The Asian other

Print edition : August 24, 2012

East African literature has elected not only to celebrate but condone the cultural cross-pollination by its unflattering depiction of Asians.

AN insular and provincial approach to literature that blindly values works within narrow national, linguistic, and ethnic frontiers is, like censorship, one of literatures worst enemies. Satya P. Mohantys suggestions in the interview Literature to combat cultural chauvinism ( Frontline, April 6) on how Indian literature should be saved from such insular provincial and parochial reading practices are germane to literary and cultural criticism in India and beyond. One-sided and narrow-minded critical stances are self-negating, denying the critic and the reader the rewarding experience and benefits of looking beyond the border. In addition, these reductive modes of reading betray a profound level of cultural chauvinism that is the very bane of our divided world, exacerbating and extending as it does the divisions of those already divided. As Mohanty cogently puts it, cultural chauvinism is toxic for the student of literature. Yet, fed on nationalist and jingoistic ethos, insularity in literary and critical practice has been thriving for generations all over the world and is far from over.

Sadly, no part of the world is guiltless when it comes to adopting and exhibiting this insular attitude. The difference lies only in the degree of guilt. We tend to want to know too little about the Other in Edward Saids terms, and, in the process, we deny ourselves plenty of opportunities to learn much about ourselves. This gravely impacts our ways of knowing and remembering. One of the judges of the Nobel Prize in 2008 said about the United States: The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They dont translate enough and dont really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining. 1 Mohantys vilification of the myopia of cultural chauvinism in literature and the potential of literature to redress this chauvinism certainly comes to us in the spirit of the big dialogue of literature towards which this Nobel Prize judge gestures. The judge berates only the U.S. for missing the bus of this big dialogue of literature, as far as literary translation projects are concerned. But I want to argue that it may be that really nobody translates enough. How many of the literary works in African languages have been translated into other African languages? How often does Africa translate itself? How many African literary texts have been translated into Asian languages and vice versa? How many Asian readers are familiar with the works of Daniel O. Fagunwa, who wrote in Yoruba, or Shaaban bin Robert, who wrote in Swahili? Into how many African languages have translations of Rabindranath Tagores works in Bengali, or Vishnu Prabhakars in Hindi, been made?

The comparative study of literature, which Mohanty recommends for Indian literature, should be replicated in Africa and elsewhere as well, complete with comparisons and a steady stream of mutual translations across national and linguistic borders, and across continents. The situation whereby Western literary texts are translated into languages of the colonised or formerly colonised while little translation of literary texts from these languages makes its way into the language of the imperium or in other non-Western languages is untenable and unbalanced. How, though, should texts that have travelled linguistically and culturally beyond their place of origin be read? How would Asian readers read African texts? Can and should these texts serve as mirrors through which Asian readers would see themselves? Some historical background is in order here.

African-Asian nervous interaction

The apogee of the African-Asian nervous interaction in East Africa was perhaps reached in 1972, when Ugandan President Idi Amin Dada ordered the expulsion of between 60,000 and 80,000 Asians from the country (Jamal 1976, Kahyana 2003). As the historian Vali Jamal observes, in a span of three months, all but 1,000 Asians in Uganda were forced to make a hasty exodus to England and Canada (p. 601). It did not matter that 60 per cent of them were then legitimate citizens of Uganda, with passports to boot. That was an instance in which the passport had been dismally insufficient in legitimising the Asian presence in East Africa. In Amins warped and hypocritical view, the Asian was a malignant cell threatening to destroy the Ugandan African body politic. The truth is that Amin was himself Ugandas absolute nemesis, with his reign of terror between 1972 and 1978 damaging the pearl of Africa as Uganda was then known on a scale so unprecedented that four decades later the country is still reeling from the devastation. Asians had interacted with Africans across the Indian Ocean for centuries before the 1800s. But they relocated from India in huge numbers and increased their inland penetration during British colonial rule, particularly following the construction and completion of the Uganda railway between Mombasa on the Kenyan coast and Kampala in the heart of Uganda in 1902. Having left the Indian homeland (or Britain) for the greener pastures of the Ugandan host land, the Asian was least prepared for the hostility that ensued.

