Sikhs in East Africa – They Came in Dhows & Built a Modern Africa
Workers on the Uganda Railways
Sikhs have been migrating to East Africa since 1890’s. Once settled, they established themselves as a very hard working, honest, religious and skilled community. Their contribution to the growth of East Africa has been phenomenal. Below, we try to present some of the aspects of their lives, which were not beds of roses but which bore exceptional fruit and made them the most admired and welcomed people of this African sub continent. Some of the passages in this article have been taken from a book by Cynthia Salvadori, “We came in Dhows” , which tells the story of the Indians in Africa, whose history and culture had remained virtually unrecorded despite their conspicuous economic importance.(Congratulations & thanks are due to her for her extensive research on the Indian Community who built East Africa with their life and blood).
The Sikhs in East Africa
The history of the Sikhs of East Africa begins in about 1890’s with the Railway – though detachments of Sikh Regiments had seen service in certain parts of East Africa in previous years.
The Sikhs who were brought over from India to build the old Uganda Railways were skilled workmen – carpenters, blacksmiths and masons. They were quick to adapt themselves to the specialised requirements of the Railways and many became fitters and turners and boiler-makers.
The story of the construction of the Uganda Railways is well known in history with many books written about it -‘Man Eaters of Tsavo’ is one of the books which narrates the genuine fear of the labourers, who gave their lives in the jungles of Kenya while building the Railways. The early settlers had to face these marauding lions that were a constant threat to their lives. It is only necessary to mention that these famous man-eating lions seem to have had a great partiality for Sikhs as their staple diet. Anyway, these stout sons of the Punjab continued to push the twin lines of steel forward, lions and leopards notwithstanding.
These early Sikhs were soon joined by their educated brothers. There was no department of the pioneering Railway without its Sikhs. A number of policemen, ranging from inspectors to constables, were also sent from India to become the vital instrument of maintaining law and order. They remained in the country for several years.
Many, but not all, of the original Sikh arrivals, returned to India to be replaced and augmented by others who came of their own volition. Their skills and industry were always in great demand.
The Sikhs penetrated into every nook and corner of East Africa to erect the buildings and to build the roads; to undertake general maintenance work on the farms; to serve in the offices and to assume charge of the hospitals.
The manner in which the Sikhs increased their usefulness to Kenya is a saga of resource and initiative and perseverance. They undertook with confidence any type of work, which required skill and industry. They became highly successful farmers. They responded magnificently to the growing needs of the country by improving and diversifying their capabilities. They became contractors and furniture makers.
Sikhs in Kenya
The estimated number of Sikhs in Kenya is approx. 20,000. It all began in the latter half of the last century when a large number of migrants from the Indian sub-continent flocked to the shores of East Africa in dhows under considerable hardship. It was not until 1895 that there was an intensive Sikh presence in the country when a contingent was brought to Mombasa in order to police the Uganda railway as well as the caravan routes into the hinterland. After which, the Sikh military contact and presence intensified with Sikh soldiers being brought to deal with the Kabaka’s uprising in 1898 in Uganda and other similar excursions. However, it was the building of the Uganda railway, which witnessed a large influx of Sikhs into Kenya with most arriving as indentured workers.
While a number of Sikhs opted to return to their homeland when the railway was completed the majority remained in Kenya, sparking a wave of free immigrants from all walks of life who brought with them particular skills which have since been linked inextricably with Kenya’s subsequent development.
As Sikhs began to settle in their adopted country a sense of community was imbued by the building of gurdwaras in all areas of the country where Sikhs settled. As the community prospered it turned its attention to its youth and in turn several Khalsa schools were built to aid the education process of the budding community. The schools have from their inception been an important point of contact and service for the wider community as children from all races are encouraged to attend. The schools have also served as a rallying and unifying point for the entire Sikh community. Sikhs who traditionally worked as farmers, crafts-people and artisans ensured that their children availed themselves of the educational opportunities and within a generation, Sikhs came to occupy positions in all walks of life, from skilled crafts-people, independent entrepreneurs to professionals.
For nearly a century Sikhs have lived in this country with a unique mix of cultures and in that time Sikhs have increasingly turned their attention to the needs of the wider community and their role as citizens of the country. To that end, they have heeded Guru Nanak’s call for service and are at the forefront of providing support to community organisations.
Sikhs have been regular contributors to Harambee projects throughout the country. They have established medical facilities including hospitals, clinics and dispensaries to serve the wider community. Hence, it is not surprising that Sikhs are viewed as an integral part of the Kenyan nation.
Long before the motoring era, they played an invaluable part, along with the other Punjabis in solving the transport problem of the country. They built and operated Indian style bullock carts.
When the motorcar and the motor-truck began to trickle in, the Sikhs converted themselves into mechanics and engineers. They began to own garages and engineering workshops. Anything that was tough and challenging attracted the Sikhs.
With every succeeding year the Sikhs adopted a steadily rising standard of living; they gave the best possible education to their children, and they invested by far the greatest proportion of their earnings within the country.
The Sikhs entered all the professions, nor did they neglect the realm of industry, their speciality being saw milling.
In the Police, the Civil Service, in the commercial establishments, the educational and medical institutions, in the factories and workshops, the Sikhs came to play a very important role indeed.
Nairobi, the capital of Kenya boasted the majority of the Sikhs. Although the turban and the beard was the distinctive emblem of them all, they presented contrasts of every conceivable description, which of course was one of the healthiest sign of an alive and progressive community.
Among them were men of real learning and near-illiterates… though these latter were virtually extinct. They contained men of great refinement and others whose rusticity faithfully reflected their occupations.
There were, however, no acute extremes in the local Sikhs in wealth. Throughout East Africa, the Sikhs of substantial wealth were very few indeed. It was a community of the middle-income group because instances of extreme poverty were also scarce.
During the initial 60 years or so of the last millennium, the Sikhs built nearly 40 Gurdwaras or temples in various towns of East Africa, a truly remarkable achievement. They managed a dozen ‘aided’ schools of which one is in Nairobi and was amongst the largest in the whole country.
These schools were open to all races; the Sikh clubs which existed in most of the major towns had throughout been important venues of inter-racial social functions and had always admitted non-Sikhs as members.
From the earliest days, the Sikhs played a very prominent part in many aspects of sport, both as players and as administrators and organisers.
Sikh women’s organisations were attached to every Sikh Temple. They held their own separate congregations but they also participated in terms of complete equality with the main congregations as well.
There were several Sikh study circles, libraries, and young men’s associations’ also A Sikh Missionary Society, which published Sikh literature on many occasions.
The public life of Kenya had been well served by the Sikhs. They had been Members of the Legislative Council and of all the municipal councils. They had taken part in numerous other bodies and commissions and committees.
The Sikh Community of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania was one of the largest outside India and is proud of its record.
The Sikhs of Nairobi
The Sikhs are readily recognisable everywhere by their external emblems and dress. The men wear their distinctive turbans and beards. The majority of the women still adhere to the traditional dress of the land of their origin, the Punjab, in Northern India. Its most conspicuous features are the large loose muslin scarf over the head and shoulders and the long, baggy trousers.
The foundations of the Sikh religion were laid nearly five centuries ago. Its cardinal purpose was two-fold —firstly to shed the intricate yet meaningless ritualism which had permeated among the Hindus, which deflected them from their true faith, and the belief in the one and only God; and secondly to overthrow the tyranny and oppression of the rulers of those times.
Sikhism is a completely democratic religion in every way. In the Sikh Temple (Gurudwara) the object of worship and the fount of all solace, comfort and ceremonial in the Holy Book (Siri Adi Granth) which contains the sayings of the Sikh Gurus (teachers) and of a number of saints, Hindu as well as Muslim.
The Pioneering Days
The Sikhs reached the site on which Nairobi now stands along with the then Uganda Railway, i.e. about the year 1896. They came in considerable strength, forming part of the railway construction labour force recruited from India for specific periods. These Sikh workmen were in the main hereditary carpenters, masons and blacksmiths. With the exigencies of the local demands however, many of them readily adapted themselves to other skills, such as fitters, turners, boiler-makers, mechanics, engine drivers etc. Practically all of them were illiterate. They were of course, without their families.
