Samosas and stereotypes

Friday December 12 2008
mago index pix

An inter-racial group of musicians perform at the Hare Krishna Temple in Nairobi. Photo/LIZ MUTHONI

The crowd well dressed people, sipping wine and nibbling at little triangular objects, had been on their feet for close to an hour, listening to tales of entrepreneurship and innovation.

Despite the inspirational nature of the material, they were, understandably, growing just a little restless.

Then the distinguished white-haired gentleman mounted the podium and told them the story of the small boy who made his fortune selling those savouries on the roadside…

Many, many years ago in a small village in central Kenya, a young Kikuyu woman — no longer able to contain her curiosity about the strange snacks that the dukawallahs at the trading centre ate so often and with such relish — ventured over to a group of women draped in multicoloured saris chattering away to each other in their strange language and gestured to the frying pan filled with the spitting brown triangles.

The women smiled and offered her one; she popped one into her mouth and nearly spat it out again; it was hot!

Then a little explosion of flavours erupted on her tongue. As she rolled her eyes in surprise and pleasure, they smiled and nodded some more, thrust another little magical triangle at her and said several times, “Samosa”.


Several weeks later, her son sat outside a little shop on the main road with a bowl full of these curious little shapes.

His fellow villagers circled around him warily before one of them ventured to taste one.

Soon, hands were reaching into pockets and coins were being exchanged for samosas.

Smiles appeared all round and more people began arriving, attracted by the excitement. The little boy’s fortune had been made.

This romantic tale of entrepreneurship and cultural exchange, related by elder Kenyan statesman Bethuel Kiplagat last month at the Nation Museum in Nairobi, is both historically inaccurate and symbolically spot-on.

The economic, social, cultural and culinary dialogue between India and East Africa is much, much older than the first encounter between dukawallah and Kikuyu, and the samosa and chapati testify to this with their ubiquity, so much so that most people are unaware not only that these are Indian foods, but even that the words themselves are Indian.

But the symbolism of the reluctant but ineluctable attraction between the two cultures, African and “Asian” and their respective geniuses, speaks volumes.

The occasion was the launch of the second stage of a grammatically challenged concept called “Revisioning Kenya” — a campaign to support innovative entrepreneurship and develop visionary thinking among both the African entrepreurs being supported and their South Asian sponsors.

This was not intended to be just another pious workshop that just another NGO was obliged to pull off so they could tick the box and secure next year’s allowances for more workshops and more 4wd cars.

The crowd, largely South Asian Kenyans, comprised mainly potential investors who were there to understand the value of adopting schemes that would benefit the nation. Chotara and proud…

This whole event was part of a series of festivities under the South Asian Mosaic of Society and Arts, more commonly known as the Samosa Festival.

Whereas previous festivals have focused on aspects of the past, this year’s Samosa theme was “Celebrating Daily Life.”

You would be right to question whether a private gathering of Kenya’s upper class over a glass of wine and a samosa would fit into “daily life,” but hey, the cause was noble and the samosas were crisp and tasty.

The previous night, the same room had been opened to the public (no free samosas or wine, though) as, in a bid to reconstruct the identity of the 43rd tribe – known to most as the wahindi – a panel of sober intellectuals including TV celebrity Julie Gichuru; political incumbents Aurelio Rebelo and Caroline Lukalo; university lecturer, Garnette Oluoch and newspaper columnist Rasna Warah came together to deconstruct the biases and often innocent and sometimes malicious misconceptions that we all have about each other, focusing on South Asians and “others.”

The discussion soon took on the form of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with confessions of the identity crises felt by all in one way or the other.

An ex-Miss India-Kenya told the gathering that she was everything from one of two specialised forensic dentists in the country to a model to the most beautiful woman in the world but the bottom line was that she was confused about her identity.

John Sibi-Okumu, the theatre veteran, admitted that the status of being a borderline Luo/Luhyia had scarred him beyond his foreskin status, and Julie Gichuru talked about just how difficult it is being a Kenyan with a conscience in a country led by criminals, let alone being a “half-breed.”

There obviously must be a problem in this country with thieving politicians always ending up central to a discussion despite, in theory, having very little to do with it.

Well, maybe that is the problem — they have managed to amass all the wealth they can possibly hoard so now they are busy stealing our identity.

A week later, the Samosa Festival attempted to examine our “Triple Heritage” (the title of a seminal book by Rasna Warah) in a rather different setting: Nairobi University and a youth-centred panel comprised of the true colours of Kenya: “Jungu, Miro and Choot” – the identity Kenya’s youth give to each other (white, black and brown).

Media personality Jimmy Gathu decided he was going to stir up some of the unspeakable truths steaming just below the surface and exhorted the panelists and the youthful crowd into debating how much meaning is invested in derogatory terms like choot (for some reason, we wahindi are known by a term so rude that, in India, our poster, carrying as it did the word choot, would certainly have got us arrested).

So, the message to us as wahindi was to come out of our closets, and do more for the nation than selling textiles and samosas.

We were told we should stop shouting insults at our employees in languages they can’t understand. “Too right!,” said one mhindi, “It’s about time Lakshmi and Ganesh and granny stood out of the way and let us lust and love after all the beautiful women in this country, no matter what colour…”

But it was not just us choots that our fellow miros wanted some answers from. Smack bang in-between the black and brown was the most endangered tribe of all: The Kenya Cowboy or KC, in full tribal regalia — safari boots, jeans and checked shirt. Now this was a real catch, this representative of those recluse Landroving Karen dwellers.