The case of Uganda is a radical, fanatical, and farcical response to the real or imagined threat of the Asian presence in the region, framed as it is in chauvinistic terms. But the African antipathy in Uganda upon which Amin capitalised in his decree is only unique when you consider the level of its manifestation and the consequences it engendered. Otherwise, one could say, the antipathy was always there in real life and in imaginative expressions. It bears asking whether writers have also been doing the expulsion thing, othering the Asian and perpetually alienating him. Or could it be that the Asian in East African has himself chosen to be alienated, to remain inassimilable, to retain his alterity? Vali Jamal suggests that at the very core of Amins draconian decree was an economic imperative:

Over the course of nearly a century, Asians had come to dominate the modern sector of the Uganda economy, providing skilled labour, capital and entrepreneurship, and reaping the rewards. Most conspicuously, they dominated the commercial sector and reaped the resentment of Africans, which culminated in the expulsion order of the Ugandan president. To General Amin, this move signified the first phase of the war of economic liberation. The second phase involved the allocation of Asians property to Africans (p. 602).

The Asians economic prosperity seems to be their own curse. Jamal is truly ironic in suggesting that the Asians in Uganda reaped rewards, because, as he further elucidates, these rewards included being resented by Africans. Indeed, Amin conceived of the expulsion of Asians as a just war waged against an economic foe or in Amins own words the war of economic liberation. If Amin is to be remembered as an illiterate and atrocious autocrat who presided over the wanton killing of hundreds of thousands of African Ugandans, the expulsion decree was a rare instance of adopting a populist stance, pampering the popular African anti-Asian sensibilities. It was not lost on Amin that the Asian dukawallas (shop owners) domiciled in Uganda bore the brunt of African resentment as were those domiciled in the rest of the East African region. Of course, that is not to suggest that Amin was genuinely interested in the welfare either of the Asians or the Africans in Uganda. At any rate, one of the lessons we learn from Amins actions and reactions is his keen awareness of the then pervasive image of the Asian as the economically prosperous stranger or outsider. That image is still pervasive.

Asian identity in East African literature

Danson Kahyana notes that the lack of harmonious coexistence between what he calls African Africans and East African Asians hinged on three causes, which he later discounts: the Asian racial and social exclusiveness, the Asian economic exploitation of Africans, and the Asian identification and collaboration with the British colonists (p. 98). To counter these, he cites the example of Asians printing African anti-colonial newspapers at great risk and the role of vocal advocates of Asian freedom such as the activist Pio Gama Pinto. He goes on to argue against the alleged Asian identification and collaboration with the British. On the whole, Kahyana presents a lively analysis of the question of Asian identity in the fiction of East African Asians in a bid to debunk the myths of Asian culpability in the putative bad blood between them and Africans. Implicit in Kahyanas analysis is the recognition of the Asian contribution to the corpus of East African literature, the outcome of the echoes of Asian cultural influence across the Indian Ocean. Unlike Kahyana, who is concerned with the East African Asian creation of his own image, I am preoccupied here with the image of the Asian in the literature produced by East African Africans. Is it fortuitous that anti-Asian attitudes would shape and mould the Asian world in East African literature? Do these attitudes shape and mould literature? Does East African literature, as a constituted and constituting literary tradition, in turn, consciously or unconsciously, shape and mould further anti-Asian attitudes?

Foregrounding the power differential in economic terms between Africans and Asians is a commonplace in East African literature. A passage from Ngugi wa Thiongos A Grain of Wheat exemplifies this tendency (see below). Ngugi is probably East Africas most pre-eminent creative writer. In the passage, we encounter the Indian in colonial Kenya in Ngugis imagination, the image of India away from India or, for the purposes of our broad discussion here, Asian away from Asia. But in a wider sense, Ngugis depiction of India epitomises the marginal place and space of the Asian in East African literature.

