Editor’s Note: Zain Verjee is the co-founder and CEO of aKoma Media, an Africa-focused digital media platform. She was previously an anchor for CNN International. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.
Just weeks before Kenyans were due to head to the polls, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government officially recognized members of the country’s Asian community as Kenya’s 44th tribe, at last embracing us as part of the country’s “great family.”
The largely symbolic gesture has been criticized by some as “pre-election gimmickry” – politicking by Kenyatta to help him secure a second five-year term in office.
Others have seen it as a demonstration of Kenya’s unhealthy obsession with indigenous identities and an extension of its warped tribal politics.
For me, as a Kenyan Asian woman, it means I’m now – finally – a first-class citizen in my country.
I’m part of Tribe 44.
The move has officially designated Asians of Kenya – long categorized as the “other” – as a formal tribe. Our new status has placed us on equal footing with the other tribes in this land. I’m no longer simply a “Muindi,” Swahili for Asian.
Today I don’t need to justify how Kenyan I am.
It is rewarding and satisfying.
In Kenya, the term “Asian” means a person originally from the Indian Sub-Continent, but my community has a long history of contributing to this country.
Kenya: A vibrant country of many
We built the railways during colonization by the British. As traders and merchants, we provided a strong backbone to the nation’s early economic growth.
The Ismaili and Oshwall communities, among others, have built schools and hospitals that are now established institutions. We have helped establish the tourism sector, the media industry, the financial and insurance sectors.
There are communities of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims who have different religious places of worship, where social and cultural gatherings occur. I participated in all of these activities growing up, while simultaneously being immersed in African, British and European cultures.
It allowed me to be a multicultural ambassador for Kenya.
My roots in this country run deep.
My father was born in Nairobi. My mother grew up in Kisumu but was born in Kisii. Her mother came from Machakos.
And it goes back further.
My great-great grandfather, Suleman Verjee, arrived in the port of Mombasa in 1850. A spirited adventurer, he had sailed on a dhow from the island of Diu, off the coast of Gujarat State in India.
In Kenya, he built makeshift shops along the route of the British railway from the coast to the interior, finally settling in Nairobi, the capital. My great-great grandfather was one of the first Indian pioneers to build his life here.
Continuing in Suleman’s footsteps, his son Hussein also became a valued member of the community through his philanthropic efforts, such as his funding of the Khoja Mosque in downtown Nairobi – recently designated a national treasure by the government.
He also became the first President of the East African Indian Congress and was one of the few Asians who maintained a close friendship with the late President Jomo Kenyatta. Hussein was politically active in resisting the British and advocating for more freedoms for all Kenyans.
In recognition of his contributions to Kenya, the local British Government at the time, named a road in his honor – though years later it was renamed Tubman Road.
My story is similar to many Asian families here. We support the Kenyan cricket team, not the Indian team. We cheer just as loudly and proudly when we win our marathons. We vote in every election.
Our tribe counts – particularly in such a tightly-contested election.
‘Diversity is our strength’
In elections gone by, I recall some politicians whipping up anti-Asian sentiment in the country to get votes. It’s not happening now, and in fact candidates are courting the Asian vote.
There are a few Asians running in the election too, like my friend Amin (Babloo) Walji Jr., a candidate for MP in Westlands. Another sign of change.
There are some Asians who are not quick to embrace the new tribe status. Many find it problematic, saying Asians do not fit the definition of a “tribe.” They say tribes, tribal purity and politics have hurt Kenya, so why add another into the mix?
They debate how many generations back Asians should be awarded a tribe status.
They ask, why should all Asians be lumped into Tribe 44 based on skin color and our geographic histories only?
After all, there are many different groups within “Asians.”
I believe our diversity is our strength – we add a richness to the tapestry of tribes in Kenya.
Tribe 44 could open new doors and propel Asians to participate in inter-tribal opportunities that will strengthen the future of the country.
At the end of it all, we are here to stay. Tribe 44 juu. Kenya juu. Thumbs up.
Correction: This story was updated on August 7 to correct the spelling of Suleman Verjee’s surname.