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:


Allow me to share a chance experience in Switzerland which led me to profound musings about the influence of South Asian culture on our day to day lives. 

Early in November, 2016, I found myself in Geneva to moderate at the launch of an initiative committed to creating thousands, if not millions of jobs for young people on the African continent, specifically within the agricultural sector. I had been booked into a hotel in the city centre, at my own request, the better to go on intrepid walkabouts. My booking was for bed and breakfast only and left to my own devices after a final briefing meeting on the day of my big event, I set about looking for some lunch, knowing that it was likely to be cheaper at an establishment away from the hotel.

I walked out, and as instructed at the reception, turned right then first right then straight ahead, in order to find shops and restaurants, past a residential area with a succession of flats.  I found myself at an intersection, with signs of human vibrancy all around me. I turned right again at the Rue de la Servette. About fifty yards ahead, I saw a sign that read Indian Curry House. At first I walked past it thinking that, in the circumstances, I should look for a sign that read Cuisine Suisse, in order to sample typical, local fare. But the lure of the familiar ultimately got the better of me and I turned and went back to the curry house, lured by the prospect of tasting Indian food outside Kenya. Inked on a blackboard at the entrance were details of the day’s special: a prawn curry which proved eminently affordable to my pocket. I walked in and sat down at a table for two. It was quite cramped with customers. I noticed that I was the only ‘person of colour’ there, an accepted description which I find misleading because it suggests that a huge population of humanity is made up of see-through zombies.  Be that as it may, since I had no one with whom to engage in conversation, I took out a vocabulary book from my very trendy kitenge cloth, man bag in order to indulge in the nerdy pursuit of increasing my linguistic skills in French.

Soon, a man I would describe as being Indian came toward me, pad and pen in hand, to take my order.  “Le plat du jour, s’il vous plait,” (The day’s special, please), I said in my perfect French.  However, he must have had extra sensory perception, because he responded to me in English. ‘Yes. And what would you like to drink, Sir?’ he asked. ‘Tea,’ I replied. He went on to rattle off a whole list of choices and, sensing my bewilderment, he went on to add: ‘Or would you like chai?’ ‘Yes, please,’ I replied, conspiratorially. And, at that moment, it occurred to me that I had made one of those linkages that we all make in the most unlikely of circumstances: here was a waiter who had sized me up and somehow ‘sussed out,’ in the slang of my schooldays, that I came from either East or South Africa, where people drank chai: that is water, milk and tea leaves all mixed together to come to a boil, before serving. It goes without saying that, thus buoyed by unforeseen recognition, I enjoyed my meal thoroughly and drank my chai with relish.

That, in a word beloved of psychiatrists and psychologists was the ‘trigger’ for more empirical reflections.  It struck me that, without recourse to a menu, beyond chai our coded language could have expanded to embrace words like: roti, chapati, dengu, dhania, piri piri, samosa, biryani, tikka and so on, quite endlessly. I reflected that whereas the South Asian community is often at pains to remind us of its political and economic roles in Africa, we are even more indebted to imports from South Asian culture for adding value to the quality of our existence.

By a random association, my mind turned to three products originally from South Asia whose uptake by the general public has taken on truly universal proportions. One is turmeric, a centuries old cooking ingredient and the other two are yoga and meditation, both centuries old lifestyle components.

 As with all things unaccustomed, all three were first viewed with reluctance and disdain on other continents. “I don’t like spicy food” was a constant refrain. But, more and more, people throughout the world have come to accept that many spices quite commonly used in South Asian cuisine can do wonders for our health. Orange-yellow turmeric, with its very low risk of side effects, has the following benefits to its name: It is a mood stabiliser; it makes wounds heal faster; it removes all manner of aches and pains; it encourages balanced blood sugar in the fight against diabetes; it can help to regularise cholesterol levels; it minimises stomach ailments and ulcers and, for those of a certain age it is an aid against memory loss. That’s why social media is nowadays awash with recipes for daily health drinks with one gram of turmeric as an essential ingredient

Until recently, Kenya’s self-professed Christian community regarded all manifestations of non-Christian spirituality with unalloyed horror. Therefore, to practise yoga and meditation was to indulge in ‘devilish and demoniac’ activities, promising a sure path to hell. However, with the ever increasing focus on ‘wellbeing,’ ‘stress relief’ and ‘work-life balance,’ yoga and meditation have become part and parcel of the daily routine of enlightened millions. We hear people talk of ‘doing stretches’ and ‘practising mindfulness,’ but these are undoubted by-products of  yoga and meditation. Those who indulge in them invariably swear by them and, given their relative composure as exponents, they do not readily stand out as instruments of the devil.

Therefore, amongst the resolutions that come with the New Year, I have determined to take the revolutionary plunge to include some basic yoga and meditation in my life and also, to eat food cooked with turmeric as regularly as possible.

Should I ever find myself again at the Indian Curry House on the Rue de la Servette in downtown Geneva, I hope that the perceptive waiter will still be there to serve me. I shall remind him of our prior meeting and insist on a bit of turmeric in my chai. I shall sit with the correct posture on my chair, rather than slouch, as self-disciplined to do since we last met. And I shall be mindful of my serenity as I wait for my order to arrive.

Copyright: John Sibi-Okumu

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