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South Asian Kenyans Declared Country’s 44th Tribe


FILE - Members of a Kenyan family of Asian origin stand in line to cast their vote in Nairobi, Kenya, Dec. 27, 2007. On July 21, Kenya officially recognized Kenyan nationals of Asian descent as the country's 44th tribe. (AP Photo/Sayyid Azim)

People from South Asian countries have been a part of Kenyan society for more than 100 years.

Until recently, the government did not officially recognize them.

But that changed in July, when Asian Kenyans were declared a tribe – just like the Maasai, Luo, Kikuyu and others.

They are Kenya’s 44th tribe.

Fred Matiang is Kenya’s acting minister of the interior. He made the announcement.

“Now, you are part and parcel of us formally. You are part and parcel of Kenya’s great family. And we expect that we will continue this integration in all spheres of life.”

“Part and parcel” means an important part of something.

Matiang encouraged the Asian community to participate in all parts of Kenyan society, including “government and government processes.”

In 2008, Shakeel Shabbir became Kenya’s first Member of Parliament of Asian descent. He is now one of four members of Asian descent.

Shabbir worked on getting the Kenyan government to recognize the country’s Asian community.

Shabbir’s father was one of thousands of Indian laborers who helped build the Kenya-Uganda railway over 100 years ago. Many of those Indians stayed in Kenya. They built businesses and purchased land. But some felt that they were unable to make a big difference in Kenyan politics and society.

Now they have a better chance of doing that, Shabbir said.

“You feel more comfortable now than you did before,” he said. “Now what? It’s a two-way job. You have been recognized by the system, now we want you to take your role in society.”

Biashara Street housed one of Nairobi's first general stores, and was lined with Indian “dukas,” or shops. The street has changed over time, but still has a large variety of shops owned by Kenyan Indians.
Biashara Street housed one of Nairobi's first general stores, and was lined with Indian “dukas,” or shops. The street has changed over time, but still has a large variety of shops owned by Kenyan Indians.

Not every Asian in Kenya will be recognized, however. The move only covers those who were born in the country.

Farah Manzoor is a fifth-generation Kenyan of Indian descent. She started working on the issue of getting Asian Kenyans recognized in 2010. She explained that Asians will now be included in government employment quotas.

Kenya’s constitution requires the government to employ people from different tribes. But that does not always happen.

The New York Times recently reported on the push to include Asians as a Kenyan tribe. It said the political party in power often shows favor toward their own tribe. People may receive better work and education opportunities if their tribe is in power.

While some celebrated the move, others criticized Kenyan society’s focus on different tribes.

Zahid Rajan is a writer and a member of the Kenyan Asian Forum. He said Kenyans “as a whole have been marginalized.” He said he believes Kenyan society cannot improve or become more inclusive if only one or two ethnic groups are in charge. He also said pushing for “the rights of a minority community to seek special status is what’s wrong and divisive.”

Kenya’s national election is on August 8. President Uhuru Kenyatta is Kikuyu. His opponent, Raila Odinga, is Luo.

The Kikuyu and the Luo are Kenya’s two biggest ethnic groups.

I’m Dan Friedell.

Rael Ombuor wrote this story for VOANews.com. Dan Friedell adapted it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

Do you think Asians in Kenya will become more active in society and government? We want to know. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

society – n. people in general thought of as living together in organized communities with shared laws, traditions, and values

part and parcel – idiomatic phrase. something important within a larger group

comfortable – adj. allowing you to be relaxed : causing no worries, difficulty, or uncertainty

role – v. the part that someone has in a family, society, or other group

descent – n. the people in your family who lived before you were born : your ancestors

quota – n. an official limit on the number or amount of people or things that are allowed

favor – n. preference for one person, group, etc., over another

marginalize – v. to put or keep (someone) in a powerless or unimportant position within a society or group

focus – n. a subject that is being discussed or studied : the subject on which people's attention is focused — usually singular

status – n. the official position of a person or thing according to the law

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