Growing up in Toronto shields you from the realities of racism. Especially systemic racism.
The colour of my skin, the clothes I wear, and the texture of my hair don’t matter there. I am just one of the thousands of people from an Indian decent that roam the streets of Toronto. Racism has largely been something that I was taught about in school but never actually experienced. In reality, I have encountered racism mostly via stories in the news or watching protests in the city.
Which is why Nairobi has been eye opening. Racism and racial economic disparity manifests itself quite visibly here, despite Nairobi being a multicultural city and housing Africa’s UN headquarters. Here I recount couple of my observations from the past few months.
Having heard about the best Chinese restaurant in Nairobi, called Silk Noodles, I made my way there with a few friends one night. As soon as we entered the plaza, we were greeted by the sweet scent of barbecue pork and bright yellow signs in Chinese lettering, just like Chinatown in Toronto. We were the only non-Chinese people in the plaza, and the same was true when we sat down in the restaurant (I was excited by this; it’s usually a sign of authenticity when majority of the customers are the from the same ethnicity as the restaurant). However, what immediately struck me, being from Toronto, was that all the waiters were black, even though not a single customer was black. Even the kitchen staff making handmade noodles were black folks putting in the hard manual labour to produce beautiful round, uniform, smooth noodles (aka Silk Noodles, as the restaurant name suggests). And yet none of the locals found anything noticeable or unnatural about this, including the black staff themselves. In the past 10 months, I have frequented many restaurants and this situation is very common in restaurants that are not serving local cuisine (e.g. India, Mexican, Chinese, etc.). Most have black people as the staff but very few black customers as they cannot afford these restaurants; a clear sign of the racial economic disparity that is glaringly visible.
As you Uber around Nairobi, from the Waiyaki Way highway you can see a grand marble structure. This is the majestic BAPS Swaminarayan temple, a beautiful structure of hand-carved Italian marble and one among 3,300 other matching BAPS temples around the world. When I last visited this temple in Delhi, India, I was amazed as the detailed architecture, the grandeur, and the amount of tourists it attracted. In Toronto, it is touted as a must-visit tourist attraction, filled with people willing to show you around and share their culture. I wanted to do the same with my Kenyan friend who had recently taken me to experience how locals go to Church on Sundays.
So I was shocked that this temple could ever leave such a bad taste in my mouth.
When I arrived at the temple, I found my friend standing outside; the guards hadn’t let him in. Only when I explained to the guard that he was with me, did he suspiciously allow us to enter. People within the grounds stared at us as we made our way to the restaurant and even the waiting staff were surprised to see a Kenyan as a customer. Though I’m used to the stares by now, what shocked me the most was finding out that only Jains (followers of a popular religion in India) were allowed in which is why my non-Indian friend was denied entry. Ironically, the guards and waiters there — including the very guards stopping my friend — are not Indian, they are black Kenyans. A clear form of racism designed to prevent non-Indians from entering, unless of course you work there as guards or waiters.
Racism isn’t shocking in it self, it exists everywhere. But what is surprising to me is how casual and normal it is here. Seeing the working class as one race or being denied entry somewhere or being ignored at a restaurant because of your skin colour would be a big deal in Toronto. People would flare up on social media, boycott the venue, and protest until they are heard or a change is made. But here, the locals accept things as they are as they don’t have much choice to bring about a change. And how could they if the very people they need to stand up to are the ones providing them with employment?
P.S. I did leave a public Google Maps review and sent an email to the temple headquarters, hoping that some slight sliver of change is brought about.
P.P.S. If you are interested in reading more about the history or race dynamics in Kenya, here are some links: