Indian Doctors in Kenya, 1895-1940 – The Forgotten History

Volume 13, Issue 1  | 
Published 21/07/2016

Authors: Anna Greenwood & Harshad Topiwala
Publ: Palgrave Macmillan
Reviewer: AwaaZ

The authors have done a great service in bringing to our notice this facet in Kenya’s colonial history. Since independence, much has been written about the South Asian journalists, lawyers, politicians and of course industrialists, but the realm of medicine has remained unexplored. Is it because medics play a role by caring for, not changing or challenging, society? Even the brave and dedicated personnel of the Medicins Sans Frontier rarely if ever make political statements.

But there are the exceptions as this book documents. Dr ACL de Sousa, the Goan general practitioner who entered the Colonial Service in Kenya, turned to journalism to express his frustration at the limits to further promotion placed in his way. He took up the editorship of Vidyarthi’s Colonial Times, contributed to the Democrat and later published Fairplay and the Goan Voice. He also served in the Legislative Council, together with doctors Rana, Sheth, Karve, Ismail, Adalja and  others, where they fought for equal rights for the Indians and against the segregationist policies of the Colonial Government. This campaign was carried out in other forums too such as the East African Indian National Congress and the Municipal Councils. Rana was Mombasa’s first non-white mayor. These doctors held definite views on social issues and traversed the political spectrum; with the more moderate ones such as Karve, Rana and Adalja opposing the radicalism of Desai, A M Jeevanjee and Dass.

With a relatively higher standard of education in their communities the doctors were sought after not just for their medical know-how but also as community leaders. Dotiwala and his wife, Gul, became respected figureheads for the Mombasa Parsi community; Patwardhan was president of the Nairobi Hindu Union. Rana was president of the Muslim Association and Adalja a founder member of the United Kenya Club.

The South Asian community is well known for its philanthropic activities in Kenya – an aptitude brought over from the Indian sub-continent. The doctors were no exception. They served on school boards, local social committees or community based organisations such as the Goan Institute, the Arya Samaj or Social Service League. Figueiredo and Ribeiro sponsored schools for the Goans, Sheth set up a private secondary school to help less privileged Indian youngsters and Karve not only founded a school for Indian girls but also one of Mombasa’s main hospitals, the Pandya Clinic, which was open to all races. South Asian traders across the region built wards and hospitals for Asians and Africans. On a more personal level, H T Topiwala, the author’s father, is remembered for his query to his patients: ‘What do you earn, I have to know what to charge?’

The authors bemoan the ‘historical silence about Indian doctors [in Kenya]’- as late as 1997, Ralph Schram in Heroes of Healthcare in Africa fails to mention a single Indian doctor. To overcome this incongruity and the lack of source material, they have done a sterling job in searching out relevant information from archives; newspapers; colonial records; Indian Association, Legislative and Municipal Committee minutes; files on the construction of the Uganda Railway; personal recollections and family sources. Several of these doctors have descendants practicing medicine in Kenya today.

Just as the Christian missionaries, while cloaked in their ‘civilising mission’, were key players in the imperial project, so were the white-run medical services. By 1915 Indian doctors were almost double in number to the European doctors working in the East African Medical Service. But their terms of service and the categorization of their qualifications were down-graded and they operated in a climate that routinely discriminated against them. They were discouraged from participating in research, yet these doctors were superior in their knowledge of tropical ailments than the new recruits from Britain. Posted to the less popular remote stations they cared for African patients, carried out large disease surveys and widespread public health campaigns.

Without doubt the colonial medical services were heavily dependent on the Indian doctors but the hardening racial attitudes took a decisive leap in 1923, when the Devonshire Declaration pronounced its doctrine of ‘African Paramountcy’. This book very concretely demonstrates a government policy of deliberate side-lining of the Indians. After this date recruitment to the government medical service became limited and Indian names were omitted from the official medical records.

Understandably many Indian doctors then moved into private practice though this was fiercely opposed by the European general practitioners. I personally experienced this as a physiotherapist in private practice in Mombasa – even in the first decade of independence no European doctor would refer a case to me, preferring my white ‘colleague’.  In 1920 seven Indians were in private practice, interestingly all Goan (western medical education had been available in Portuguese Goa since 1842), by 1940 fifty were gazetted.

The story extends as far as this date as the authors maintain that after 1940 racial tensions in Kenya subsided somewhat; particularly as a result of British acknowledgement of Indian and African support in the war effort. Medicine became more specialized and the second generation of Indians was educationally and economically in a better position to structure its career and progress.

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