At the turn of the 20th century, a huge influx of South Asians had immigrated to Eastern Africa, increasing the population of their presence almost tenfold. Sometime in that time period, a Gujurati man with the last name Ladha, and one with the last name Lalji, were sent to East Africa on ships — perhaps the same one.
There were many small reasons for this mass migration but only two primary ones that explained its magnitude in this time period: The first is that the British imperial power, which, at the time, controlled various parts of East Africa such as Kenya and Uganda, as well as India, imported roughly 30,000 indentured workers from India. Germany, which had Tanganyika under its imperial power, followed suit. These imported Indians, my great-great-grandfathers and their friends, helped establish and construct a lot of the East African infrastructure that still exists today. The secondary reason for the Indian exodus was the economic opportunities the resourceful East African land offered to South Asian merchants and traders, a kind of pseudo-colonialism for economic gain. This difference between importation and immigration is a tightrope on which South Asian communities in East Africa still teeter.
How do you price a country? How do you value its mountains and lakes, the scent of its trees, the colors of its sunrise? What’s the markup on the shapes of fruit in the dreams of its people? — Shailja Patel, “How Ambi Became Paisley”
After the First World War, the British kicked Germany out of what was Tanganyika, establishing colonial control over the region. An economic crisis in the 1930s in India increased immigration to the East African region, where economic progress for Indians was promised through British-constructed racialized hierarchies, favoring the hard-working Asians. Asians, you see, are hard workers. Molded into model minorities since the 1890s. In the two decades after the Second World War, the British sent more South Asians as educated personnel to work in the “middle rungs of the civil service.” This is according to Professor Richa Nagar, whose early work “focused on questions of identity and the politics of space and place among South Asian communities in postcolonial Tanzania.”
We overdress, we migrants. We care too much how we look to you. — Shailja Patel, “Migrant Song”
My father claims our family has been in Tanzania for about a hundred years. So long that no one remembers when exactly we reached its shores. On my Dad’s side, I am either fifth or sixth generation Tanzanian. On Ammi’s, I am first. She speaks Swahili in the broken ways newly-immigrated Mwindis do, unconjugated verbs and mixed-up pronouns, tinged with Indian-accented intonation here and there.
There are many kinds of South Asians in Tanzania, the differences often delineated by faith: Sunni Muslims, Shi’a Bohora, Ismaili, our very own Ithna’ Asheri, as well as Hindu and Sikh. Our reasons for immigrating also vary. I asked Papa what our family came as, the indentured workers or the merchants, those who fled colonial rule to take advantage of the racial hierarchies elsewhere, or those who just didn’t know any better. He said our ancestors were sent as workers by the Germans to build the railroad tracks in Tanganyika. This relieved me slightly.
In 1891, the Railway Company for German East Africa was established by the colonial rule. The tracks were to connect Tanga, in the eastern part of Tanzania, to the hinterland, in hopes to run a train through the center of the country, which would be known as the Usambara Railway. The construction started in 1893. In 1895, the Railway Company for German East Africa filed for bankruptcy after 40 miles of construction. So, in 1899, the German colonial treasury picked up the construction of the railroad track. In 1904, the East African Railway Company was established, and took over the construction of the railway in Tanzania. This time, they intended to increase the railway network to build something from Dar es Salaam on the eastern coast, to nearby Arusha, through Tabora, up north to Mwanza, and finally westward to Kigoma, which rests at the side of Lake Tanganyika, a sliver of water that edges the left of the country. Where my uncle owns a hotel. Where I learned to water ski, never once seeing the railways tracks. The construction was interrupted by the First World War, after which control of Tanganyika was given to the British colonial rule, who picked up where their European peers left off.
Early on in this historical moment, my great-grandfathers would sign onto 2–3 yearlong contracts designed to keep Asian workers as cheap labor for colonial construction projects. When their contracts finished, they stayed on for the vast business opportunities afforded to them by their relative racial privilege to the African workers. And because we know how to make homes wherever we end up. In the decades to follow, no one would use the trains in Tanganyika. Cheap labor is, at least, not that wasteful.