The major proportion of the policemen who served in the country, particularly Nairobi, till the Africans could be trained for the purpose, were Sikhs including a number of subordinate officers. With the exception of a few. all the Sikh indentured labourers and policemen were in time repatriated to India. Those that remained were later joined by their co-religionists in ever increasing numbers over the subsequent years. They came into the country under their own steam.
The new arrivals were also mostly artisans though they included a number of semi-skilled and even unskilled persons. All of them however, speedily picked up trades or entered other useful occupations and helped to build up a virile middle class of the local Asians. Among those who began to enter the country after the completion of the railway there was always a small sprinkling of educated Sikhs who found ready employment as clerks or as junior police officers.
The Sikhs have always been prominent as doctors in subordinate government employment. Well before the time when mechanical road transport came into existence, the Sikhs played a conspicuous part in introducing and operating the Indian bullock-cart. Most of the rickshaws of the pioneer days were built and owned by the Sikhs. During the early settlement of Nairobi when the sanitary arrangements had to be effected through manual labour, it was a number of Sikhs, emancipated from the Hindu untouchable class, who provided the manpower for this essential service. With the advent of water-borne sanitation and the introduction of Africans to this work, the Indian (Sikh) “sweepers” took to other occupations, such as bullock-cart transporters and dairy men. Some of them ended up in solid prosperity. Remnants of this class are still to be seen in Nairobi, though they now ply their rare broom in woollen suits instead of the tattered cotton shirt and trousers of the bygone days.
Up to the comparatively recent times, very few Sikhs stayed in Mombasa on arrival. The destination was almost invariably Nairobi. From here a proportion of them scattered to every part of the country, including the remotest corners. But Nairobi has always been the centre of the Sikh Community of Kenya: indeed there have always been more Sikhs in Nairobi than in the rest of the country put together. Almost as soon as Nairobi grew out of a railway camp into a township, the Sikhs who had settled here began to have their families brought over. In the early stages regular visits to India were considered to be an indispensible part of their lives, though this practice has since been very drastically curtailed. From the very outset the Sikhs as a whole built up a very respectable status for themselves.
Their standing however received a considerable stimulus by the arrival, during World War I, of a large number of Sikh Troops from India, a proportion of whom were officered by Sikhs themselves. They fought with outstanding gallantry throughout the East African campaign. Several contingents lived in or passed through Nairobi. Their smart, distinguished turn out. superb manly bearing and strict discipline elicited great praise. A community of ‘fundis’ and ‘karanis‘ began to be looked upto as the kith and kin of the sturdy fighters for their sovereign and their country.
Present Economic Status
The progress of the Sikhs from the time of their earliest arrivals has in all respects been continuous, steady and impressive. It has not however been as spectacular in so far as wealth is concerned as that of one or two other Asian communities. One of the reasons is that very few Sikhs indeed have found it congenial to engage in some of those forms of trade which have been productive of massive wealth. The economic status of the Sikh Community however now rests on very firm, if not very opulent foundations. The main reason for this is that Sikhs have diversified their economic activities to a far greater extent than any other Asian community. They have entered all the professions with vigour and in substantial numbers. Sikhs have gained an impressive share of the commercial pursuits of all types, particularly those which demand specialised technical knowledge and organising ability: such as contractors, transporters, furniture makers, etc. They are prominent in the subsidiary industries, mainly as owners of engineering workshops, garages, motor-lorry body-builders, and the like.
In all branches of the civil service the Sikhs hold a very high status, both in percentage of the total Asian personnel and in the positions occupied. They have also built up an assured and respectable place for themselves in the employment of European commercial houses. With the removal of racial restriction in government and partly in commercial service, several Sikhs have risen to substantial ranks. As time goes on there is every prospect of their rising to the highest available positions.
All along, they have continued to maintain their place as artisans and craftsmen. With the development of the mechanical age they have acquired the relevant skills which keep them in steady demand. No community or group has been able to rival them in the manufacture of superior types of furniture, with or without the aid of machines. The railways and allied services are still an attractive field of employment for the Sikhs, for technical as well as white collar jobs and indications are that they will continue to remain so. A small but conspicuous sphere of the Sikhs is the uniformed ranks of the police. They possess considerable aptitude for the type of work it entails. During the worst phase of the Emergency the Sikhs were foremost among the Asians to volunteer for active service. The Sikhs own considerable property in Nairobi, mainly in residential, commercial or industrial premises. At the same time they have made a substantial improvement in their standard of living, and many have gone as far as possible to adopt the Western style. In this respect however, there is still a fairly noticeable percentage of the community which has not yet assimilated the minimum improvement its financial status can permit.
