Cowboys & Indians

DISPATCH 1 // Cowboys & Indians // Nairobi, Kenya

It’s a bit like trying to find needles in a haystack. Except the needles are actively trying to pass off as hay, don’t understand English too well, and are wary of journalists. 2,000 Indians stand before me, all speaking Telugu and wearing traditional garb. And I know at least a handful of them are exactly what I need. They’ve gathered here at the SSDS Temple in the upscale ‘Westlands’ neighborhood of Kenya’s capital for a special event put on by the Tirupati committee, representing one of the holiest sites of Hindu India.  If you had been shuttled right from the airport to these temple grounds, you would have no way of telling you weren’t in India.

I’ve come here, on the first day of my investigations, to hunt down Indian businessmen that make their profits trading in some of Africa’s most debilitating conflicts — in South Sudan, DRC, CAR, and Somalia. I met a handful of these men during a previous reporting trip to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, where two years prior civil war had erupted between supporters of the president on the government side and supporters of the VP on the rebel side, fracturing the country along ethnic lines. While I was there, they had been more than willing to share stories of running around the Congo, Angola, and Somalia at the heights of their crises, chasing profit without care for their lives — we’d all be reborn anyway, right? But here, on the fringes of the war economy and thousands of miles from Juba, Indians would be a bit more tepid on sharing stories of flirting with law and limb, especially with a legal apparatus as robust as Kenya’s.

I’d known that Indians had been no strangers to Africa, settling here in the 1800s under British colonial rule, but finding them in Juba last year was a bit of a surprise. As far as American media is concerned with foreign meddling in modern Africa, Chinese state-backed entrepreneurship stands king. The trend began in the 1980s with China’s decision to embark on a regimented and strongly backed program to extend influence to the Cold War’s third world. Through rebranded corporations representing state interests, China sought to shore up economic security in raw resources, which lie under some of the bloodiest ground in the African continent — and by no accident.

China officially maintains that its economic development packages are ‘no strings attached’ and are strictly non-interfering, politically speaking. But their willingness to indiscriminately do business with regimes as broken as Robert Mugabe’s in Zimbabwe and as brutal as Omar al-Bashir’s in Sudan puts China on the axis of Western foreign policy. In recent months, the standoff has become even more explicit. The Chinese government has broken ground for a military base in Djibouti, right next to Camp Lemonnier, America’s largest military base in the continent.

Indians, on the other hand, are near unknown to Western media accounts of African economies, but to the locals, it’s no secret who pulls the strings of the markets.

Indians have long been an integral part of the African fabric and trade records show sustained contact between Indian maritime merchants and East African traders as early as the 1400s. But it was not until the 1800s British conquest of East Africa that Indians arrived en masse. Unhappy with the quality of labor they found in Africa, the British opted instead to import laborers from their colony of India, whose subjects they found to be much more docile and industrious. 32,000 indentured servants arrived after having signed predatory contracts and set about constructing the Kenya-Uganda railroad, linking two of Britain’s most profitable colonies. Just as in the Chinese case, independent low-level entrepreneurs, or dukawallas, followed suit. After the contracts of the servants expired, many went back to India. But about 6,500 decided to begin life anew in Africa.

Over the next century, they became embedded in East African economies. Their ubiquitous streetside stands grew to multi-national conglomerates and their meager earnings soon multiplied to make them some of the richest men here. Soon enough, the 1960s rolled along and saw the uhuru movements for independence across the sub-Saharan. The figureheads of these movements spouted vitriolic, though not entirely unwarranted, rhetoric against foreigners in their nations. This was Africa’s moment. No longer would occupying colonial forces dictate the lives of millions that had not agreed to their rule. And owing to Indian commercial success, they were lumped into the ruling colonial class as well. And for good reason; by the 1950s there were about 320,000 Indians in East Africa and they laid claim to more than 80% of the trade in the region. Jomo Kenyatta, leader of Kenyan independence and later the first president of Kenya, called Indians “blood sucking leeches” and called for their exodus from Africa.

But it was His Excellency, Conqueror of Africa in General and Uganda in Particular, Idi Amin, that actually made good on that threat. In 1972, he gave a 90-day warning to all those of Asian descent in Uganda, where nearly the entire cotton trade was monopolized by Indians, to leave the country. And leave they did. They saw violent retribution and conflict unfolding around them with Patrice Lumumba’s bloody ouster in the DRC or the pogroms against the Portuguese in Angola’s independence struggle. So they packed their bags and head off back to India, the UK, or Canada. With calmer seas returned Indian entrepreneurs, many of whom had set up shop in the UK during their exodus and simply expanded their business back into their old stomping grounds.

Another boost for Indian immigration to Africa came in the 1990s with shifting domestic tides in Indian economic policy. With the red tape of the former ‘License Raj’ era loosened, foreign corporations began to set up shop in India and imports boomed. But this deregulation also allowed flows in the other direction and encouraged Indian entrepreneurship in Africa, now bolstered by ties to UK capital.

And it’s this last group of Indians, those liberated by 1990s trade policy and emboldened by a more ideologically stable Africa, that brought me to SSDS Temple. But again, it would be a matter of finding a needle in a haystack to track down an Indian businessman among many that has networks into South Sudan. Further, it would not be as easy to ingratiate myself in well-established Indian communities such as the one here. In the States, there is a well-recognized convention among Indians, especially those hailing from the same region, to make small talk whenever they see each other in public. That’s why it was so easy in Juba where, at the time, only about 400 Indians lived. But here I’m just another Indian. Well, until they talk to me. Then I’m American. Which doesn’t make this any easier.

My salvation, at least from crippling shyness and boredom, came in the form of Santosh. He spotted me lingering on the fringes of the congregation and struck up conversation with me. Santosh turns out to be a IT specialist with the United Nations, recently moved to Nairobi to help the mission to Mogadishu, which despite how much Western money has been poured into the Transitional Government there still has very little power to stabilize the country and instead finds itself bogged down in endless corruption and clan politics. But as long as the US and EU are footing the bill and have the other foot stifling attempts at independent local governance, who can blame them? In any case, Santosh was taken with my project and said he would try to set me up with his friends in Entebbe, Uganda, and see if he could dig up contacts in Mogadishu. He was generous enough to let me sit with him and his parents, who had just arrived from Hyderabad to visit their son. We enjoyed a fine meal prepared by cooks brought over from India along with the Tirupati committee (not so different from Chinese habits) before parting ways and sharing contact information.

So in the end, SSDS turned out to be a dud. But it has nonetheless prepared me for Kampala, where the city is saturated with Indians that returned with the fall of Idi Amin and 1986 rise of (current) president Yoweri Museveni. The haystack would be bigger and — with recent election woes still lingering in the air — the needles all the more elusive.

Rajiv Golla is a T’17 Alum.

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