Asians in Tanzania

At the turn of the 20th century, a huge influx of South Asians had immigrated to Eastern Africa, increasing the population of their presence almost tenfold. Sometime in that time period, a Gujurati man with the last name Ladha, and one with the last name Lalji, were sent to East Africa on ships – perhaps the same one.

There were many small reasons for this mass migration but only two primary ones that explained its magnitude in this time period: The first is that the British imperial power, which, at the time, controlled various parts of East Africa such as Kenya and Uganda, as well as India, imported roughly 30,000 indentured workers from India. Germany, which had Tanganyika under its imperial power, followed suit. These imported Indians, my great-great-grandfathers and their friends, helped establish and construct a lot of the East African infrastructure that still exists today. The secondary reason for the Indian exodus was the economic opportunities the resourceful East African land offered to South Asian merchants and traders, a kind of pseudo-colonialism for economic gain. This difference between importation and immigration is a tightrope on which South Asian communities in East Africa still teeter.

How do you price a country? How do you value its mountains and lakes, the scent of its trees, the colors of its sunrise? What’s the markup on the shapes of fruit in the dreams of its people? –  Shailja Patel, “How Ambi Became Paisley”

After the First World War, the British kicked Germany out of what was Tanganyika, establishing colonial control over the region. An economic crisis in the 1930s in India increased immigration to the East African region, where economic progress for Indians was promised through British-constructed racialized hierarchies, favoring the hard-working Asians. Asians, you see, are hard workers. Molded into model minorities since the 1890s. In the two decades after the Second World War, the British sent more South Asians as educated personnel to work in the “middle rungs of the civil service.” This is according to Professor Richa Nagar, whose early work “focused on questions of identity and the politics of space and place among South Asian communities in postcolonial Tanzania.”

We overdress, we migrants. We care too much how we look to you. – Shailja Patel, “Migrant Song”

My father claims our family has been in Tanzania for about a hundred years. So long that no one remembers when exactly we reached its shores. On my Dad’s side, I am either fifth or sixth generation Tanzanian. On Ammi’s, I am first. She speaks Swahili in the broken ways newly-immigrated Mwindis do, unconjugated verbs and mixed-up pronouns, tinged with Indian-accented intonation here and there.

There are many kinds of South Asians in Tanzania, the differences often delineated by faith: Sunni Muslims, Shi’a Bohora, Ismaili, our very own Ithna’ Asheri, as well as Hindu and Sikh. Our reasons for immigrating also vary. I asked Papa what our family came as, the indentured workers or the merchants, those who fled colonial rule to take advantage of the racial hierarchies elsewhere, or those who just didn’t know any better. He said our ancestors were sent as workers by the Germans to build the railroad tracks in Tanganyika. This relieved me slightly.

In 1891, the Railway Company for German East Africa was established by the colonial rule. The tracks were to connect Tanga, in the eastern part of Tanzania, to the hinterland, in hopes to run a train through the center of the country, which would be known as the Usambara Railway. The construction started in 1893. In 1895, the Railway Company for German East Africa filed for bankruptcy after 40 miles of construction. So, in 1899, the German colonial treasury picked up the construction of the railroad track. In 1904, the East African Railway Company was established, and took over the construction of the railway in Tanzania. This time, they intended to increase the railway network to build something from Dar es Salaam on the eastern coast, to nearby Arusha, through Tabora, up north to Mwanza, and finally westward to Kigoma, which rests at the side of Lake Tanganyika, a sliver of water that edges the left of the country. Where my uncle owns a hotel. Where I learned to water ski, never once seeing the railways tracks. The construction was interrupted by the First World War, after which control of Tanganyika was given to the British colonial rule, who picked up where their European peers left off.

Early on in this historical moment, my great-grandfathers would sign onto 2-3 yearlong contracts designed to keep Asian workers as cheap labor for colonial construction projects. When their contracts finished, they stayed on for the vast business opportunities afforded to them by their relative racial privilege to the African workers. And because we know how to make homes wherever we end up. In the decades to follow, no one would use the trains in Tanganyika. Cheap labor is, at least, not that wasteful.