But once again, it was obvious that foulmouthed dukawallahs and Karen Club types were not the real problem as one of the few chotaras (an Indian term for “half-breed”) in the crowd clearly stated: “Class is no longer based on colour in Kenya; the top class are the politicians, the second class are the rich and then there are the rest.”

Are south Asians racist?

Sadly, the answer is yes.

For some reason, one that all sorts of intellectuals have attempted to tease out with historical and anthropological models, the caste system in Hindu India was built on very a crude principle of colour coding: The darker you were, the farther down the social chain you came.

But let’s not rush to put us all on a cross and condemn us to the eternal flames of hell. Social ranking based on colour is a universal glitch in the human coding.

What has always bewildered me about the Indian racism is the ability of millions to worship and revere gods and goddesses of all colours on the one hand but condemn dark people to eternal poverty and social exclusion on the other. Krishna is blue and Kali is black, for God’s sake (so to speak)!

Obviously, the gods had no problem with a little melanin variation, so how did the people of India manage to get their knickers in a twist when it came to sharing, caring and falling in love with someone of a slightly different skin colour to your own?

So, with the Samosa festival all geared up to celebrate the fusion of cultures and how it is expressed in daily life, surely a little love story had to be embraced.

Not so long ago, the tabloids found enough content to pay their printing bills for a week when a young Punjabi girl called Harpeet declared her love for a Luo called Clement and her daddy decided this was a really bad idea and started beating up everyone around him.

It took the wise intervention of Nation columnist Rasna Warah (who is married to a black Kenyan) to tell everyone off, including the love birds, and remind us all that the only thing to be concerned about was the fact that both were jobless and Harpeet was pregnant.

Alas, populism could not care less about details and we are all suckers for a simple story told in black and white.

Not surprising, then, that the hit performance at the Samosa Festival was the tale of an ABCD — American Born Confused Desi* (*used colloquially to mean South Asian immigrants) — who comes to Africa* (used colloquially by expatriates to mean living in Gigiri or Muthaiga) and surprise, surprise, falls in love with a beautiful Somali girl.

The play tackled a host of different issues that immigrants all around the world have to deal with, and the two London-based performers, Shane Solanki and Yusra Warsama, spoke the unspeakable to a community of Kenyans that knows it exists but prefers not to discuss it.

I was rather surprised to see the number of middle-aged and elderly South Asians, especially the women, laughing away in the crowd though I am sure they walked away knowing that just about everyone of them would fake a heart attack if their own son or daughter fell in love with a fellow black Kenyan and the first thing they would say is, “But what will the neighbours think?!”

Hanging on one of the whitewashed walls in the National Museum are 20 or so photographs put together for the Samosa Festival; one shows a group of young children smiling and laughing as they try to keep their balance on a bouncy castle.

The children are Kenyan and unaware of their skin colour and even more unaware that one day they may well experience strong sensual feelings for a person of different skin colour — and probably not do anything about it.

So when does it all go wrong?

In a conversation one evening, a Kenyan lady told me how her best friend in university was a South Asian.

“We went to class together, we slept in the same room; we were so close. And then we graduated and I have not seen her since…”

But it’s getting better and better all the time. There are more Julie Gichurus being born in Kenya every day and there are more people reaching out to cross the yawning racial divide.

When I first met young Nivi Mukerjee, who described how she keeps herself busy on Sundays by taking children from less fortunate backgrounds out for the day to do all the “normal” things that us middle-class types take for granted, like going to the cinema or bowling at a ritzy mall such as the Village Market, the “vision” we were pushing suddenly all made sense.

I love children! I love their ability to devour things without questioning the multiple nuances that we adults have to be aware of as we grow older and start losing our hair.

So as the Samosa team ran around tearing out their hair in preparation for the daily evening events, Nivi, with the help of a host of artists, bussed children from Kawangware and Kibera to the manicured fields of Braeburn School where they came together to learn how to screw in a light bulb (a dance perhaps known better as bhangra) or the more disciplined moves of classic Indian dance; or how to make that African drum beat with rhythm.

On the final day, we went to take a peek at the show with our four-year-old daughter and her best friend.

An hour later, they reappeared covered head to toe in different coloured powders. Outside on the concrete were a series of technicoloured designs made by the Samosa festival children who had spent an afternoon learning about rangoli, an Indian art form of that uses finely ground coloured powders.

Several of them were already mussed up. I looked at my daughter and her partner in crime.

Both knew they were guilty. My wife and I, embarrassed on behalf of these little scoundrels, went to confess to Nivi that we had destroyed an afternoon’s hard-earned joy.

She smiled and explained that like with Hindu and Buddhist Mandalas, the reason for using powder, grains or sand as a medium for creating rangoli (with its resulting fragility) was to utter a metaphor for the impermanence of life — maya, the web of illusion.

Our little half-French, quarter-Turkish, quarter-Indian daughter who has known no other country but Kenya is, as it happens, called Maya; and yes, she was forgiven but there would definitely be no samosas and masala tea for her that evening.