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Kenya and The 44th Tribe


By John Day Barnett


What is the meaning of the word tribe? When looking at it in the East African context, it can mean the reason for winning a presidential election. From the American perspective, it connotes Indians (Native Americans) roaming the plains in an antiquated view of the history of North America.
In each example, the tribes mentioned date back generations, often to before the founding of the country in which they now reside. However, other tribes also exist that immigrated to the nations within the last few generations and now fully believe themselves to be part of the place they call home. Some still fight for official recognition from the governments of the countries, including Indians in Kenya.


“’We’ve been here for 100 years,’ said [first member of Kenyan Parliament of Asian descent Shakeel] Shabbir, whose great-grandfather came from Punjab to India in 1917 to work on a British railway, called the ‘Lunatic Line’ because the construction cost lives of thousands of laborers, killed by malaria and even lions.”


Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura’s New York Times article highlights the efforts of Shabbir and his fellow Indian-Kenyans to become the 44th ethnic group. According to Freytas-Tamura, the issue is not one of economic oppression, instead as Shabbir states, it iis the fact that “many feel excluded from the country’s political and social fabric.”
While you may not know the names of each of the 43 other tribes, you know at least one famous for running marathons (the Kalenjin). The current President and son of the first President is a Kikuyu, his Vice President is a Luo, a tribe that that includes the family of Barack Obama.
The most famous story of Indians in Kenya involves the Lunatic Express, the railway line connecting Uganda and Nairobi to Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast. John Henry Patterson, in his book The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, describes building the rail line and the lions that attacked many men, especially Indian workers, during the construction of a bridge over the Tsavo river.

“The silence of an African jungle on a dark night needs to be experienced to be realised; it is the most impressive, especially when one is absolutely alone and isolated from one’s fellow creatures, as I was then.” – John Henry Patterson, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo

I found the quote above from Patterson especially relevant when thinking about the current struggles of Indians in Kenya in combination with the British rule of the colony of Kenya. Put yourself in his shoes, a man with ancestors nothing like neither the native tribes of the land nor the ancestors of the men building the line hailing from India.
Modern Kenya is a place of many tribes, whether officially sanctioned by the government or not. The same can be said for almost every nation on Earth, from first generation Indians in the United States to fifth generation Japanese in Germany.

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UPDATED: Nairobi, Kenya, Saturday, July 22, 2017
President Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the first Kenya President Jomo Kenyatta, announced on July 21, 2017 that Kenyans of Indian descent would now be officially the 44th tribe in Kenya.

“The Head of State acknowledges that the Kenyan Asian’s contribution to Kenya has its roots at the dawn of our Nation” said Acting Interior Cabinet Secretary Fret Matiang’i.”

“This contribution that began with the construction of our nation’s first railway line continues to this day, with the Kenyan Asian Community having a well-deserved reputation for excellence in industry as well as charitable and philanthropic works” Matiang’i continued, asserting the history of the community and the importance for inclusion into the official tribal system.”


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