He manifested this by, amongst other actions, frequent contributions in the local press, an example of which in the early days was his contribution in December 1995 in the East African Standard entitled ‘Asians have identified with Kenya African struggles’ in which he outlined the evolution of the Asian situation in Kenya and the partnership in the process with such notables as Pio Gama Pinto. Makhan Singh, Tom Mboya, Paul Ngei and others.
He was a ball of energy in whatever he did, be it his business activities which were very successful, or social development, politics or community welfare. He always led from the front and never shied away from confronting difficult issues that others would avoid – and always for the benefit of the Asian community.
His choice as Vice-Chairman of EACA was a unanimous decision. Through elaborate networking in that position he emboldened the Asian community to have confidence in itself and assert its right to establish a place for itself on the national scene. He later expanded EACA’s role to include other minorities.
The success of EACA was in a large part due to his dynamic leadership as he tirelessly organised get-togethers and consultations with other Kenyans of all races and initiated dialogue in the public fora to the extent that Asians won the respect of other Kenyans and began to self organise for meaningful participation in national affairs and politics.
It was Swarn who pushed EACA to increase its visibility through international press conferences and contributions on the debate for a new constitution. At a press conference called by EACA in Chester House, Nairobi, we challenged the late Hon. Kenneth Matiba’s verbal attack on the Asian community in May 1996.
Among other initiatives taken during this period was a campaign against Nairobi City Council’s lack of services to the public through an advertisement in the print media dubbed ‘No Service - No Service Charge’ which was very well received.
He also introduced EACA into the Constitution Review process which involved participation in the National Convention Assembly leading to an advert in the Nation newspaper ‘Reforms - EACA calls for Unity’ on the first day of the Assembly meeting.
Issues such as these were second nature for Swarn and his passion for promoting social and political change for the minorities in Kenya led him to exercise his creativity and networking skills right through to the next elections.
Later he continued deployment of his tremendous energy in his involvement with the Nairobi Gymkhana. Here he mobilized the membership for projects within the Gymkhana where he was not only instrumental in setting up a small museum; but also masterminded the production of a special issue commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Nairobi Gymkhana.
All in all this dynamic personality gave his all with passion, caring and consideration in whatever venture he engaged.
He will be sorely missed by everyone he touched in his life!
A Voice for the Voiceless
A tribute by John Sibi-Okumu
This profile of Swarn Singh Sodi (1942-2018) first appeared in Kenya’s Sunday Standard on October 10, 1999 as part of a series contributed by John Sibi-Okumu, a columnist and book reviewer for AWAAZ since its inception, then writing under the pseudonym Mwenye Sikio. His website: www.johnsibi-okumu.com
Sex, religion, politics and race. These are topics we are told, to be assiduously avoided in polite conversation. As it turned out three of them were discussed at some length and the fourth was at least hinted at whilst talking to Swarn Singh Sodi. A titillating revelation, which surely deserves to be substantiated, somewhat.
To start with, politics and race. Sodi is serving the first of three years as chairman of EACA - the Eastern Action Club for Africa - having been the society’s vice-chairman when it was officially registered in September 1995.
As its own literature declares, ‘EACA is a non-charitable, non-profit making and non-religious organisation which was founded by like-minded Kenyans who have the interest of minority groups in Kenya at heart and particularly to create a forum for addressing issues that affect the Asian community in Kenya’.
EACA, under the slogan ‘equity and equality for all,’ came to be as a response to those who, in the run-up to the first multi-party elections (in December, 1992) fanned the flames of xenophobia with the piercing cry, ‘Asians must g
At that time, the group’s office bearers were enjoined to highlight the positive role that Asians - an accepted yet ambiguous description - had played in Kenyan society:
The overwhelming majority of them were not the aloof, unpatriotic looters and pillagers of the economy that they were [made out] to be.
It is ironic that so many years later, Sodi should find himself obliged to comment on the recent phenomenon that Asians do indeed seem to be going, and in relatively large numbers. True or false?
‘True,’ Sodi replied. ‘You just have to go to the airport and watch. Only it’s more noticeable because you are dealing with a small number. There are about 90,000 Asians in Kenya, of whom about 35,000 are expatriates. If, say, 6,000 of the Kenyan Asians decide to leave every year, well that’s 10 per cent of the total.’
‘There is complete apathy among Asians, they just don’t want to commit themselves fully. They are all mixed-minded now. They want to leave. It is undeniable that Kenyan Asians have every reason to feel scared, targeted and vulnerable as the scapegoats of an uneasy society.’