Ngugi published this novel in 1967, only four years after Kenyas independence from British colonial rule in 1963. The novel is, however, set in the period shortly preceding independence. It is a sombre reflection on the actions and reactions of the participants in the Mau Mau war of liberation struggle, which historian Carolyn Elkins has described as the bloodiest independence struggle against the colonial encounter in the world. The exact toll on both sides will perhaps never be known. According to official British records, the Mau Mau murdered 32 European settlers and 1,800 African civilians while the colonial forces killed 12,000 Mau Mau combatants. In his modest estimation, David Anderson believes the number of Mau Mau killed exceeds 20,000. Elkins suggests that tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of Kikuyu might have died at the hands of the British colonial forces (xvi).

INDIAN WORKERS AT the Ugandan Railways. These railway workers formed the crux of the future generation of the Indian community in Kenya that Ngugi and other African writers would at the very least fictionalise and at the very worst satirise in their literary works.-PICTURE COURTESY: THE SIKH HERITAGE IN EAST INDIA

Ngugi, who survived the Mau Mau war himself, was keenly aware of the hierarchy that the colonial dispensation created in Kenya. The European colonists were at the very top of the social, economic and political pyramid, followed by Asians, and then at the bottom of the least were the indigenous Africans. It was a paradox of enormous proportions that Africans would be at the bottom of the hierarchy in a land they considered rightly their own. The British had been the first to come, first as missionaries in search of African souls to save or civilise or as explorers in voyages of discovery, then as colonisers or expeditions of conquest, particularly after the 1884-85 conference in Berlin. Keen on exploiting the natural resources of the colony, the British quickly conceived of the construction of a railway line from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast to Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria further inland (then to Kampala). Traversing the entire length of the Kenyan hinterland, the Lunatic Express, as its detractors derogatively referred to it, would serve as a veritable conduit for the transportation of these natural resources to Mombasa for shipping to Europe. But who would build the railway? Britain looked to cheap Indian labour. So when the massive project began in Mombasa in 1896, it was the unskilled coolies shipped from India who formed the core of the workforce. These Indian railway workers formed the crux of the future generation of the Indian community in Kenya that Ngugi and other African writers would at the very least fictionalise and at the very worst satirise in their literary works. These Indian arrivals occupied the liminal space between and betwixt the European coloniser and the colonised African. How would the Asian reader receive the image Ngugi depicts of the Asian in the Kenyan colonial world? Here is how Ngugi writes:

At the back of every shop was such a mound from which came a stench of decaying rubbish. Indian children and sometimes men shat there. African children often rummaged through the heaps, turning over newly thrown rubbish with their feet, looking for bread or forgotten coins. Their feet would dig into the small loads. The boys would swear horribly and occasionally would throw stones at the Indians in revenge. (Ngugi, p. 170.)

The reader is compelled to confront not just the offensive smell of the Indian world but the desperate world of the African who scavenges at the back of the shop for breadcrumbs and forgotten coins. The back of the shop may be filthy, really made filthy by the Indian children and men, but the Indian is, in the main, living a life of privilege. The African scavenging at the back of the Indian shop presents a tragic image of want and decrepitude, eating the crumbs from the Indian table, as it were. The human waste that emerges in the rubbish, and not just the rotten bread or coins of little value that the African seeks, compounds that bleak picture of the African fate in the Indian world in Kenya. Referring to the passage in Ngugis novel, Harry Sewlall comments:

If [Joseph] Conrad is guilty of denying the African characters an authentic voice in Heart of Darkness and elsewhere in his writing, then he is no more or less guilty than some African and South African writers who deny the minority Indians of Africa an authentic voice in their novels. Indians, as they are presented in A Grain of Wheat, for example, are usually in the background and are stereotyped as wealthy merchants living in filthy conditions and exploiting Africans. (Sewlall 4.)

MARCH 8, 1977: Idi Amin, Ugandan President, at a news conference at the Arab League Headquarters in Cairo, Egypt. In Amin's warped and hypocritical view, the Asian was a malignant cell threatening to destroy the Ugandan African body politic.-AFP

Sewlall is, however, quick to qualify that Ngugis authentic but selective portrayal of Indians does not detract from the obvious merit of his novel (4).

