5.18.2012

"Asia in my life": How Asia/Asians influenced Africa/Africans

Circa 1964 – "Resolutely support the anti-imperialist struggle of peoples in Asia, Africa and Latin-America!"*
There is an excellent essay up on Pambazuka by the amazing Kenyan, Kikuyu writer, Ngugi wa Thiong'o entitled "Asia in my life". In the essay, wa Thiong'o reflects on the significant role India played in not only his life, but in anti-colonial struggles across the African continent. The essay is call for more than POC solidarity, but also South-South cooperation as he specifically mentions countries in Africa, Asia and South America and encourages us to "escape the long shadow of the 'Age of the European Empire'.

I truly encourage everyone to head over to Pambazuka and read wa Thiong'o's essay. I hardly ever read long essays word for word online, but trust me, I read this one. Below the cut, are my favourite "quotes" from "Asia in my life" as well as some commentary.

It was not just Christmas: daily hospitality in every Kenyan home means being treated to a mug of tea, literally a brew of tea leaves, tangawizi, and milk and sugar, made together, really a massala tea. Not to offer a passing guest or neighbor a cup of tea is the height of stinginess or poverty; and for the guest to decline the offer, the ultimate insult. So African it all seemed to me that when I saw Indians drinking tea or making curry, I thought it the result of African influence. Where the Indian impact on African food culture was all pervasive, there was hardly any equivalence from the English presence; baked white bread is the only contribution that readily comes to mind.
This is not surprising. Imported Indian skilled labor built the railway line from the Coast to the Great Lake, opening the interior for English settlement. Every railroad station, from Mombasa to Kisumu, initially depots for the building material, mushroomed into towns mainly because of the Indian traders who provided much needed services to the workers initially but in time, to the community around. If European settlers opened the land for large-scale farming for export, the Indian opened the towns and cities for retail and wholesale commerce.
In West Africa, we have something similar with the Lebanese. For most of my life, I thought sharwarma was Nigerian food. I have eaten sharwama outside Nigeria (not including Ghana) before and it just did not taste the same. I remember when I was much younger sharwarma bought at the Lebanese store had chips (fries) and pickles. Now you can buy sharwarma pretty much everywhere, some wraps have sausages, most are spicy thankfully.
Limuru where I come from had a thriving Indian shopping centre built on land curved from that of my maternal grandfather’s clan. The funeral pyres to burn the bodies of the Indian dead were held in a small forest that was also under my maternal grandfather’s care. Cremation is central to Hindu culture: it asks Agni, the fire god, to release the spirit from the Earthly body to be re-embodied in Heaven into a different form of being. The departed soul travelled from pretaloka to pitraloka unless there were impurities holding it back. My mother did not practice Hinduism, but to her dying day, she believed and swore that on some nights, she would see disembodied Indian spirits, like lit candles in the dark, wandering in the forest around the cremation place. She talked about it as a matter of regular material fact and she would become visibly upset when we doubted her.
At this point, I imagined someone writing an Indian ghost story set in Kenya. This is, yet again, a beautiful illustration of how cultures can collide and merge.
Makerere was an affiliate of the University of London in Kampala, Uganda, where, until the advent of Idi Amin, racial relations were benign. Before its college status, Makerere used to be a place of post-secondary schooling for African students from British East Africa, but as Independence approached, the college opened its doors to a sizeable Indian student presence. That is when we started learning about each other’s different ways of life on a more personal basis. We shared dorms, classes, and the struggles for student leadership in college politics and sports. Leadership emerged from any of the multi-ethnic and multi-racial mix. Doing things together is the best teacher of race relations: one can see and appreciate the real human person behind the racial and ethnic stereotypes.
On a whim last week I wrote a short post on my Tumblr in which I expressed my frustration at white people trying to claim an African identity. The post veered out of my control and made its way to the basic side of Tumblr and I've have to deal with stupid comments from white people (and POC Westerners too!) who just cannot understand why I would exclude white people who were born in "Africa" and have lived there for generations from having the right to claim an African identity. Hello, colonialism? Indigenous people?

I was asked if I consider Indians and Chinese born in African countries to be African and I replied that in most cases I not only considered them African, but also Black. I know...it was initially perplexing for me when I discovered very "Black" thoughts written and being expressed by Indian Africans. (Some people consider my definitions of who is African to be too generous because I consider Diasporic Africans and indigenous North Africans to be African. *shrug*).

As for Indian Africans, wa Thiong'o elucidates;
Ahmed Kathrada was one of the ten defendants in the famous Rivonia trial that would lead him to Robben Island where he spent 18 years alongside Mandela and others.

[…]

