‘Never discuss politics, sex or religion, if you want to win friends and influence people.’ This is a piece of advice which I have chosen to ignore in this instance in order to address the issue of practising faith, or failing to do so, amongst the South Asians who come regularly into my orbit. The great majority of them happen to be past students for whom I was ‘Monsieur Sibi’ in their high school days but who are now grown men and women, and above all close friends, with children of their own, making me a sort of honorary grandfather. I had to declare an interest from the outset: in times when fear of ‘radicalised’ Muslims has become part of our existence; in times when it is not uncommon for me to encounter people who introduce themselves by saying ‘my name is So-and-So and Jesus Christ is my personal saviour;’ in times when I attend supposedly secular meetings which invariably begin with a word of Christian prayer, I wondered whether in the South Asian community religion defined and energised certain people to quite the same degree.
So it was that, in the streets of central Stockholm in September (2016), I found myself putting the question ‘what role does religion play in your life?’ to a young man whom, after the classroom, I had last seen at his wedding, some years before. Anonymity was guaranteed to all my respondents. He was Ismaili and his wife was Hindu, a mix which had initially created tensions of its own. His own parents, living in Nairobi, made daily, evening trips to the mosque. However, he had to confess that he and his wife were doing a bad job of passing on their different religious traditions to their young son and daughter. Before the trip to Sweden, I had brought up the same subject in several other conversations and in the process, I learned something which I had not known before. Namely, that there was something akin to fundamentalist Islam and Christianity in the predominantly Hindu culture of South Asians who had come to make a home for themselves in East Africa. Furthermore, it emanated from India where it remained very much a phenomenon.
It appears that there is a manifestation of ‘Hinduness’ called Hindutva which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, headed by prime minister Narendra Mohdi has adopted as a guiding ideology. The term was first used in the early 1920s. Some interpreters of Hindutva had allowed it to include all indigenous, as opposed to foreign religions practised on the sub-continent - Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism - but more and more it has become the express vehicle of Hinduism alone, turning vehemently and at times violently against infidels of its own choosing. For detractors, therefore, Hindutva is a loathsome and marginalising construct while for adepts it is a much needed instrument of national affirmation. To that end, there exists the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS and other, smaller ‘volunteer organisations’ which have been created to spread the word. Apparently, there are RSS branches in Kenya, bringing together true believers in much the same way as their fundamentalist Muslim and Christian counterparts do in madrassas and Bible study groups.
Central to these purist concerns was an attachment to the caste system, which is dying a very slow death in India itself despite the best efforts of humanists to eradicate it. However, my Kenyan-South- Asian interviewees professed not to see race, colour, creed or caste, leaving those preoccupations to their more conservative parents or, in some cases, live-in grandparents. In one household Mum was a believer and Dad was a sworn atheist, like his father before him. At significant weddings, some involving white partners, dressing up in beautiful Indian attire and going through a five-times-round-the-fire ritual to state vows were the only acknowledgment of traditional belief. One set of parents, during a meal that included a chicken and thus non-vegetarian dish, told me that their daughter’s wedding ceremony was conducted by an African family friend. And a woman to boot. Think of all the ancestors turning in their graves.
However, the pertinent observation was made that my sample group was made up of the children of the Kenyan-South-Asian élite, who, through their education, had grown to embrace the ways of the West and, making a very broad generalisation, to be embarrassed by certain manifestations of their own culture, religion being chief among them. The poorer folk are, I was reminded, the greater the allure of faith, with its comforting promise of a better tomorrow. I was also alerted to the presence of a new wave of South Asian migrants to Kenya, who far outnumber the descendants of the intrepid pioneers of the 20th century and who are much keener to sustain the distinctions which prevail in the motherland.
So, what grand conclusion was I to make? Well, on avowedly insufficient evidence, that a minority population, far away from its place of origin, is drawn to experience a dilution of defining values. For one thing, there is likely to be less fear of censure for deviating from the norm and, for another, by offering its children an alternative world view, one generation finds it well-nigh impossible to transmit its notion of strict adherence to another. And, for now at least, in Kenya, the cycle remains unbroken.
© 2016 John Sibi-Okumu