The othering of Indians in Kenyan literature then became a necessary evil because they were perceived to have been part of the problem rather than the solution to the post-colonys conception of itself. It is in this respect that Ngugis African characters would interrogate the Indian presence on the eve of independence by asking: Would there be more jobs? Would there be more land? The well-to-do shopkeepers and traders and landowners discussed prospects for business now that we had political power; would something be done about the Indians? (Ngugi, p. 234). The questioning of the Indian presence had historical antecedents in colonial Kenya in what came to be known as the Asian question. Kenyas legislative council hotly debated how to deal with Asians in Kenyas conception of itself as a nation. The debate revolved around how to deal or integrate with the Asian community, known for its business acumen but infamous for its political apathy towards the burning issues of the day. Moreover, the Asians social distance (inter-marriage, for example, was not considered a possibility), his failure to assimilate fully into either the indigenous African culture or the European cultural imperialism, rendered him perpetually an outsider to both whites and blacks. To the black Africans, he was particularly reprehensible because he was higher in the racial hierarchy; to the whites he was less disliked because he was not as low as the African. Perceived as a threat or a hindrance to native advancement, the Indian is therefore implicated in the nervous conditions characterising the post-colonial moment in Kenyas political economy.

Breaker of language rules

If Ngugi makes the back of the shop as the space where we meet the Indian world in Kenya, the Tanzanian writer Euphrase Kezilahabi takes us through the front door and right into the operations in the shop. Kezilahabis portrayal of the Tanzanian Indian harps on the trope of the economic differential between the Indian and the indigenous African. But it adds the Indians propensity to violate the grammatical conventions of East Africas lingua franca, Kiswahili. I will presently return to the motif of the Indian and Asian as a breaker of Swahili language rules. But it is to Kezilahabis portrayal of the oriental in East Africa that we now turn.

In Kezilahabis Rosa Mistika, we encounter another less than flattering portrayal of the Indian in East African literature. The novel is set on the Ukerewe island on Lake Victoria in the period soon after independence. The eponymous female protagonist, Rosa Mistika, a Mkerewe girl, sets out with her sister Flora to go shopping for shoes in Nansio township. In a scene reminiscent of the tension between the indigenous Africans and the Indian dukawallas, the duo enters a Bata shoe shop owned by an Indian but in which a fellow Mkerewe, Ndalo, works as an attendant. Rosa and Flora haggle with Ndalo over the prices. But as is customary the Indian owner has the final word on the price. Ndalo has to consult the boss.

Ngoja nimwulize mwenye duka. Alikwenda kumwuliza Mhindi aliyekuwa amekaa akitafuna kitu fulani. Alirudi.

Amesema shilingi ishirini na tano bei ya mwisho.

Sisi hizo hatuna!

Eti hawana.Kumi na tisa haidhuru. Alijibu Mhindi.

Hatuna hizo tumesema. Hawana, Ndalo alirudia tena. Ambiye yeye iko tembea duka yote iko rudi.

Ndalo aliwaambia wasichana katika lugha ya Kikerewe waende duka lililokuwa mbele yao upande mwengine wa barabara. Aliwaambia kwamba humo watapata kwa bei ya shilingi kumi na sita.

Tejama wewe iko haribu biashara yangu! Mimi fikiri wewe iko fanya kaji majuri, kumbe danganya. Baniani alifoka; alimsukuma mmatumbi nje; alimtupia shilingi tano

Ndalo kuona katukanwa hali nchi yake imeishapata uhuru, alianza kuvua shati. Wewe Baniani nitakuharibu sura sasa hivi usahau pilipili.

[Let me ask the shop owner.

He went to inquire from the Indian who sat chewing something. He came back.

He has said the last price is twenty five shillings.

We dont have that. They say they dont have that.

Let nineteen it be then, the Indian replied.

We have said we dont have that. They dont have that.

Ndalo told the girls in the Kikerewe language to go to the adjacent road across the road. He told them there they would find [shoes] at sixteen shillings.