The birth of Trade Union Movement in Kenya was largely the work of Gamal Pinto and Makhan Singh. Imprisoned by the Kenya colonial authorities repeatedly, Makhan Singh would never give up the task of bringing Indian and African workers together. He was the first prominent political leader to stand in a court of law and tell the British colonial state that Africans were ready to govern themselves, a heresy that earned him imprisonment and internal exile. Kapenguria is usually associated with the trial and imprisonment of Jomo Kenyatta but Makhan Singh preceded him. There have been some Indian political martyrs, the first being the Indian workers executed for treason, by the authorities in the very early days of colonial occupation. Gamal Pinto, a hero of the anti-colonial resistance, would be a prominent victim of the post-colonial negative turn in Kenyan politics. Though under a fictional name, Gamal Pinto, has been immortalized in Peter Nazareth’s novel, In a Brown Mantle one of the best literary articulations of the political drama of the transformation of African politics from the colonial to the neo-colonial.
All emphasis mine. To repeat myself here, Indians have died and been imprisoned -alongside Africans, trying to liberate African countries from European colonial rule. Even today, I know of South Africans and Kenyans of Indian descent who actively challenge anti-Black racism (from within their own communities and from white people), and hold fast to pan-African views. Can the same be said of "white Africans"? I am aware of the fact that a few white South Africans did stand up against Apartheid...but we all know that if the majority had risen, the colonial and white supremacist systems would have crumbled.
The recent explosion of Chinese interest in African might obscure the fact that there has always been a small but significant migrant Chinese presence, in South Africa mostly, but also in Zimbabwe. Fay Chung whose grandparents migrated to Rhodesia in the 1920s became an active participant in the anti-colonial struggle, at one time running for her life into exile in Tanzania, was a big player in the founding of Zimbabwe. She founded Zimfep which invited Kamĩrĩthũ theater to Zimbabwe, a visit was scuttled by the Moi regime by simply banning the theater group and forcing one of its leaders, the late Ngũgĩ wa Mĩriĩ, to flee to Zimbabwe, and under Zimfep, launched the Zimbabwe community theatre movement1 ensuring that the continuity and expansion of the Kamĩrĩthũ spirit.
The majority of Indians and Chinese came to the African continent as indentured labourers working for European colonisers, these European colonisers also encouraged segregation between the Indians, Chinese and Africans. "Divide and conquer" was not limited within African ethnic groups. When wa Thiong'o says; The links between Asia and Africa and South America have always been present but in our times they have been made invisible by the fact that Europe is still the central mediator of Afro-Asian-Latino discourse. He is not lying. Europe has been the central mediator for a while and still is. It is stunning sometimes, the way we receive our perceptions of each other from Europe and the West at large.

I wonder how many more people like Fay Chung, Ahmed Kathrada and Gamal Pinto took part in African anti-colonial struggles but are now largely forgotten in the annals of African history. The African continent is largely not a safe space for Blackness, some of us have the tendency of looking fondly at the days when the "colonial masters" ruled, and white European achievements tend to overblown. What I mean to say is, countries will have white Western heroes alongside Black African heroes (to prove they are truly "liberated), but will ignore the other heroes, for example those that were Chinese or Indian.

It consider wa Thiong'o's "Asia in my life" to be an amazing essay and hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. I also hope my comments gave some depth rather than distraction.

On the other hand, a bit unrelated to this, it was moments after reading wa Thiongo's celebration of Asian-African unity and calling for strong South-South cooperation that I came across this short essay on anti-Black racism in India. Thoughts are welcome.

*ETA: I added the image above after reading the comments! I forgot I had it saved on my laptop and only realised how well it goes with the topic of this post a day after publishing it. I have no information about the image above except the caption, it was floating around Tumblr a while ago.

11 comments:

  1. I loved this! It is great to read about the link between Africa and Asia and how there were Asians fighting anti colonialism. Even though I am American, it makes me proud to see that both African and Asian people have cooperated peacefully. It makes me sad in a way because in America there are tensions between both communities. Sadly we have a sick system which puts people on a hierarchy due to their race, so as usual, Black on bottom Asian under white. It causes a lot of misunderstandings, mistrust, and resentment. I just hope that Black diaspora,African, Asian and Hispanic communities can learn to respect one another to fight white supremacy. I also hope that Africa can get out of the grip of the West.

    AC

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    1. Hello AC,

      Reading your comment reminded me of China's support for anti-colonial movements in Africa, which reminded me of the image you can now find above.

      But don't get it twisted, there are also tensions between Asian and African communities on the African continent and like Dr. Diepriyie Kuku expounds, there are also a lot of anti-Black sentiments in India. Still it is heartening that there was a time when collaboration and solidarity existed. I too hope that one day we can all come together, learn to respect one another and fight white supremacy.

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  2. Amazing. I've loved wa Thiong'o since I was a child; his work never fails to move me.

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  3. A very interesting article that answers questions that I been asking myself recently. When I visited my home country Senegal, I heard rumors about my mother's side of the family being Chinese. Needless to say I was a bit perplexed about how it was possible before reading this.

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    1. Oh, that is interesting, about your mother's side of the family being Chinese.

      As part of its efforts to help African countries move away from colonial support/rule, in decades past the Chinese government sent scientists, farmers and teachers to various countries across the continent. Some of these people returned to China after completing their terms while others stayed behind. Some of these experts were sent to different parts of West Africa so it is not impossible that your mother's side of the family were Chinese.

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  4. Interesting! I'm going to start reading his stuff. I wonder about the Caribbean, if there are Asian "heroes" there too, I'll do some research.
    And I understand you on the "whites can't be considered African" thing (for most of them), I share the same view on "white Caribbeans".

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    1. Yes! Please do, wa Thiong'o is awesome. I won't be surprised if there are/were Asian "heroes" in the Caribbean, I mean it can be expected if they were also discriminated against during colonial rule. It reminds me of Kerry Young's book Pao, even though Pao, the Chinese-Jamaican protagonist, was not a hero. Speaking of Jamaica, have you heard of the documentary to be released on Chinese-Jamaicans in reggae?

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  5. Also, I can see the Indian influence in the Caribbean too (madras cloth, food for the most part), I even have an Indian guy in my family there.

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  6. @eccentricyoruba: I didn't know about this documentary, I'll check it out!

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  7. It's funny because I was talking to my dad about South Sudan(where my family is from and where I was born and raised, representing yo!) and he told me stories about Chinese workers who would come and live around Kakuma (the city we lived in)and help out around. There were so many of them that settlements sprouted and Chinese kids were even being born there, one of whom became one of my dad's closest friends. I was so shocked, lol. It was so interesting hearing him talk fondly of them.

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