationally renowned judges and scholars from countries with transformative constitutions.

The purpose of the conference was to assist the legal community in Kenya to reflect on what is involved in the interpretation of its new constitution, which is usually described as or transformative. A transformative constitution is different from the classical constitution which focussed primarily on the structure of the state and the powers and functions of key state organs (a primary aim being the separation of powers). In due course many constitutions adopted Bills of Rights, but on the whole did not concern themselves with the purposes for which state power should be exercised. A transformative constitution is generally understood as that which seeks to make a break with the previous governance system. It aims not only to change the purposes and structures of the state, but also society. It is value laden, going beyond the state, with emphasis on social and sometimes economic change, stipulation of principles which guide the exercise of state power, requiring state organs, particularly the judiciary, to use the constitution as a framework for policies and acts for broader shaping of state and society. It requires positive initiatives and legislation by the state, and in cases of failure, courts may instruct them to do so and even elaborate what needs to be done. There is considerable emphasis on the rule of law, defined not in any technical sense, but signifying a new kind of constitutionalism.

Objectives of the constitution

With Kenya's diversity, a key objective of the constitution is national unity and political integration, while respecting diversity. And because state officials and the business community have been so corrupt and have massively abused state power, there is great emphasis on integrity and good governance. Our democracy has been fragile, so the constitution sets out the framework for democratic politics, including direct and indirect participation of the people. It requires the decentralisation of state power, to escape from the monopolisation of power and misuse of state resources in one, centralised, government, and to promote local initiatives. And because there has been no respect for human rights or marginalised communities, there is strong emphasis on human rights (of individuals and communities) and on equality and social justice.

Role of the judiciary

The judiciary is given a key role in the interpretation and shaping of the constitution. It is the ultimate custodian of the constitution. Access to courts to raise a constitutional issue is very easy, and not only by the aggrieved party. Courts have a fair degree of authority to mould constitutional remedies. Courts have the responsibility, if necessary, to develop the law to give effect to the constitution. They must promote values that underlie an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality, equity, and freedom—and the spirit, purport and objectives of the Bill of Rights. The constitution must be interpreted to promote its purposes, values and principles (of which there are many, including integrity, equity, social justice, inclusiveness, transparency and accountability), advance the rule of law, and human rights, facilitate the development of law, and contribute to good governance.

A mandate as broad as this (so different from the narrow legalism of its predecessor) is bound to raise questions of approach and method. How is effect to be given to a general principle when it is not concretised in the constitution or legislation? How far should the judges go in prescribing the responsibilities of the legislature and the executive when they have failed to carry out their constitutional mandates? The constitution also provides more procedures than is usual—another reason why courts may be drawn into affairs of other bodies. The Bill of Rights (which includes social and economic entitlements) places an important responsibility on the judiciary—apart from its wide jurisdiction, the courts have to examine the validity of limitations, when different rights clash, or when the rights of community are weighed against the rights of an individual. In many cases, a court is not only dealing with one right, but with the prescription that the regime of rights must govern the conduct and policies affecting both the state and society. When the constitution is so value laden and state agencies are required to make and implement specified policies, can the judges avoid becoming involved in policies passed or adopted by other agencies when a complaint is brought before them?

Approach to interpretation

The restrictive rules of the common law on interpretation are bound to curb the judges from carrying out their constitutional mandate. What approach should the judges adopt to fulfil their huge mandate, and with what methods? What happens to common law judicial review if the jurisdiction and powers of the courts are so broadened? How do they respect and at the same control the authority of other state organs? What remedies should they devise?
Leading experts on India (M P Singh), South Africa (Albie Sachs), Germany (Matthias Hartwig), Canada (Robert Sharpe) and Britain (Jeffrey Jowell) described how the courts in their countries, faced with radical constitutions, had interpreted them to achieve constitutional objectives. When the meaning of the article is clear, the courts must apply it. When there is ambiguity, they apply what is called the purposive approach, looking to the objectives and other provisions of the constitution, in a holistic or contextual manner.

