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A visitor hugs a relative of Mitul Shah during his funeral.

A visitor hugs a relative during the mourning ceremony for Mitul Shah in Nairobi, Kenya, on September 26. Indian-Kenyan Mitul Shah, 38, protected children with his body and was shot dead by militants in the Westgate Shopping Mall attack on September 21.

Photograph by Zhang Chen, Xinhua/Eyevine/Redux

James Verini in Nairobi

National Geographic

Published October 4, 2013

Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

Bushan Vidyarthi is the kind of Kenyan one used to see often at ArtCaffe.

He has the cordial and casual air of someone who's done well for himself, but also watchful eyes that suggest that in a lifetime in a young and turbulent country he's seen things he might have wished not to.

When I met him in a living room in his home on a leafy road in Nairobi earlier this week, Vidyarthi, who is 76, was wearing a pressed shirt and sandals with socks. He invited me to sit down on a leather sofa across an immense coffee table from him. "Please have some tea," he said, as a domestic hurried off to make it.

ArtCaffe was on the ground floor of the Westgate Shopping Mall, a favorite destination for successful Nairobians, many of whom, like Vidyarthi, are not African by ancestry but South Asian. Kenya has one of the largest and longest established Indian populations in the world outside India; Vidyarthi's family has lived there for five generations. People like Vidyarthi, who helps to manage a family-owned commercial printing company, have been essential to the country's development.

Yet many black Kenyans, especially poorer ones, would still consider him an interloper, a muhindi, even a kind of economic colonialist. Although a minority, Indians control many Kenyan businesses, big and small, and much of its urban real estate. Walk into a store in Nairobi, and it's a good bet you'll find an Indian behind the register and a black Kenyan stocking the shelves. The domestic making my tea was, it goes without saying, black, not Indian.

Vidyarthi was sitting on ArtCaffe's terrace with his brother a little after eleven on Saturday morning the weekend before last, he told me, when they made to leave. But as he motioned to the waiter for the bill, they fell back into conversation. They were still talking when, about 12:15, "very, very heavy and very loud gunfire" rang out, Vidyarthi said.

He turned to look at the parking lot next to ArtCaffe. There were people with assault rifles. They were shooting into cars and at pedestrians.

Before he could process what he was seeing, grenades were landing at the terrace wall.

Soil and ceramic shards flew up around Vidyarthi. The gunfire grew louder. Now bullets and blood were flying on the terrace. Someone yelled, "Everyone on the floor!" He lay down next to his brother. People fell around him.

I asked Vidyarthi what he thought as he lay there. "I was so dazed and confused and worried," he said. But he didn't scan for an exit. His mind drifted into the past. He thought back to his cousin, a photographer, who died in cross fire covering the civil war in Nigeria in 1968.

"I said, 'I hope we're not going to end up like him.'"

 

Jain community members
Members of the Jain community dance to mark the end of a 24-hour prayer vigil for the victims of the Westgate Shopping Mall massacre.

Photograph by Carl de Souza, AFP/Getty Images

Kenyan Roots

Vidyarthi's grandfather, Shamdass Horra, arrived in Kenya in 1896. By that point Indian merchants had been active along the Swahili coast for three centuries, moving ivory, skins, tropical resins, and spices. By the 1800s they'd gained a reputation for their business acumen and their willingness to go into parts of the interior where others didn't dare. Predictably, they became known as "the Jews of Africa."

One British official described the typical Indian merchant as "crafty, moneymaking, cunning, intensely polite, his soul bound to its body by the one laudable and religious anxiety of its helping him to turn his coin to better advantage." Such remarks were typical of the British tendency to diminish the importance of Indians to British imperial ambitions. In fact, Indian clerks, soldiers, artisans, and laborers were indispensable to the empire during the "scramble for Africa," when Europeans divided up control of the continent.

Indians and the Business of Empire

Some commentators were more honest. The British explorer John Kirk remarked that it was "entirely through the Indian merchants we were able to build up the influence that resulted in our position in East Africa." Indeed, it wasn't long before British East Africa came to be known in India as a more opportune appendage of the Raj, the "America of the Hindu," as a colonial administrator put it.

Like thousands of Indian men unable to find adequate employment at home, Horra moved to Kenya to build the railway between Mombasa and Nairobi. The British had entered Africa under the banner of abolition, but Horra and his countrymen were contracted into indentured servitude. Even the educated among them were known as "coolies."