I try to explain love / in shillings / to those who’ve never gauged / who gets to leave who has to stay / who breaks free and what they pay / those who’ve never measured love / by every rung of the ladder / from survival / to choice — Shailja Patel, “Shilling Love”
At the brink of independence, Tanganyika was three years from becoming Tanzania, an event in 1964 that would combine the Tanganyika region with the idyllic island of Zanzibar, home of honeymoon photoshoots. In and around 1961, there were four class categories, and South Asians primarily belonged to one comprised of traders and businessmen — also the main beneficiaries of British colonialism and racial discrimination in Eastern Africa. The word Nagar uses to describe this class is “bourgeoisie” but Dadabapa would have scoffed at this word, so I will honor his memory by sparing him the indictment. Papa told me that Dadima and Dadabapa came from impoverished backgrounds, the South Asians who fell through the cracks of economic success for various reasons. But still, they were South Asian. According to Nagar, “The Asians’ privileged position in the colonial order made them apprehensive of the impending African rule” implying a lingering fidelity to the Europeans colonizers.
Jonathan Jansen is the Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He has written a lot of literature on post-Apartheid South Africa. In his book Knowledge in the Blood: Confronting Race and Apartheid Past, he coins a term: indirect knowledge. This is related to the inheritance of information of historical events by the children of the perpetrators and victims of those events. He then outlines a variety of ways that the children of perpetrators of violence deal with the reality of their ancestors’ actions, how they inherit experiences or knowledge without ever having been through these events. What feelings linger and how they overcome or ignore these feelings. And, of course, what that means for how they treat each other.
Dadabapa’s mother was African. I wonder what she thought of racism when she married into a South Asian family. I wonder if that was a word she even knew.
Racial categorization and segregation were not, in fact, naturally delineated consequences of colonized East Africa, but very much purposefully outlined projects of the empire. According to Nagar, Dar es Salaam, my hometown, was segregated by “low density areas comprising of Oyster Bay and Msasani for Europeans, medium density areas of downtown and Upanga for Asians, and high density areas such as Kariakoo, Magomeni and Buguruni for Africans.” So the color of your skin prescribed how much space you had to live.
I live in Upanga, where all my Brown friends did, too. In Upanga, most of the roads are bumpy, dirty, littered with potholes and rocks. There are no stores, just one or two supermarkets that always smell like mold. The streets are quiet on the weekends, and large bungalows are oddly placed next to fourteen-floor flat buildings, indicating a region still figuring itself out. Here, my brown friends and I lived in a two-mile radius from each other. My school, which was a small pocket of Whiteness in an African country, where expats and kids of UNDP workers were sent, was in Oyster Bay. Oyster Bay has all the fancy restaurants run by Europeans. It’s where the diplomat store is, where only people with diplomatic passports are allowed to shop. All the roads in Oyster Bay are straight. Msasani, too, had all the malls and movie theaters. The houses are much bigger, and most come with pools. And Kariakoo, according to my parents, is too unsafe to go recreationally. Kariakoo has narrow streets through which only certain cars can go, its buildings sit tightly beside each other, made of crumbling cement and painted in comical but faded oranges and yellows. The doors and windows all have grills on them. When the electricity cuts out, it first cuts out in Kariakoo. When driving through Kariakoo to get to the airport, every Indian mom tells her driver to lock the car door. Even now, I am not allowed to drive in Kariakoo alone at night.
Houses in Masaki, which is the new suburb that exists between Oyster Bay and Msasani, can cost up to $5 million. Buses aren’t allowed in Masaki, only on the main roads, not through the neatly paved suburbs. Masaki is like an American suburb in the middle of Tanzania. When my white friends had me over, I would talk about how much more there is to do in Kariakoo, or Upanga. I’d say, “It’s nice here but it’s too quiet. Oh well, I guess it depends on what you like.” In Masaki, a stick of mishkaki, which are cubes of grilled and salted beef, costs 2,000 Tanzanian shillings, so my brown friends and I would sneak into Kariakoo on Friday nights and enjoy the 50 shilling ones, with complimentary rojo (500 extra for ajam). Sometimes, we would take our white friends, who’d get very excited about the “authentic” African experience, which, apparently, the Indian kids knew best.