However, Sodi feels that the reality of an exodus must be confronted. ‘It can’t be stopped but the aftermath can be avoided. If they want to leave, let them go! But they should not be left to run down their businesses.
‘The government should intervene to oversee the handovers, give compensation where necessary, formalise the exit and make the best of it, instead of pretending that nothing is happening.’
Sodi’s continual reference to ‘they’ was obviously to distance himself, and others like him, from such behaviour. He tried to explain why things have come to such a pass. ‘Over the years the Asian community has become so silent that they have completely forgotten how to articulate themselves. They do not have the guts any more to talk about their rights.’
History has had a lot to do with it. In the wake of independence convenient divisions were created: commerce for Africans, agriculture for Europeans – before land grabbing ensued - and industry for Asians. In the process, the last two groups were systematically excluded from the political process. ‘An influential circle was created and the Asian community was kept out of it.’
‘If Asians wanted to have an import license, for example, they had to find a way to break into that circle. That is how corruption started.
‘Consequently, the Asian community has become divided within itself into three major groups: those who wish to be passive and lie low, like envelopes, out of fear; those, like members of EACA, who wish to have their voice heard and those who derive great benefit from loyalty to the establishment. There is no love lost between any of them.’
The subject of religion came up when it was pointed out that Sodi wasn’t wearing a turban like a good Singh should. The reason why became clear through an anecdote.
‘One day in 1967 I was travelling on official duty to Eldoret when I had to stop with two punctures. It was pitch dark but those were very nice, secure days. It was raining heavily.
‘I began changing the tyres and in came a flood of water which ripped off my turban and took it down the hill.’ The disappearing turban was not at all a cherished symbol of Sikhism.
Through the influence of a friend at school, Sodi had become a Pentecostal Christian in his early teens. Born in Mombasa in 1942 as a descendant of a forebear who had come to work as an electrician in the 1890s, this conversion was the second most significant event in his youth.
The first was the sudden death of his father at about the age of 35, from a burst appendix. Thereafter, Sodi no longer considered himself a child.
‘This happened to me actually when I saw my father’s body as it lay there. I wasn’t supposed to see it but I’d peeped into the room where his body was being washed.
‘It gave me an enormous shock. It was the first time I had seen a lifeless body. Then I looked at my mother. She was wailing. I then looked at the younger members of the family, and I said: What next? What do we do? Then afterwards I saw how people would come and raid our houses, our godowns and take all that we had.
‘My mother started selling the last things she had, her ornaments and even her wedding ring to feed us. I could see my mother, who had no formal education, toiling all the time.
‘She used to make mahamris for me to sell outside Naaz Cinema. I also sold sweets and chocolates. It all taught me enormous discipline. I knew I had to take on the responsibility. I sold my bicycle and started walking to school. That was the turning point in my life.’
Young Sodi experienced the betrayal of those nearest and dearest to him; a betrayal which was compensated for by the kindly intercession of strangers.
A brother-in-law got him his first job, aged 15, as a storekeeper at the Motor Mart and Exchange, then next to Wilson Airport. He walked the five miles to and fro, with his packed meagre lunch in hand.
He was elevated to become a shorthand typist for his boss, Ron Pirie. Upward mobility saw him become an Assistant Parts Manager under one D S Mehta, an acknowledged mentor. When Mehta himself became MD he appointed Sodi as full Parts Manager.
Mehta’s successor, a Welshman called A D Lewellyn-Jones, was no less supportive and encouraging. ‘However, I suffered the indignity of having him intercept and correct my letters because my English was so bad. This went on for over a year.
‘Then one day my secretary came to me, smiling and said: Sir, the MD doesn’t want to see your letters any more. He’s very pleased. So, I thought I had a person who was genuine.
‘Rather than victimising me by saying I was not suitable for the job, he gave me support and moulded me. He also sent me to Britain for two years. He used to call me ‘Son of Sodom’ because he saw a lot of girlfriends around me.’
Prior to Lewellyn-Jones’ own departure he saw the writing on the wall for Sodi and encouraged him to leave the company with a golden handshake. The money received allowed him to set up a successful company called TRACKSPA - for ‘Tractor Spares’.
It is very much a family business with his two sons and his only daughter in key positions. One son has married a Patel, another a Goan woman. Sodi’s own wife is Gujerati. He has made no effort to impose his religious beliefs on any of them.