Horra, a stationmaster from Lyalpur (now Faisalbad) in Pakistan, was tasked for a time with overseeing the spur at Tsavo, now famous for its national park but known then for its man-eating lions. "One night a British engineer was sleeping in the caboose at his station," Vidyarthi said. "A lion jumped through the window of the caboose and took him away."

Of the roughly 32,000 Indians who worked on the railway, 2,500 died, while another 6,500 were felled by disease and mishap. But they completed the line. They also left Kenya its national motto, Harambee, which roughly translates as "pull together." It's believed to derive from a Hindi work chant and is the only word to be found on the country's crest.

As locomotives spread into Africa, so did Indians. You can still find Indian markets from Dar es Salaam to Addis Ababa, Kampala to Khartoum. (And throughout East Africa, tea, chapatis, and samosas are staples.) By 1905, a British official estimated, 80 percent of businesses in Kenya belonged to Indians.

Anti-Asian Backlash

One thing Horra was not permitted to acquire, however, was land. As the colonial powers consolidated their territorial gains by luring European immigrants to Africa, the "Indian Question in Kenya" became a matter of anxiety. Anti-Asian policies were introduced. Ironically, their injustice was clear to a young Winston Churchill, among others. "The Indian was here long before the first British official," wrote the future prime minister and opponent of Indian independence.

In 1933 Horra's son, G.L., Vidyarthi's father, founded a radical newspaper, the Colonial Times, which decried the treatment of black soldiers returning from the battlefields of World War II and supported the independence movement in Kenya Colony, as it was then known.

He also started the first private newspaper printed in Kiswahili. He was the first Indian Kenyan to be tried by the British for sedition and, in 1945, was imprisoned. "I used to go and see him in the prison," Vidyarthi told me. "Someone had to lift me up to the bars."

Indian Rights

G.L. was part of a generation of Indian intellectuals agitating for equal rights around Africa. (Gandhi got his start representing laborers in South Africa.) He and his colleagues aided Kenyan nationalist groups and represented the activist Jomo Kenyatta in court.

Nonetheless, in the 1960s, once Kenyatta had been released from prison and become president, he wrested control of Indian-owned businesses and handed them over to black Kenyans. Thousands of Indians, including many of the Vidyarthis' friends, left. "I don't blame the Africans," he told me. "They're in the majority here. They don't have jobs, and they see Indian faces at the counters, doing jobs they can do."

When the Vidyarthi press put out a book about corruption under Daniel arap Moi, Kenyatta's successor, written by an opposition figure, Kenneth Matiba, the offices were raided and Vidyarthi's son put in jail. Matiba lobbied for his release. But when he was running for office a few years later, Matiba coined the slogan "Asians must go!" And then, Vidyarthi told me, without a hint of irony, Matiba called him up and asked for a rush job on some campaign literature.

He took it in stride. "In those days it was a fact: You want to get popular with your community, abuse the Indians," Vidyarthi said laughing. Later, his brother was arrested for printing a magazine that criticized Moi. He was the last Indian Kenyan to be charged with sedition. (The case was dropped.)

Nadir

Over the years, as Moi grew more brutal and Kenya lost its forward momentum, suspicion of Indian Kenyans grew. In 1982, after a failed coup, Indian businesses were ransacked.

The week after the coup attempt was the only time Vidyarthi could remember being as frightened as he was in the wake of the attack on the Westgate mall. "The soldiers were everywhere. They were looting; they were killing." He was giving an Indian man a ride in Nairobi, he recalled, when he was waved over by soldiers. They pulled the passenger from the car, emptied his bags, and then set upon him. "Through the rearview mirror I saw they were beating the daylight out of him."

By the time of the attack on Westgate, relations were improving. Since Moi left office a decade ago, a new generation of educated black Kenyan entrepreneur has come up. They don't resent the Indian success in business but admire it. Now it's Kikuyus, the predominant native ethnic group, who sometimes refer to themselves as "the Jews of Kenya."

There are more Indian members in the new parliament than in any since independence, and at the Vidyarthi press, more orders than ever before are being placed by black-owned businesses. The press employs 130 people on the shop floor, all of them black.

Farther down the economic scale, however—and there is still much more down to the Kenyan economy than up—the resentment persists.

