The guests inside the Keekorok Lodge at the Masai Mara Reserve were only slightly less interesting to observe than the animals outside the Lodge. As Evelyn Waugh remarked on his first trip to Kenya, "As happier men watch birds, I watch men. They are less attractive, but more various."
During the first evening's dinner I watched the dining room in the Lodge fill with Germans, French, Italians, Japanese, American and East African Asians, or East Indians as they prefer to be called.There were a number of large Indian families from Nairobi on holiday at Keekorok. The men wore safari jackets and long pants. The women were attired in the traditional saris of India. They did not mix with the other
guests, but kept almost exclusively to themselves. When they came to the dining room they chose to wait for a table of their own rather than divide themselves among the several empty seats at other tables. I wondered if this need to remain apart socially was more an expression of self-defense rather than cliquishness.
Tubby Block, owner of the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi, had told me the Indian employees at his property were extremely industrious and most pleasant, but they were "an impenetrable psychological puzzle to me personally."
It was my impression that the Indians in East Africa had first come to build the "Iron Snake" railroad line in the 1890s. Mr. Block stated that they had been trading with and occupying regions along the east coast of Africa for several thousand years prior to the construction of the railroad. "You will be interested to know that the Indian rupee, not the British sterling, was the East African currency until the end of the First World War."
The Indians in Kenya today virtually control all of the retail trade throughout the country. They have been able to create this monopoly because they work harder and longer than anyone else, I was told.
"It is a simple fact that this country could not operate without the Indian population. They are not only the country's best traders, but they also make up a large part of our professional class and skilled trades as well. They also fill the middle sections of our civil service and bureaucracy. Idi Amin made a grave mistake in Uganda when he ordered all of the Indians out of the country. The economy completely collapsed within months. Only a madman would do what he did to the Indians. Many of them came to Kenya. They came without a thing. Yet look at them today. You would never know they were once penniless." This was the opinion of a retired British journalist I sat with at dinner that first night in Keekorok.
Alexander Warwick-Bonham was a bald, small man in his `70s. He had served in the North African campaign and in India during the Second World War. He had written copy for the BBC and was a re-write editor for the Manchester Guardian. When he retired he came straight to Kenya. He had the most pleasant of faces. Behind his large spectacles his small brown eyes seemed to suggest shyness.
When I asked him after dinner to explain to me why the Indians of Kenya were not considered Africans, but Asians, there was no hesitancy in his response. "The Indian community of Kenya is no different than its counterpart in any other former British colony. They are forever caught in the middle. In Kenya, it is between the British and the Africans. They hold a middle position. They are important to both cultures as I said before, but they will never assimilate into either of them. It has something to do with the Hindu and Moslem faith. It also has something to do with the age-old Indian tradition of transmuting foreign influences into something that is their own, but, never, never the reverse.
"When I served in India I became fascinated by their history. When I could find the time I read everything that was printed in English. Do you know that in thousands of years of history India has been invaded by Aryans, Persians, Greeks, Bactrians, Scythians, Afghans, Moguls and finally the British. Indians seldom fought successfully against any of these invaders, but in a way, won the longer, more decisive victory. With the exception of the British, each wave of invaders came as foreign conquerors but remained to become Indian subjects. They lost their allegiance to their homeland, intermarried, settled in India permanently and adopted the customs of the country. This process of assimilation has always worked in favor of the Indians."
(To be continued.)