Last weekend, I had the fortunate occasion of celebrating Diwali with one of my Kenyan-Indian friend Shruti. Shruti is a bright, young actuary whom I had the lucky opportunity of working with during my time in Africa. Like any typical Kenyan, she is one of the friendliest, warm and welcoming friends I have met.
Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is the most popular of all the festivals from South Asia.Diwali,originates from the Sanskrit word deepavali, means “rows of lighted lamps”. On Diwali night, people typically dress up in new clothes, light up diyas (lamps and candles) signifying the triumph of good over evil.Fireworks and sweets are often popular for this occasion. Whilst fireworks were not readily available, particularly after the Westgate terrorist attack in Nairobi, we have certainly enjoyed the feast ofmithai (sweets) shared at this party. I also had the delightful experience of having a beautiful intricate henna painted on my hand with special thanks to Shruti’s skilful friend. Undoubtedly for many Indians, Diwali is synonymous with “cookouts, fireworks, huge family gatherings, and week-long celebrations”.
One may not know but Kenya has one of the largest and longest established Indian populations in the world outside India. Indian migration to modern day Kenya started with the construction of the Uganda railway in the late 1800’s. Indians worked as traders, farmers and on the railway system that the British were building in East Africa.Today, Indians living here are mainly engaged in construction, metal and retail businesses. Some also work in banks. Although a minority group, Indians control many Kenyan businesses and much of its urban real estate –wielding considerable political and economic power in Kenya.
Moreover, it will not be difficult for one to notice the influence of the Indian cuisine in Kenyan food. Several Indian classics have been adopted as typical Kenyan dishes. For example, chapatti, a flat bread, is a very common food on Kenya’s dinner tables. Samosas, meat filled fried dumplings, are sold everywhere, from street-side vendors to fast food restaurants.
Whilst Indians have lived in Kenya for several generations, many black Kenyans, especially those in lower-income population, would still consider them interloper, a muhindi, or even a kind of economic colonialist. The Asian community are often perceived to be cautiously inward and self-reliant in Kenya. Despite varying degrees of acculturation, most Indian-Kenyans have retained their strong Indian ties and traditions, and are a close-knit, endogamous community.
While the Indian identity may occasionally be questioned in Kenya, no doubt all of the guests celebrating Diwali at our party were not distinguished by our nationalities nor origins. This day, we are the same to enjoy this happy festival of Diwali!