Selfless Courage

One desirable outcome of the attack, perhaps the only one, is that it may serve to soften the resentment, Vidyarthi hopes. Indian Nairobians were disproportionately affected by the killings, and they reacted with outsize selflessness. At the same time, Indian and black Kenyans were thrown together in a way they haven't been since the independence movement.

 

A Kenyan Indian woman lights a candle next to a list of the names of those who died in front of the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

Photograph by Ben Curtis, AP

Perhaps the most horrifying scene of the day took place in an outdoor parking area in the mall's rear, where gunmen fired, for minutes on end, into a crowd of children, most of them Indian, who had assembled for a cooking competition.

I arrived at Westgate soon after the attack began to find that the number of unarmed Indians who'd rushed to the mall to help exceeded the number of armed Kenyan police who had.

Doctors and medical students had come from nearby Aga Khan Hospital; Indian shopkeepers were using their trucks as makeshift ambulances; Indians who lived near the mall came from their homes with trays of food and water. More quickly than seemed possible, a triage center had been set up at a Jain temple across the road from the mall. Volunteers at the temple fed soldiers, police, and reporters and hosted counseling sessions for days afterward.

Last weekend the temple mounted a 24-hour ceremony of music and dance to see off the souls of the departed and wish peace upon Kenya. On the dais a devotional statue was flanked by two Kenyan flags.

When Vidyarthi's mind came back to the present, as he lay on the floor of ArtCaffe, he pulled out his phone and called his son, Sandeep.

"The mall is under attack," he said. "Don't come here."

Sandeep, who had joined us in the living room by this point, took over the story. After assuring Vidyarthi he wouldn't come, he asked where he was so he could send help. Then he promptly got into his car and sped to the mall. The shooting outside had ended, and the ArtCaffe waiters helped Vidyarthi and the other survivors out through a gate on the terrace. He found Sandeep. They hugged. He didn't reprimand his son for disobeying him.

In 1998, when the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi was bombed, the Vidyarthi press was located nearby. Sandeep evacuated the staff and then drove to the embassy, and for the rest of the day he helped get the wounded and dead out.

The same instincts took over at Westgate, he said. He suspected the government would be slow and inept in its response, and indeed it was. "We know to respond. It's inbuilt in us," he said. (President Uhuru Kenyatta has since admitted that the attack has exposed serious weaknesses in the country's emergency services, while evidence has emerged that after—and perhaps even during—the siege, security forces may have looted the mall's stores and depleted its restaurants' alcohol supplies.)

Together with other civilians, Indian and black, Sandeep went into the mall. As a gunfight raged and explosions shook the building, they searched for the wounded. When there were no more wounded to help, they brought out the dead. They worked through the afternoon and into the evening—Sandeep and a black Kenyan man he'd never met carried corpses together.

Vidyarthi chimed in. "The ordinary African came out to help," he said. "He was not scared." Consciously or not, he did not distinguish between Indian Africans and black Africans. That day, they were the same.

17 comments
Benson Mwangi
Benson Mwangi

Really? Is this what we have degenerated to in terms of Journalism? Very ill intent article that shows lack of decency and lack of clear wit.... Shame on you! Alshabab attack a mall in Kenya and this guys makes a spin off and makes it between "Native Kenyans" which he refers to as Blacks (deragatory) and Indians born and raised in Kenya...... what??

Jonjoka S
Jonjoka S

This article is meant to divide the Kenyans. Really? After what we just went through you pick a pen and try to show how Indian-Kenyan are not accepted. Before you take a side, talk to both sides. Some of us have experienced a lot of discrimination from Indians. I particularly despise this part, " The domestic making my tea was, it goes without saying, black, not Indian" Seriously, where do you live? In this world? In any country you go, there are poor people who will take any job regardless of their race. If you go to India and have some money, the domestic help you hire will be Indians, in China you will hire Chinese. Stop this stupidity and leave Kenya alone. Al-Shabab are not Kenyans, so I don't even know why you wrote all these.

travis anthony
travis anthony

We are One? Really! I work 72 hours a week at Nakumatt, walking an hour-plus each way because I can't afford bus fare, for an Asian owner who could hire twice as many people and pay us all more and who could lower my work week to 45 hours so that I could see my family and visit my kids school programs. He lives in the leafy suburbs in oppulence while I live in slum squalor? We are one? My father and uncles and brothers and sisters and mothers work for asians and they haven't had a holiday or a leave day in five, 10, 20 years and if they complain, they get sacked. Don't believe me. Check the court records. Until the Asians no longer look at Kenyans as slaves or endentured servants, we will wish them safe passage back to Calcutta.

