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Asia in my life by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o 0

The celebrated Kenyan writer reflects on how much India has been an important thread in his life and in the wider anti-colonial struggle in Africa, and calls for greater interaction between Africa, Asia and South America to escape the long shadow of the ‘Age of the European Empire’.

The links between Asia and Africa and South America have always been present but in our times they have been made invisible by the fact that Europe is still the central mediator of Afro-Asian-Latino discourse. We live under what Satya Mohanty in his interview in Frontline (April 2012), aptly calls the long intellectual shadow of the Age of European Empire.

In my case, I had always assumed that my intellectual and social formation was tied to England and Europe, with no meaningful connection to Asia and South America. There was a reason. I wrote in English. My literary heroes were English. Kenya being a British colony, I had learnt the geography and history of England as the central reference in my widening view of the world. Even our anti-colonial resistance assumed Europe as the point of contest; it was we, Africa, against them, Europe.

I graduated from Makerere College in Uganda in 1964, with a degree in English; then went to the University of Leeds, England, for further studies, in English. Leeds was a meeting point of students from the Commonwealth: India, Pakistan, Australia, and the Caribbean. We saw each other through our experience of England. Our relationship to England, in admiration, resentment or both, was what established a shared space.

After I wrote my memoir of childhood, Dreams in a Time of War, published in 2006, I looked back and saw how much India had been an equally important thread in my life. I had not planned to bring out the Indian theme in my life: but there it was, staring at me right from the pages of my narrative. The thread starts from home, through school, college and after.

I did not grow up in a Christian home, but we celebrated Christmas, everybody did, it was a time of carnival, with children, in their very best, trooping from house to house to indulge their fancy in terms of food. We were vegetarians throughout the year, though not out of choice, and to many, Christmas day was the first time they would taste meat. For me Christmas meant the occasion for eating gĩtoero, a curried broth of potatoes, peas, beans, and occasionally a piece of lamb or chicken, but the centerpiece of the dishes was cabaci sometimes called mborota. Even today, Christmas and feasts in Kenya mean plentiful of cabaci, thambutha and mandathi, our version of the Indian chapati, paratha, samosa. The spices, curry, hot pepper and all, so very Indian, had become so central a part of Kenyan African cuisine that I could have sworn that these dishes were truly indigenous.

It was not just Christmas: daily hospitality in every Kenyan home means being treated to a mug of tea, literally a brew of tea leaves, tangawizi, and milk and sugar, made together, really a massala tea. Not to offer a passing guest or neighbor a cup of tea is the height of stinginess or poverty; and for the guest to decline the offer, the ultimate insult. So African it all seemed to me that when I saw Indians drinking tea or making curry, I thought it the result of African influence. Where the Indian impact on African food culture was all pervasive, there was hardly any equivalence from the English presence; baked white bread is the only contribution that readily comes to mind.

This is not surprising. Imported Indian skilled labor built the railway line from the Coast to the Great Lake, opening the interior for English settlement. Every railroad station, from Mombasa to Kisumu, initially depots for the building material, mushroomed into towns mainly because of the Indian traders who provided much needed services to the workers initially but in time, to the community around. If European settlers opened the land for large-scale farming for export, the Indian opened the towns and cities for retail and wholesale commerce.

Limuru where I come from had a thriving Indian shopping centre built on land curved from that of my maternal grandfather’s clan. The funeral pyres to burn the bodies of the Indian dead were held in a small forest that was also under my maternal grandfather’s care. Cremation is central to Hindu culture: it asks Agni, the fire god, to release the spirit from the Earthly body to be re-embodied in Heaven into a different form of being. The departed soul travelled from pretaloka to pitraloka unless there were impurities holding it back. My mother did not practice Hinduism, but to her dying day, she believed and swore that on some nights, she would see disembodied Indian spirits, like lit candles in the dark, wandering in the forest around the cremation place. She talked about it as a matter of regular material fact and she would become visibly upset when we doubted her.

It was not all harmony all the time. The Indian community kept to itself, there was hardly any social interaction between us, except across the counters at the shopping centre. Fights between African and Indian kids broke out, initiated by either side. The Indian dukawalla, an employer of Africans for domestic work and around the shops, was, more often than not, likely to hurl racially charged insults at his workers. Some of the insults entered African languages. One of the most insulting words in Gĩkũyũ was njangiri. A njangiri of a man meant one who was useless, rootless, like a stray dog. Njangiri came to Gĩkũyũ from Jangaal, the Sanskrit/Hindi word for wild: it would have been what the Indian employer was likely to call his domestic help. In the colonial times, in my area at least, I do not recall the tensions ever exploding into inter-communal violence,

The post-colonial scene presents a different picture. Time and again Indians and Indian owned stores have been targets of violence especially in times of crisis, mostly victims of looting. I am not sure if it’s the fact of their Indianness or the fact of their being a most visible part of the affluent middle class. In such a case the line between the racial and class resentment is thin. Different in that sense is the case of Idi Amin’s Uganda, where hundreds of Asians were expelled from a country that had been their home for almost a century. In both the colonial and post-colonial era, social segregation, forced in the case of the colonial era, or a consequence of habit and history, has exacerbated tensions.

The colonial school system segregated Asian, European and African from each other and it was not until Makerere College that I had social interaction with Indians. Makerere was an affiliate of the University of London in Kampala, Uganda, where, until the advent of Idi Amin, racial relations were benign. Before its college status, Makerere used to be a place of post-secondary schooling for African students from British East Africa, but as Independence approached, the college opened its doors to a sizeable Indian student presence. That is when we started learning about each other’s different ways of life on a more personal basis. We shared dorms, classes, and the struggles for student leadership in college politics and sports. Leadership emerged from any of the multi-ethnic and multi-racial mix. Doing things together is the best teacher of race relations: one can see and appreciate the real human person behind the racial and ethnic stereotypes.

The lead role of an African woman in my drama, The Black Hermit, the first major play ever in English by an East African black native, was an Indian. No make up, just a headscarf and a kanga shawl on her long dress but Suzie Wooman played the African mother to perfection, her act generating a standing ovation lasting into minutes. I dedicated my first novel, Weep Not Child, to my Indian classmate, Jasbir Kalsi, probably as homage to our friendly but fierce intellectual rivalry in our English studies. Ghulsa Nensi led a multi-ethnic team that made the costumes for the play while Bahadur Tejani led the team that raised money for the production.

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