‘For many people religion is a routine with no commitment. I feel that my children should find their own way.’ However, it must be the strength of character stemming from experience and faith that explains why Sodi is very much a man- with-a-view. On almost every topic you care to mention.
So it was expressed, for example, that for him, the harambee culture is a negative one because it encourages people to expect something for nothing; that UN bodies should not be exempted from tax on their importations; that the introduction by the North of ‘Aid with Trade’ will only serve to subjugate the African continent even further; that Asians also deserve Commissions of Enquiry into the deaths of their own in dubious circumstances and that the opposition in Kenya should offer more than perpetual criticism.
‘We’ve got to give this Government a chance,’ he said. ‘If you call a thief a great man he will be inspired to realise himself and to change for the better.’
Which dictum was supported by no less a personage than Mother Theresa while she still lived and granted Sodi an audience in 1992 as the first and so far only Sikh chairman of the predominantly Goan Nairobi Institute.
‘She [Mother Theresa] told me that one day she was having a stroll on the streets of Calcutta. It was dark. A man passed by her, stopped and said: “Are you Mother Theresa?”
‘Yes, my son. I am Mother Theresa.
“Oh so you are the same great woman to whom people give so much money. I know you’ve got a lot of money, Mother Theresa. But I want to give you some money today. Will you take it?” She said ‘Why not?’
“Because I am the greatest thief,” he answered. “I am a drunkard and a murderer. I have committed seven murders so far and right now the police are after me. So will you accept my money?”
‘How much have you got?’ she asked. He produced 300 rupees out of his pocket. “That’s all I have right now. But I know you will not take it, because this is very little for you.”
‘If I refuse,’ she thought, ‘I’ll hurt him and if I take it I’ll cause him to go and commit another crime.’ Making a decision she said: I’ll take your money on one condition: so that you don’t have the need for money tonight, accompany me and share a meal with me.
‘So he went with Mother Theresa. She made him bathe and change his clothes. They said a word of prayer and he ate in the seminary. In the morning when she got up she went to the quarters to check on him but he was not there.
‘She thought that he had gone. But when she enquired she was told that there was a man doing some gardening, ploughing the land and planting, and she saw it was him working.
‘He had been made to feel valuable, loved and accepted. That is what she was sharing with me: Always accept what the person is and extend the hand of friendship and love. You’ll change that person if you really think he needs to be changed.’
Sodi would doubtless have expressed more challenging views, with more time. At the next opportunity, therefore, in order to cover all four taboo subjects more comprehensively, an emphatic request will have to be made from the beginning. As in: ‘Sodi, let’s talk about sex!’
Copyright: John Sibi-Okumu
The Odd One Out: A Tribute to Mr Swarn Singh Sodi
A tribute by Dr Kenneth S Ombongi, OGW
The Chief Justice of Kenya and President of the Supreme Court, Hon. David Kenani Maraga, in a recent lecture at the Kenya-India Friendship Association (KIFA) meeting referred to the Kenyan Indians’ economic and political dilemma: ‘If Indians fully participated in the local politics and economics, they were dominating and taking everything! If they did not, they were mere “fence sitters” and became “scapegoats” for the most egregious problems of the nation.’ Over the years, the shadows of this state of affairs, described by Hon. Maraga, has loomed large, virtually, in every aspect of the life of Indians.
Interestingly, however, in the early 1990s, it appeared like Indians were recovering from the effects of Africanization which marked the triumph of African nationalism at Kenya’s independence. Away from the dilemmas of the previous decades, many had regained a business foothold in some urban areas from which they were excluded by the 1967 Trading Act. Even a few Asians, such Amin Walji who won in 1992 as Constituency Member of Parliament for Westlands, had gained some political prominence.
All the above developments were interrupted by the cacophony of anti-Asian crusades, mainly led by the Members of Parliament, Kenneth Matiba and Martin Shikuku, and characterized by the political rhetoric of ‘Asians must go’. The Anti-Indian campaign, which dominated much of 1993 to 1997, mirrored the poet Jagjit Singh’s 1971 poem the ‘Portrait of an Asian as an East African’ in which he said: ‘The past has boiled itself over and we are the steam that must flee… I shall summon you, therefore, ancestral spirits of my race, on this great issue of citizenship, and you must plead before the minister for being born so brown.’
