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Vital lessons from Kenya’s 44th tribe

By XN Iraki | February 9th 2021
Mr. Ashish Sinha with members of Hindu Council of Kenya during celebrations of International Day Yoga 2020, in association with High Commission of India in Kenya.

In a twist of events that should have left our heads spinning, the Asian community was declared the country's 44th tribe through a Kenya Gazette notice on July 21, 2017. Anthropologists should have talked about it, but they did not. 

One entrepreneur along Lower Kabete Road has even named his business premises Tribe 44. What inspired this interesting decision?  

First, the classification was too broad and blunt. Asians themselves consist of different tribes. India alone has about 645 tribes, or adivasis.

Indonesia has 1,128 tribes. Declaring Asians the 44th tribe was not anthropologically correct. It means they are now bi-tribe. Were the Chinese included in this classification?  

What necessitated this decision? Some suggest it was politics in an election year.

Others suggest the Asians’ economic clout made it necessary to 'tribalise' them by making them Kenyan. It seems in Kenya you have to belong to a tribe despite the negative connotation associated with the word. I have always wondered why government documents ask for someone’s tribe, even clan.

Long before Cambridge Analytica came around, such data was a powerful political weapon. The reaction of the new tribe was muted. This was unexpected. They could not say no to the new classification because of the source of pronouncement, coming from the highest office in the land. It was also attributed to a petition. Did putting all 'Asian tribes' into one tribal basket raise their profile and clout? Yet, they have different religions, languages, social-economic classes and so on. 

It would be interesting to hear their reaction; they have had enough time to digest the new classification since 2017.

It’s a paradox why wazungus (caucasians) did not become a Kenyan tribe before the Asians.

They brought Asians, specifically Indians, to build the railway. Add the missionaries and explorers who came earlier, and there is no doubt that caucasians should have become a tribe before the Asians. Why were they left tribeless? Is it a coded message that they are not Kenyan enough?  

The classification of Asians as the 44th tribe still makes my head spin. Maybe we should go beyond classification.  

The Indian constitution reserved two parliamentary seats for Anglo Indians until they were abolished by the 104th Constitutional Amendment Act, 2019.

Should we reserve some seats for our Asian brothers and sisters? Is it not better than giving them a tribe?

We should also reserve some seats for wazungus who have not had an MP for a long time.

Why do political parties conveniently forget to nominate them? Can this be included in the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)? 

But I see a silver lining in classifying Asians as an additional Kenyan tribe. It could be easier for us to learn from them, a tribe like the rest of us! Did the Shonas become the 45th tribe after being granted Kenyan citizenship recently?

What are some of the key lessons we can learn from the Asians?   

One, they have very strong and deep social capital espoused by their institutions, from schools to hospitals and temples. Can we start doing the same by going beyond chamas (micro-savings groups)? 

Two is their strong family values. I have not seen an Asian street child. Maybe I have not looked hard enough.  

Not ashamed

Three, they safeguard their culture by speaking their mother tongue without shame, even those who have gone through Ivy League universities such as Harvard.

They are also not ashamed of their traditional names. We think of our mother tongues and names as inferior. Yet Asians have conquered the world while speaking their mother tongues and keeping their culture, like the Jews. 

Four is the value they place on education as a route to upward mobility. They take strategic courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Stem), such as computer engineering, medicine, pharmacy and architecture.

This makes it easy for them to work anywhere in the world. Political science can’t get you elected as a Member of the County Assembly (MCA) in another country.

I was surprised to meet two Asian students studying political science at the University of Nairobi two years ago. 

My encounter with the Asians started early. My high school English, Maths, Chemistry and Physics teachers were Mrs Kapila, Mrs Rajah, Mr Patel and Mrs Shah, respectively.  

Five is their entrepreneurship. No wonder they have such a low unemployment rate compared to the rest of us, and rarely work in the public sector. Their secret is focus and specialisation. They rarely diversify, focusing on one line of business and doing it very well.

This allows them to master the market and the supply chain. They also get into businesses with high barriers of entry like steel or chemicals. This reduces competition.  

Without being derogatory, their competitors, particularly from Central Kenya, are masters of diversification. One will run a shop, a matatu, rentals, a farm, a butchery with a photocopier inside and preach over the weekend.  

Finally, their global reach is to be emulated; Asians can be found in most countries, turning the reluctant wheel of progress through their bootstraps.

They can be patient, with one generation living in a developing country and the next in the developed world.  

Some have suggested that overpopulation in their mother countries and displacement (migration) is the secret behind their economic success.  

- The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi

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