Sobhag D Shah
Sobhag D Shah

Very informative and thoughtful of Indian community.  It is sad that despite so much was and is being done by Indians for Kenya and Kenyans, but the African way of thinking is opposite.

They have a fixed thinking and hatred for Indians, and this is propogated right from their day 1 at schools!  Will they ever change?

Sobhag 


Sobhag D Shah
Sobhag D Shah

Very informative and thoughtful of Indian community.  It is sad that despite so much was and is being done by Indians for Kenya and Kenyans, but the African way of thinking is opposite.

They have a fixed thinking and hatred for Indians, and this is propogated right from their day 1 at schools!  Will they ever change?

Sobhag 


dilipkumar bahirat
dilipkumar bahirat

The westgate siege is not the end of the humanbeing.The act is certainly unhuman.

George Mathew
George Mathew

I live fairly close to the Westgate Shopping Mall and was inside it that fateful Saturday morning, shopping with my wife and son, when these cowards entered. I saw people scampering and I followed suit with my wife and son and rushed to the corner of the Mall and waited there with a bunch of 20 to 30 shoppers. At first we were just standing. Suddenly we heard the sound of automatic gunfire and we all dropped to our knees, and fear set in. Every now and then the gunfire would come from either our right hand side or left hand side and sometimes from above. Then an eerie silence. It was during those numerous silences that we feared the most. Was someone making their way gun in hand to our corner? Would they lob a grenade at us? To see my wife on her knees and my 24 year old son crouching in terror on the floor were the most painful moments of my life as a husband and father. It felt so helpless. Then the unmistakable gunfire commenced again. Silence. And then the gunfire. That went on close to 2 hours. I could not believe all this was happening in the Westgate Mall. This was a upmarket and seemingly safe part of town. This is where UN diplomats, American and European locals and expatriates hobnobbed with the local Kenyans. An oasis of peace, of what looked flashy and by extension safe. But gunfire rattled into my thoughts and cold fear gnawed at my inner self. Fortunately for us, we were escorted us out through a rear door that led from a store to the outside world and freedom But even as we were being trooped out, we saw blood all over the floor. My story pales at the thought of so many others, who have endured much more horrifying experiences. My heart goes out to them.

I was so angry that they did this to us. So I wrote an open letter to the al Shabaab and sent it to one of the local dailies, the Daily Nation. It was published on September 28th, along with the write up above....

This is my home. You’ll never divide us along religious lines.

By George Mathew, A Kenyan.

I am African, I am Asian, I am European, I am black, brown, white, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist…in short I am Kenyan. I have been peaceful and welcoming since the dawn of time and will be till the end of time. Does not look like anyone can dent that..not even you, Mr. Al Shabaab.

You took my kind welcoming nature, walked into my living room and killed innocent mothers and babies and men and women of all walks of life and religious persuasions. You abused my welcome. But my arms are still open wide and will always remain open wide for that is what is etched in the genes of my culture, of what makes me Kenyan. That is where your bullets did not reach. That is why after the massacre, ordinary Kenyans, rich and poor, young and old, black and white, Muslim and Christian and Hindu and others stood in long queues down the length and breadth of this beautiful country of ours to donate blood for others they had never met or may possibly never meet. Simply Kenyan. Simply peaceful. Simply loving. Simply what you are not.

We were raised by mothers, who gave us milk and cakes and lavished love and mercy and taught us to love and cherish all that is good and great in this life. Fathers and uncles and aunties and friends and neighbours and visitors and teachers and others inculcated in us a sense of the eternal beauty and magic of life. So we grow up, marry and raise families and pass those values on. We are happy and will remain so. Sadly your bullets did not reach there. Sadly you were not blessed with any of that. Or if you did have a semblance of the same, it was not strong enough to overcome the convoluted teachings of misguided prophets of doom. The very vacuity of your terror is proved by the fact that you were felled by the bullets you lived by.

