Millennium Post

Out of Kenya

The snows of Kilimanjaro rise on the right somewhere near where the forests of Savo start. Elephants and giraffe walk slowly as they cross. It is night. The dark African night you encounter on the way to the port of Mombasa. But we are headed further – the beaches of Diani where the rich sunbathe on white sand like crabs at rest. Kenya’s tourism call had put brakes on the Tanzanian elephant hunters across the border. Killing for ivory can get you locked up in a not too clean Kenyan cell for life. But what’s India got to do in all this. Lots.

Wildlife photographers are catching flights on photo safaris from IT hub Bangalore. Sabyasachi, the Bengali superstar, has written a popular novel on wild game of Kenya. And in the thirties the literary icon Bibhutibhusan penned
Mountains on the Moon
which portrays the village boy Shankar and Alvarez looking for diamonds with the threat of man-eating lions in the Rift Valley of Kenya. The Kenyans are saying 'karibu', which means welcome and picking up the dollars. What a good idea.

Indians constitute 80,000 of the present population of approximately 40 million in Kenya. The jewel of East Africa took a hard toll on the early Indians who went there in search of employment on the railways. Enroute to Diani one stops to eat at a gurudwara, which I am told is 80 years old. The shabad kirtan wafts in the African  dusk. And tall burly Sikhs move noiselessly on bare feet serving travellers, clean rooms for stay and divine intervention in a place away from home.

Primarily Gujratis and Sikhs run profitable businesses, not all by clean means. But they are a hardy lot. At Smokeys, a night eat-out run by Sikhs, I watch a Kenyan couple dig into tangdi kebab. The music is Bollywood. In the posh Hillcrest and the commercial districts of Westend third generation Indians boast of a garageful of cars, marble floors but don’t forget to keep the TV running for Indian sitcoms. And when it’s time to marry, they rent a hall at Jomo Kenyatta auditorium and boogie to Hindi film music under dim lights and feast on lots of sumptuous Indian goodies. When exactly and how exactly did this happen?

Mumbai’s short two hour flight to Nairobi is a good answer. Stars are on way. Shortcut Romeo, a new Bollywood film, has the actor dancing in Masaimara. Indians run the best restaurants. They run Safarilink, arguably the best domestic flights company. Scanad, the most prolific agency for commercials, is run by Bharat Thakkar. Corporates like Airtel, Reliance in petroleum, TATA Africa automobiles, Kirloskars, Thermax, Mahindra and Mahindra, Essar are providing the manufacturing muscle that is changing the face of Kenya. Most Indians bank with  Bank Of Baroda or Bank Of India. While in IT there is NIIT. Akhil Gupta, deputy CEO and managing director of Bharati Airtel, claims to have made major 3G and 4G investments powering Airtel Africa  and keeping the upward trajectory going. Airtel ads stare down from billboards in the commercial hub of Westened. Nakumatt, Kenya’s biggest retail store chain is run by Gujaratis.

Now the flipside. Fourth generation Indians don’t want to come back to India. And neither does India recognise their worth. Living in upmarket ghettoes, the east African Indian speaks fluent Swaheli, and if they miss India they watch Indian TV serials and the Bollywood film playing at an Inox nearby. Inter-caste or inter-racial marriages are unheard of as Indians and Kenyans live on the other side of the glass door. Though the Indian diaspora has been an important driver of the India-Africa partnership the Africans do not allow us to use diaspora as a resource. The ghost of Idi Amin haunts the Indians who fled Uganda. Will an Amin arise in Kenya? The chances are less but not without precedent. Riots in Mombasa have scalded Indian businesses from time to time. In the eyes of the Kenyans Indians are profiled as shrewd traders who know what to do with the dollar – Kenyan Shilling advantage. But Kenyans are aware of India’s quest for oil. Fourteen per cent of petroleum is coming from Nigeria and oil blocks being discovered in offshore Kenya could spiral an oil hunt of unprecedented dimensions. All in all India has been there done that in Kenya.
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