I try to explain love / in shillings / to those who’ve never gauged / who gets to leave who has to stay / who breaks free and what they pay / those who’ve never measured love / by every rung of the ladder / from survival / to choice – Shailja Patel, “Shilling Love”

At the brink of independence, Tanganyika was three years from becoming Tanzania, an event in 1964 that would combine the Tanganyika region with the idyllic island of Zanzibar, home of honeymoon photoshoots. In and around 1961, there were four class categories, and South Asians primarily belonged to one comprised of traders and businessmen – also the main beneficiaries of British colonialism and racial discrimination in Eastern Africa. The word Nagar uses to describe this class is “bourgeoisie” but Dadabapa would have scoffed at this word, so I will honor his memory by sparing him the indictment. Papa told me that Dadima and Dadabapa came from impoverished backgrounds, the South Asians who fell through the cracks of economic success for various reasons. But still, they were South Asian. According to Nagar, “The Asians’ privileged position in the colonial order made them apprehensive of the impending African rule” implying a lingering fidelity to the Europeans colonizers.

Jonathan Jansen is the Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He has written a lot of literature on post-Apartheid South Africa. In his book Knowledge in the Blood: Confronting Race and Apartheid Past, he coins a term: indirect knowledge. This is related to the inheritance of information of historical events by the children of the perpetrators and victims of those events. He then outlines a variety of ways that the children of perpetrators of violence deal with the reality of their ancestors’ actions, how they inherit experiences or knowledge without ever having been through these events. What feelings linger and how they overcome or ignore these feelings. And, of course, what that means for how they treat each other.

Dadabapa’s mother was African. I wonder what she thought of racism when she married into a South Asian family. I wonder if that was a word she even knew.

Racial categorization and segregation were not, in fact, naturally delineated consequences of colonized East Africa, but very much purposefully outlined projects of the empire. According to Nagar, Dar es Salaam, my hometown, was segregated by “low density areas comprising of Oyster Bay and Msasani for Europeans, medium density areas of downtown and Upanga for Asians, and high density areas such as Kariakoo, Magomeni and Buguruni for Africans.” So the color of your skin prescribed how much space you had to live.

I live in Upanga, where all my Brown friends did, too. In Upanga, most of the roads are bumpy, dirty, littered with potholes and rocks. There are no stores, just one or two supermarkets that always smell like mold. The streets are quiet on the weekends, and large bungalows are oddly placed next to fourteen-floor flat buildings, indicating a region still figuring itself out. Here, my brown friends and I lived in a two-mile radius from each other. My school, which was a small pocket of Whiteness in an African country, where expats and kids of UNDP workers were sent, was in Oyster Bay. Oyster Bay has all the fancy restaurants run by Europeans. It’s where the diplomat store is, where only people with diplomatic passports are allowed to shop. All the roads in Oyster Bay are straight. Msasani, too, had all the malls and movie theaters. The houses are much bigger, and most come with pools. And Kariakoo, according to my parents, is too unsafe to go recreationally. Kariakoo has narrow streets through which only certain cars can go, its buildings sit tightly beside each other, made of crumbling cement and painted in comical but faded oranges and yellows. The doors and windows all have grills on them. When the electricity cuts out, it first cuts out in Kariakoo. When driving through Kariakoo to get to the airport, every Indian mom tells her driver to lock the car door. Even now, I am not allowed to drive in Kariakoo alone at night.

Houses in Masaki, which is the new suburb that exists between Oyster Bay and Msasani, can cost up to $5 million. Buses aren’t allowed in Masaki, only on the main roads, not through the neatly paved suburbs. Masaki is like an American suburb in the middle of Tanzania. When my white friends had me over, I would talk about how much more there is to do in Kariakoo, or Upanga. I’d say, “It’s nice here but it’s too quiet. Oh well, I guess it depends on what you like.” In Masaki, a stick of mishkaki, which are cubes of grilled and salted beef, costs 2,000 Tanzanian shillings, so my brown friends and I would sneak into Kariakoo on Friday nights and enjoy the 50 shilling ones, with complimentary rojo (500 extra for ajam). Sometimes, we would take our white friends, who’d get very excited about the “authentic” African experience, which, apparently, the Indian kids knew best.

Upanga rests between Oyster Bay and Kariakoo. There is no way to get to either but to go through Upanga. Asians, who have been there long enough to have learnt Kiswahili and have been to the schools that teach English, have always been able to oscillate between the two. We learn to adapt to the situation, thriving in the inbetweenness. Professional funambulists. But the ever-shrewd Asians know which language is valued above the others, so we work our whole lives watching American films to fix our accents. Multilingualism a survival tactic.

my father speaks Urdu,
language of dancing peacocks,
rosewater fountains –
even its curses are beautiful
He speaks Hindi,
suave and melodic…
coastal Swahili laced with Arabic…


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