Despite what you tried at Westgate, we got up and went to work. Tourists are patiently looking for leopard in the bush, businessmen are closing deals, children doing their homework, mothers cooking, children playing in the fields, people dancing, shopping, loving, getting married, building, holidaying, writing, thinking, sleeping….life goes on. Kenya goes on. As Kenya always has. As Kenya always will. Your bullets did not reach there. It reached you and you lay six feet under. And we are a thousand feet higher as life goes on. Over 60 of us gave our lives. They are heroes. You are villains. Those youslaughtered epitomize the triumph of good over evil.

Instead of instilling fear, you brought us together. You failed. And will always fail. For we will always be welcoming. You will not instill fear. Your bullets will never reach there. That is my home, Kenya. That is where the heart is. That is where the smiles are. That is where there is happiness and radiance. That is our land in the sun. Whatever names you coin, you failed.Sadly you are dead. We are happy. We are peaceful. And we go on as we always have. Always will. That is where your bullets will never reach.

Rajesh Sharma
Rajesh Sharma

God Bless Kenya, and all Kenyans. We are ONE!

Vas Anand
Vas Anand

Mungu Aibariki Kenya! Inaweza kujifunza kutoka kwa Wakenya wote janga hili na kukua hekima na furaha pamoja!

Khalsa Lakhvir-Singh
Khalsa Lakhvir-Singh

GOD bless Kenya. I have a feel Kenya will become a beacon of hope of united in diversity through adversity for greater prosperity. Kenya'd days to shine will come and will be seen by the world in greater pride and respect.

cj h.
cj h.

@Jonjoka S  

you completely missed the point of the article. it wasn't to divide kenyans at all. it was to show that yes, there is a divide, but in times of emergency people come together and maybe this can help relations progress moving forward.  and no, Al-Shabab are not from Kenya. however, they have members who are and, more importantly, Kenya is where the attack took place so it doesn't really matter where they're from. jesus christ your reading comprehension skills are terrible and you take things way too personally. this was in no way an attack on Kenya and yet here you are, throwing a temper tantrum like a child. grow up.

Ali Ali
Ali Ali

@Sobhag D Shah What the heck are you talking about Mr Shah? Do you live in Kenya? If so, read Mr Travis Anthony's post above; does it not make you think that some of the Indians have contributed towards hatred, if any, upon us by treating the Africans in less than dignified manner? Or are you such a narcissist that you feel you can do no wrong? I am an Indian born in Tanzania and have had relatives in Kenya, and we always treated our African employees as the member of our families and have never experienced sensed hatred from them. On the other I have witnessed instances where the Africans are accorded less than dignified treatment, a typical example mentioned by Mr Anthony, and have been been ashamed. This was more than 35 years ago when I left Tanzania as a mere kid but I don't reckon certain attitudes changing radically. Please don't make your blanket and ignorant statements without thinking about your part in contributing towards the African attitude you feel towards yourself; when was the last time you tried to assimilate?

Csimensis .
Csimensis .

@Sobhag D Shah  You do know that Al Shabaab, which is a Somali group, claimed responsibility for this attack. The Kenyans don't have anything to do with this. Don't be ignorant.

Mutio Ndibo
Mutio Ndibo

@Sobhag D Shah i choose to differ especially where you say 'African way of thinking' it suggests you have already stereo typed us,
i have lived in parkland area of Nairobi where both the Asian and African communities both live in harmony, sharing the same problems, joys and lifestyle with the exception of few extremist from either communities that could not stand non but their own

Ali Ali
Ali Ali

@Sobhag D Shah What the heck are you talking about Mr Shah? Do you live in Kenya? If so, read Mr Travis Anthony's post above; does it not make you think that some of the Indians have contributed towards hatred, if any, upon us by treating the Africans in less than dignified manner? Or are you such a narcissist that you feel you can do no wrong? I am an Indian born in Tanzania and have had relatives in Kenya, and we always treated our African employees as the member of our families and have never experienced sensed hatred from them. On the other I have witnessed instances where the Africans are accorded less than dignified treatment, a typical example mentioned by Mr Anthony, and have been been ashamed. This was more than 35 years ago when I left Tanzania as a mere kid but I don't reckon certain attitudes changing radically. Please don't make your blanket and ignorant statements without thinking about your part in contributing towards the African attitude you feel towards yourself; when was the last time you tried to assimilate?
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George Mathew
George Mathew

@Rajesh Sharma Yes Rajesh, we are...no one will divide us. They brought us more together, Asian & African and European and all...

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