Upanga rests between Oyster Bay and Kariakoo. There is no way to get to either but to go through Upanga. Asians, who have been there long enough to have learnt Kiswahili and have been to the schools that teach English, have always been able to oscillate between the two. We learn to adapt to the situation, thriving in the inbetweenness. Professional funambulists. But the ever-shrewd Asians know which language is valued above the others, so we work our whole lives watching American films to fix our accents. Multilingualism a survival tactic.
my father speaks Urdu,
language of dancing peacocks,
rosewater fountains -
even its curses are beautiful
He speaks Hindi,
suave and melodic…
coastal Swahili laced with Arabic…
before white men
who think their flat, cold spiky words
make the only reality
- Shailja Patel, “Dreaming in Gujarati”
In my research, I read about the Maji Maji Revolt of the early 20th century against German colonial rule. In 1902, the German Rule’s Carl Peters ordered villages to grow cotton so that they could be exported as cash crop. In 1905, a drought threatened the infrastructure of this exploitation. This led to an African revolt against the German rule, followed by a period of starvation as a cause of the drought. Their weapon of choice, against the artillery-bearing Germans, was a maize and water-based brew they believed to be magic. Maji. Between 1905 and 1907, 120,000 Africans died from starvation or fighting. One thing I have learned after taking a number of history classes in Anglo-centric schools is that, to learn about the death of 120,000 Africans in the 20th century is only mildly disturbing, but expected.
How many ways can you clone an empire? Dice a people, digit by digit? — Shailja Patel, “How Ambi Became Paisley”
Over the phone, I asked my father if he knew about the Maji Maji Revolt. “What? The Water Water revolt?” He laughs. I asked whether he knew about the Great Hunger — the njaa — that followed, as a cause of the drought and the German destruction of the African rebels’ farms. I told him the number of people who died, my voice breaking at “thousand.” There was a brief silence over the phone. I let the pause linger before asking, “Papa, what did Dadabapa say when the British left?” My throat was tight.
I know my dad had heard my voice crack while asking the question by the way he sighed immediately after. He knew I was asking for an answer that would let me keep loving the memory of my grandfather. Knew that I was too stubborn to forgive if I heard one I didn’t like, one that reminded me of our family’s role in a historical atrocity. He sighed and said, “The Europeans did a lot of terrible things, which Dadabapa recognized.” This wasn’t really an answer but I was satisfied. I wonder if these are questions he felt he could ask his own father, wonder why we think ignoring the facts lets us wash our hands clean of the violence. Dadabapa, who would sit quietly and watch us from the corner of his room, always balancing love and chai in a stained teacup. Poured it on the saucer, sipped at it silently when it cooled down. Until the age of ten, this was the only way of drinking chai I deemed acceptable. Papa once told me that we honor Dadima and Dadabapa not because they are his parents, but because they worked harder than anyone else he knows, sacrificed everything for their children. He said no one, not even he, would do as much as they did.
Years later, in high school, I will laugh uncomfortably when my friend calls her grandmother a “bitch.”
He said: God, your childhood sounds terrible! All struggle and duty!
I was shocked. I thought I had been showing him how much my parents loved me. — Shailja Patel, Migritude
The establishment of Tanganyika’s Independence in 1961 re-defined citizenship. South Asians were British subjects, but, after the British bounced, had the decision to retain their British citizenship, or gain Tanganyikan (or Indian) citizenship. That was the moment my grandparents became Tanganyikan. Papa told me that, at the time, immigration was fairly unrestricted. According to Nagar, most Shi’a Muslims decided to retain their Tanganyikan citizenship. Dadima still has remnants of her old British passport somewhere in the stack of files Papa keeps in his study. The pages are browning, some are missing, and the ones left leave dusty residue on your fingertips when you flip through them. Papa told me that when Dadima and Dadabapa were working in Tanzania, building the family business from nothing, she decided to revoke her British citizenship because “they saw their future in East Africa.”
Julius Nyerere, was the first President of Tanganyika post-independence. He shed light on the term “ujamaa,” which means togetherness in Swahili. This term evolved into being the basic idea behind Pan-African socialism, of which Nyerere was a promoter, later instilling socialism as the primary basis for Tanganyika’s economy. This was the man who unified Zanzibar with Tanganyika, forming Tanzania in 1964. Nyerere allowed for radical Africanization and nationalism, instating African workers into civil service positions previously held by Asians. Even so, my dad always says he was the best president Tanzania ever had, because he wasn’t corrupt “like the rest of them.”