This approach is consistent with that prescribed in the Kenya constitution. Kenya's Chief Justice, Willy Mutunga, who also participated in the conference, set out his approach, which has developed through a series of important decisions. The interpretation, he said, must be contextual (of both the history of the drafting of the constitution and the present circumstances of the country and its people). The article to be interpreted must not be read in isolation from the rest of the constitution, and must promote the purposes and objectives of the constitution. Additionally, the Supreme Court Act requires interpretations to facilitate the social, economic and political growth of Kenya.
There seems to be remarkable similarity in the approach to interpretation among these countries. As new comers to a transformative constitution, it is not surprising that Kenya courts have adopted the rationale of judicial decisions from these countries, particularly South Africa and India. There is particular congruence on human rights cases, despite different phraseologies and brevity or length at which a right is expressed. Courts almost everything pay regard to the growing body of human rights cases. On what is the purpose of the right, the extent to which it might legitimately be restricted, and how to reconcile competing interests in respect of it, there is considerable consensus. It is obvious that judges have a fair measure of discretion in deciding these issues.


Impact of interpretation

The consequence in these countries is the increased role of courts in the political system. The Kenya constitution specifies and limits the powers of all state organs, while giving to the courts extensive jurisdiction to interpret any constitutional provision. The conference examined some consequences of this jurisdiction. While in one sense the constitution is based on the separation of powers, the courts have the authority to determine if the acts of the legislature and executive, and the procedure they follow, are consistent with the constitution. National constitutional principles, particularly in Article 10, such as integrity, transparency, and participation, give the courts powers to declare void the acts of the government and the laws of the legislature. And by giving the people wide access to the courts to raise question of constitutionality, and emphasis on the rule of law, it empowers the people vis-a-vis the state.

The extent to which this approach conflicts with the separation of powers has been become a contentious issue in most of these countries, but particularly in Kenya. Few here who have argued that it goes against the separation of powers as specified in the constitution have not read the constitution. Separation of powers is not a term of art with clear meaning. It denotes the division of functions as between principal organs of the state, but it is also compatible with a degree of checks and balances, among them. The Kenya constitution very clearly makes the judiciary its ultimate custodian, with the final powers of interpretation. So far Kenya courts have acted scrupulously within the confines of their functions.

But the extent to which the courts are able to determine the enforcement of its decisions differs significantly between Kenya and other countries, being much more problematic than in the Western states. The difference is explained in terms of the commitments of the state to the rule of the law. However adverse the decision to the government, it is widely assumed that the state would have to abide by it. Not so in Kenya, alas.

justice-albieAnother limitation was noted—the lack of remedies that the courts can grant in case the decision is against the state. The Kenya constitution is better than some others, as it gives courts a reasonable choice of remedies. Perhaps the problem may be insufficient knowledge on the part of the advocates of this subject (who are more familiar with remedies or rather the lack of remedies, in respect of judicial review). One of the world's leading authorities on remedies, Professor Kent Roach from Canadian presented a detailed account of how the courts have dealt with unconstitutional behaviour. As he pointed, a court may find it easier to hold government conduct unconstitutional if the remedy it gives is relatively mild. In some countries courts are willing to declare illegalities if it can suspend the invalidity for a period sufficient for the government to make alternative arrangements consistent with the constitution. On the other hand, if the unconstitutionality leads to the infringement of fundamental rights of citizens, the court are likely to order more immediate and effective remedies. Roach reminded the conference that remedies can also be used to encourage parties to settle their differences once the law has been clarified. The ultimate test must be whether the values and spirit of the constitution is upheld.

The conference also discussed the responsibility of the courts in cases involving terrorism, particularly on the question of bail. There was fear that the refusal to grant may be abused, even in the face of guarantees of fair trial and liberty, in the hysteria about subversion.

Good governance and the rule of law

The focus of the conference was the role and methods of the judiciary. But it was recognised that while that role was important, it was not decisive of the respect for and observance of the constitution. In all the countries examined in the conference except for Kenya, there is a strong tradition of the rule of law. This ensures that the decisions of the courts are followed, however much the legislature or the executive may dislike them (in India, we were told that permanent secretaries have been imprisoned for disregarding court orders). If the framework of the constitution, including national principles and values such as integrity, participation of the people, human rights and human dignity, social justice, equality, good governance, transparency and accountability, are disregarded by the legislature and the executive, as widely as they are in Kenya, the task of the judiciary is exceedingly difficult. So when the executive or the legislature defy rulings of the court, it is in fact flouting the constitution which its members have sworn to uphold.


Yash Pal Ghai
The author is a director of the Katiba Institute


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