See, ruining my business you! Me I think you are good worker, but now I see you lie lie only.

After realising he was being taunted whereas his country has gained independence, Ndalo removed his shirt

You Indian, I will disfigure your face until you forget [eating] pepper.] (21)

There is a huge chasm between the African buyers and the Indian dukawalla. Language does not seem to be the defining factor for this chasm, although on the surface that appears to be the case. Ndalo acts as an interpreter, albeit an unreliable interpreter like the one in Chinua Achebes Arrow of God. Achebes interpreter not only misleads and misreads but also distorts the message of the colonial administrator, becoming an impediment rather than a solution to the communication conundrum. Yet unlike the colonial district commissioner in Arrow of God, it would seem, the Indian is not completely oblivious to the nuances of the original language. Granted Ndalo tends to serve as the link between the Indian outsider and the African insiders in the trade exchange. But because the unnamed Indian understands his Kikerewe instructions to the girls to buy shoes elsewhere at a lower price we may conclude that the Indian merely uses him as a smokescreen to limit interaction with the native Africans. He has ostensibly lived among the Wakerewe long enough to understand the Kikerewe message intended only for the girls. Also, he is at least able to communicate in his broken Kiswahili. One could argue that perhaps Kezilahabis Indian trader considers direct conversation with the African buyers something beneath his dignity. In other words, he can communicate with Rosa and Flora if he wants, but he does not. He prefers to haggle through proxy and enjoys an exaggerated sense of importance as the shop attendant comes back over and over again to explain the status of the haggling.

It is instructive that the unnamed Indian sits chewing something unnamed, underscoring the other worldliness of the Indian essence in East African literature. This is in spite of or because of the third narrators apparent omniscience. The narrator knows the African characters by name, even those somewhat insignificant such as Ndalo, and yet cannot tell the Indians name or the something that the Indian is chewing. But the chewing alluded to here coincides with Ndalos angry threat; You Indian, I will disfigure your face until you forget [eating] pepper, because both relate to the Indian recipe in the imagination of the indigenous Africans. Ndalo seems to conflate Indian identity with pepper as the epitome of Indian cuisine. Put differently, although these words are uttered in the heat of the moment, they reflect the stereotypical image of Indians. They suggest difference, otherness, alterity. In encountering the chewing of the unknown something and the notion of pepper as a key component of the Indian diet, the reader is forced to acknowledge the difference in dietary practices between the Indian other and the African self. Ndalo, like the bulk of East Africans, pathologises the Asian world, its food, its religion, its values, in order to affirm his own normativity.

Yet it bears clarification that the propensity to pathologise or other the Indian inherent in the text is clearly attributable to the economic and social disadvantage of the African Mkerewe on the one hand and the apparent prosperity of the Indian on the other, even after independence. Ndalo expresses the sense of disenchantment with the post-independence reality when, as the omniscient narrator remarks, he stands spoiling for a fight with the Indian.

Ndalos aversion for the Indian exploitation of Africans seems to be the catalyst for his betrayal of his employer, a betrayal enacted by directing the customers to a cheaper shop across the street. Ndalos invocation of his countrys Uhuru tends to point an accusing finger at the Indian presence as the reason for the Africans poverty, deprivation and exploitation in Idi Amins terms. Further, it could be said, Ndalo is angry with Uhuru because he expects it to protect him from the Indian and it does not. But this is a rather facile explanation of a far more complex scenario that Simon Gikandi has aptly called the crisis of African independence in post-colonial Africa (viii).