So with the loss of their jobs, and the radical decline in South Asian income, many middle class South Asians migrated to London and Canada. My grandparents, who were already teetering on the edge of poverty, decided to stay. Dadima said that having nothing means having nothing to lose. One must always be ready for everything to change, for the floor to be swept off from under you, because fifth generation Tanzanian does not dilute immigrant status. So my dad never bought a house, has rented the one we live in for 15 years.
Raat thodi ne vesh jaja, the proverb I grew up on. The night is short and our garments change.
Meaning: Don’t put down roots. Don’t get too comfortable. By dawn, we may be on the move, forced to reinvent ourselves in order to survive. Invest only in what we can carry. Passports. Education. Jewellery. — Shailja Patel, Migritude
One day I am sitting in the sitting room of the house in Upanga back from college, using words like “racism,” “colonialism,” “neo-liberalism,” and “privileged” to describe our South Asian community. My dad sits patiently with an amused facial expression, which only fuels my frustration. I protest, exasperatedly, that he’s being condescending. He says, “So are you.”
When he was a baby, Dadima would stay up until 3 am next to lamplight, meticulously detailing the names and numbers of sales she and Dadabapa had made during the day from his newly found mitumba business. Mitumba means large bundles of secondhand clothing, a business that became so popular in the 60s and 70s they found a term for it. On these long nights, Dadima detailed how many coffee beans they had sold to whom, or which neatly packed bales of clothing discarded by the Americans had been redistributed to African shop-owners. Every shilling accounted for. She would be nursing my dad on her lap while the rest of his five siblings woke up at various times of the night, calling for her. She had to be a mother, a wife, and her husband’s business partner, but never thought of these as separate from each other.
As a child, I knew of women strangled in their saris. Women doused in paraffin and burned in their saris. Saris made you vulnerable…
No one told me about the women who went into battle — in their saris. — Shailja Patel, “Swore I’d Never Wear Clothes I Couldn’t Run or Fight In”
Even now, my grandma has a habit of staying up until late into the night. She thinks sleeping for too long is a waste of time. So at midnight I can hear her praying, or listening to the radio Dadabapa bought in the 90s (it reminds her of him).
My dad reminds me that from whatever perspective you’re looking, the privileged can also be the oppressor. I tell him that if we are insistent that Europeans cannot be let off the hook for the negative impacts of colonialism, neither can we for supporting it. He laughs, says, “Fatima, how long do we carry the past for? Let it go.”
I grew up a brown minority citizen of a post-independence black African nation. Everything citizens of the global North take for granted as rights, down to expressions of love from parents to children, have been for me painfully won privileges to be cherished and defended. — Shailja Patel, Migritude
Nagar quotes an unnamed Asian millionaire who says: “Africans blame us for no reason. They don’t realize that if Asians had not come here they would have no shops, no trade, no railways. They would have remained backward even today.”
rapier flashed at yuppie boys who claim
their people “civilized” mine — Shailja Patel, “The children in my dreams speak Gujarati”
How many times did my family, my community, use the word backward to describe a country still picking up the pieces it was left with? How many times did they blame its citizens for letting their land be stolen, their women raped, their man slaughtered, in the name of progress? How many times has an African life been viewed as collateral damage by an Indian businessman?
My uncle once said to me, “Fatima, at least the British made the roads of this country. If left to the Africans, it would still be a jungle.” In sub-Saharan Africa, I snapped, we have savannahs, not jungles.
My dad keeps reminding me of the things my family had to once fight for. Fight for life on the boat ride over. Fight for money. Fight for food. Fight to belong. Fight for home. Fight to smile when told Asians are obedient, will work hard to get ahead. Fight to be taken seriously, to be valued.
we swallow sobs / because they raised us to be tough / they raised us to be fighters — Shailja Patel, “Shilling Love”
And even now, after learning everything I could stomach, I am still unable to put into words why the guilt doesn’t get in the way of loving your family. Why guilt is too simple a word to describe how you feel when you realize what your family was a part of.
Originally published at kajalmag.com on January 8, 2016.