Whereas many local Indians got scared stiff by the misguided and expedient race-based politicking and perhaps sought ways to either ‘flee’ like Singh’s ‘steam’ or be cowed into silence, a few faced the situation with courage and boldness, the inherent dangers notwithstanding. The late Mr Swarn Singh Sodi, who died on Sunday August 26 2018, belonged to the latter category. Frank, fearless and unbowed are just but a few epithets I can use to describe a friend, mentor and a man who I worked with so closely, for so long, in so many spheres and so many ways!
I met Swarn in 1992 through my Supervisor, Dr Prem Narain, when I was doing my Master of Arts in the History of Indians in Kenya at the University of Nairobi. In our first meeting in his business premises, Trackspa Kenya Limited, at Kirinyaga Road, Nairobi, I simply trusted him; shortly, I won his confidence too. Swarn, often, could not hide his admiration of my erudite skills. He regularly asked me to draft many of his press articles, presentation for meetings and proof-read his meeting minutes. Many were the times we sat through long evenings on end for me to brief him on my understanding of the unfolding Kenyan political situations. We co-authored many press articles together which we agreed be published in his name since he was ‘old enough to take the beating’, as Swarn will always put it. However, he prevailed upon me to include my name in the Nairobi Gymkhana 75th anniversary booklet which I had drafted.
My relationship with Swarn went beyond intellectual engagement. I fondly remember his voice on phone calling me over to Nairobi Gymkhana, Goan Gymkhana or Nairobi Institute, the social places in which he used to enjoy his drink. He did not appreciate my life as a teetotaler and, often, I endured his friendly teasing of buying me so many soft drinks! That was Swarn for you – friendly, enjoying life to the full, very generous and, equally, determined as well as hard working. Swarn was such good a friend that he turned up during my wedding with very attractive ice cream bowls. In his jovial mood he quipped: ‘Kenneth, you will need to eat lots and lots of ice cream for you to put on some weight!’ To-date those bowls are part of the crocery that we cherish and relish so much in my household!
Swarn’s boldness was not only manifested in his friendship with many of us but also in his unbridled interest in the politics of Kenya. This was particularly so when he became one of the most vocal founder members of the East Action Club for Africa (EACA). EACA was a non-profit and non-charitable political lobby group formed by Indians in post-colonial Kenya. It was established in the early 1990s and registered on August 17, 1995. Its officials included the maverick Amin Gwaderi as Chairman; action-oriented Swarn Singh Sodi as Vice Chairman; the pedantic Salim Talib as Secretary; and the subtle and quiet Himmat Devani as Treasurer. Other officials were Assistant Secretary, Dr Jayhendra Devani; Assistant Treasurer, Ramesh Bhatt and Arvind Tana, Dr Mohan Lumba, Mr Roland Demello as other members of the Executive Committee.
Unlike many local Indian organizations which usually choose to confine their mandates to social and welfare issues, EACA was outright political. Its tag line ‘Equity and Equality for All’ spoke volumes of its political posture. It sought to create a forum to address issues affecting Indians and other minority groups in the country, especially socio-economic discrimination as well as political marginalization.
EACA’s political work clearly came to the fore in May 1995. Then Chairman Amin and Vice Chairman Swarn, flanked by Salim Talib and Jayhendra Devani, called an international press conference in Chester House. They were warned by many people around them to proceed with caution but they went ahead to castigate the then FORD Asili Chairman Kenneth Matiba for his ‘blanket’ attacks on the Indian community. In June 1997 EACA was bolder than ever before when it called on the government and opposition ‘to exercise tolerance and to cultivate mutual respect even while holding diverse views and to demonstrate political maturity’. Such efforts, always with Swarn at the forefront, were part of the concerted efforts which clearly demonstrated that the Kenyan Indians had started to refuse to just play to the whims of either government or the opposition.
On 10 September 1997, Prof. Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o gave a lecture entitled ‘Citizens and others in the democratization process’ to EACA officials and members gathered at the Tin Tin Restaurant at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre. Quoting the American political economist, Albert Hirschman, Nyong’o argued that when people are opposed to what their leaders do, they can express their sentiments in three ways – ‘Exit, Voice and Loyalty’. Exit meaning not participating in public affairs; voice meaning speaking out and refusing to obey authority and loyalty meaning play along, as Nyong’o put it – literally ‘eating with the boys’. Swarn, with his compatriots in EACA, chose ‘voice’ against ‘exit’ and ‘loyalty’. And that is why we remember him now and forever more!