John Sibi-Okumu

In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community. The views expressed are entirely his own. His website:


Very rarely do minorities, like South Asians, make the headlines in mainstream Kenyan media. True, there is a publication such as the free magazine The Asian Weekly, which is largely devoted to highlighting the social and cultural preoccupations of the target group. And one local newspaper, in particular, has weekly columns dedicated to topical, South Asian focused happenings both in Kenya and in India, with a vicarious look at the lives of Bollywood superstars proving to be an unending fascination. Needless to say, the larger South Asian community is depicted in a very positive light in these publications, leading us to believe that the ‘Asians must go!’ days of some thirty years ago are well and truly over. However, between January and March 2015, four stories appearing on the front pages of newspapers and as lead items on TV news disabused me of this notion. Permit me a layperson’s summary, in turn:

Story number one: It transpired that unscrupulous folk had erected a huge fence around a primary school playground, in anticipation of construction work. Activists arranged a protest, using the school’s banner carrying young pupils as human shields. The riot police were having none of it and clobbered and tear gassed everyone in sight, children included. Although the Deputy President was linked to ownership of a newly completed hotel right next to the school, the Cabinet Secretary for Lands was to name the grabbers as follows: Mandip Singh Amrit, Madat Singh Amrit, Harban Singh Amrit and Kamal Singh Amrit. All South Asians.

Story number two: Two Kenyan Members of Parliament descended upon a weighbridge some distance from Nairobi, the capital, and demanded the instant release of trucks which had been impounded for not having special clearance passes. In their You Tube documented rage, they dropped intimidating names, hurled unprintable abuse and issued arrogant threats including the claim: ‘We are the ones who make the law. When we want to break it, we break it when we want.’ Alfred Keter, who pronounced those telling words had driven from Nairobi to come in support of nominated MP, Sunjeev ‘Sonia’ Birdi, a South Asian woman, whose trucks they were.

Story number three: Three individuals were taken to court, accused of conspiring to defraud the government of tens of billions of shillings through suppliers of security systems as part of the multi-billion shilling Anglo Leasing scandal attached to the government of Kenya’s third president, Mwai Kibaki. Their names were Chamanlal Kamani, Rashmi Kamani and Deepak Kamani. All South Asians.

Story number four: In early March, a Kenyan business tycoon was implicated in evil-doing in another country: Tanzania’s Public Accounts Committee called for his arrest and prosecution over the withdrawal of 183 million US dollars from an escrow account. It emerged that, in the not so distant past, he had rubbed shoulders with power mongers during the rule through the political party KANU under Kenya’s second president, Daniel arap Moi, in the 1980s and 1990s. His name: Harbinder Singh Sethi. A South Asian.

Not since Kamlesh Pattni had been the visible face of the Goldenberg scandal, also in the Moi era, had the South Asian community been so consistently drenched in stereotypical paint. Yet, rarely have we seen the ‘black’ perpetrators of (or accomplices to) such criminal acts being named and shamed with equal zeal. Even before the accused in such instances have had the possibility to defend themselves and, perhaps, prove their innocence, such stories are music to the ears of the xenophobic. They resuscitate and feed the narrative of South Asians as Monsters of Corruption and Thieves of the Poor. And as with all formulations in which the one represents the many, the urge to South Asian bashing becomes seductive but, ultimately indefensible.

The layperson would do well to make some informed observations. For one thing, there should be a marshalling of the intellect to rational thought and the utter rejection of statements like: ‘All So and So’s are crooks. Or drunkards. Or liars. Or untrustworthy. Or foolish.’ They simply aren’t true. For another, we have to realise the stories enumerated above have little to do with racial labelling and everything to do with Mega Finance, a global phenomenon as old as capitalism itself. Although South Asians form a racial minority in the country, the history of Kenya as a political entity has been such that some, and note some not all amongst them, were the first to be catapulted to the summit of big business. After independence, they were joined in that position by others from the ‘black’ majority who continued to amass relative fortunes in a relatively short space of time, just as blithely. As is the case all over the world, such birds of a rapacious feather flock together to make even more money for themselves, by any means necessary. It doesn’t take too much foresight to work out that, the way things are going, we won’t have to wait too long before surnames like Liu, Chen, Wang and Zhang also make the colossal-shady-deals- in- the- region list. All Chinese. But that doesn’t mean that all Chinese people, any more or any less than all South Asians, are crooks. The truth of the matter is that the corrupt will always be with us. The challenge to men and women of good will always be to strive to limit the destructiveness of their nefarious machinations through powerful, institutional frameworks.

Last modified on Wednesday, 01 July 2015 21:36
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