Centuries of interaction between Africa and Asia has culminated in tremendous cultural and linguistic cross-pollination. Ali Mazrui has characterised Africas cultural landscape as having a triple heritage, namely European, African and Arab, although it is unclear whether this Arab cultural heritage is a stand in for the broader Asian world in his purview. Africas position as a beneficiary of the occidental and oriental cultures is reflected in the scope and diversity of the musical, literary and linguistic spheres. The blend of the occidental and the oriental would in fact render insistence on an authentic African culture difficult if not impossible. The bulk of loan words in Kiswahili come from Asia, with Arabic terms making up almost 25 per cent of Swahili vocabulary. Hindi, too, has contributed enormously to the expansion of the Swahili word bank with words such as hundi (cheque), chai (tea), chapati (flat bread), sambusa (samosa), bajia arijojo, etc. Mathias Mnyampala and Shihabudin Chiraghdin in their Historia ya Kiswahili (1977) and Abdulaziz Y. Lodhi in his Oriental Influences in Swahili: A Study in Language and Culture Contacts (2000) amply demonstrate the debt the Kiswahili language owes to the trans-Indian Ocean encounter. It is, therefore, a paradox that the Asian speakers in Swahili literature particularly would be portrayed as either linguistically different or deficient or both different and deficient.

Yet it bears clarification that as is commonplace with the linguistic borrowing across time and space, Asian languages did not Asianise Swahili (to use Ubonrat Siriyuvasak and Shin Hyunjoons expression, 2007). Rather, it is a case of Swahili Africanising or Swahilisising Asian words, granting them an African complexion. Should we conclude that the Asian fictional characters failure to fully grasp local idiom renders him inassimilable in the local African culture?

Does the Asian in East Africa perpetually remain an outsider, occupying a marginally or liminal space as we mentioned earlier, in both the colonial and the post-colonial period in Kenya? In responding to these questions we are bound to make the capacity of literature to reflect reality our point of departure. In other words, the depiction of the Asian in East African literature at the very best reflects or at the very worst refracts the reality or actuality of the existential presence of the Asian in the region. Or is the East African writer perhaps impelled by an implicit sense of xenophobia in his less-than-flattering depiction of the Asian presence, his propensity to other the Asian?

Cultural echoes

It is not my intent to provide answers to these questions. But that these questions rightly deserve further intellectual attention and engagement is beyond a shadow of doubt. If this essay serves only as a call to action, an injunction for further research in the African-Asian interaction, it would have fulfilled its supreme objective. Suffice it to say that it would be erroneous to ignore the Asian presence in the material and ontological reality, and in the imaginative expressions, of the East African peoples. The Swahili proverb, Baniani mbaya kiatu chake dawa (the shoe of a bad Indian may serve as medicine), underscores the centrality of interaction between Asian and African culture in East Africa. Embedded in it is the antithetical posturing of the cultural interaction as both positive and negative. But if the duality of positivity and negativity is a condition of possibility in the interaction, the proverb, one could say, tends to emphasise the positive, pointing to the need for tolerance and integration rather than rejection and exclusion. In other words, the rich Indian recipe, the Indian cinema, the Indian garb, the Indian music, Indian words, Indian philosophy in Kiswahili and Indian business acumen, have been, could and should be embraced in East Africa. The practice in black East Africa, it seems to me, has been to embrace Indian cultural values and business acumen without embracing the Indian self or essence. Indeed the proverb emblematises the enigma in cultural echoes that have flowed across the Indian Ocean for millennia, moulding and shaping how people look at the world and how they look at themselves.

The corpus of East African literature has elected not only to celebrate but to problematise and satirise the cultural cross-pollination by its less than flattering depiction of the Asian world. Doesnt it seem as if alterity is one of the salient features of the Asian in East African literature, the corpus of whose literature symbolically strips the Asian African of his African passport? The East African fictional writer could well be a reluctant, even hostile, host of the Asian character.

Could it be that by electing to be generally reticent and constantly keeping his social distance from the African, the East African Asian has brought the resentment against himself in literature and in real life? Or could it be that the African writer is complicit in a form of cultural chauvinism against which literature should be waging war? Such are the pertinent questions all readers, including East Africans and Indians alike, should be asking themselves as they read across borders in search of their direct or indirect image and as they navigate the line between condoning and combating cultural chauvinism.

Ken Walibora Waliaula, leading Kenyan literary scholar, is currently assistant professor of African languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, U.S.


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1. Goldenberg, Suzanna. "No Nobel Prizes for American Writers: They're Too Parochial." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 01 Oct. 2008. Web. 22 May 2012.

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