Among the Sikhs as among all the people of the East religion plays a much greater part in human life than is the case in the West. A place of worship therefore is always accorded a very high priority for establishing an orderly communal life. Soon after reaching Nairobi, the Sikhs built their first temple (Gurudwara), originally a small temporary structure in the railway ‘landhies’. Around the year 1910, the first substantial gurudwara was built on the Racecourse Road, on the site on which the imposing building of the Khalsa Boys and Girls School now stands. (Khalsa is a term broadly denoting a ‘select’ Sikh). Judging from the standards of the times, this gurudwara was a remarkable piece of architecture. For a long time its burnished bronze dome was a noteable landmark of Nairobi. This Gurudwara had to give way to the school and for a number of years the main hall of the School has been utilised for the purposes of th3 Gurudwara. A magnificent new edifice however is being built in the adjoining plot, and the new gurudwara is expected to be ready next year at a cost of about £50,000. Both these institutions belong to the Siri Guru Singh Sabha of Nairobi, which was originally an off shoot of a new reformist Sikh movement in India, but is now affiliated to the organisation which controls the historical Sikh shrines in that country.
In all, there are now six Sikh Gurdwaras in Nairobi, as follows:
(1) E. A. Ramgharia Board,
(2) Siri Gurudwara Bazaar,
(3) Namdhari Sangat,
(4) Siri Guru Singh Sabha,
(5) Balmiki Mandir.
(6) Ramgarhia Railways.
It is noteworthy that a Sikh Gurudwara is not only a place of worship; it can be used for secular meetings, as a rest house, and a communal kitchen. One of the grave problems which faces the Sikhs of Nairobi and throughout Kenya is the lack of any religious instruction for most of their boys. This has already led to several instances of apostasy in the sense of shedding the external emblems of the faith among the new generation. The leaders of the community are alive to this danger and efforts are being made to impart knowledge of Sikh religion and Sikh history by holding evening classes. An important redeeming feature is that all Sikh girls receive at least the preliminary spiritual training.
Although there were very few Sikhs among the earliest arrivals who were educated, it will live to their credit that they realised the need for preventing the children of the whole community from growing up into illiteracy, in a new country where educational facilities under the aegis of the government were very rudimentary, at least to begin with. In spite of the numerous handicaps of finance, accommodation and teachers, they opened two schools in Nairobi, one for boys the other for girls. Both of them were small institutions and had to pass through many vicissitudes, and at one stage the boys school had to be closed down. For many years past, however, the Sikhs of Nairobi have shown remarkable progress in the realm of education. The Khalsa Boys and Girls School, already referred to above, is perhaps the largest institution of its kind in the country, with almost 1900 scholars on its rolls. It imparts teaching to the girls in all subjects prescribed for the Kenya Asian Preliminary Examination, as well as religious knowledge on a pre-planned basis. The boys have to leave the school at a fairly early stage and join the Government schools. The teaching of Punjabi (mother tongue of the Sikhs) is compulsory.
The present school building, large though it is, has become extremely overcrowded. A branch school however is under construction on the Mombasa Road. Another branch is likely to follow in Eastleigh. The record of Sikh boys in government schools is extremely good. The tendency has developed very well throughout the Sikh community to impart higher education to their children, and an ever increasing number of them go to Europe, etc.. for advanced studies. Due to the institution of compulsory marriage, college education among Sikh girls is as yet rare, but the effort is nearly always made to pass through the secondary school stage.
In the government boys’ schools of Nairobi, arrangements have been made for teaching Punjabi. The Sikhs are prominent in the Royal Technical College and in other well-conducted technical training institutions. Numerous Sikh lads enter into apprenticeships wherever possible. The acquisition of a skill of some sort, rather than entering into the business of buying and selling has fortunately always held a greater attraction for the Sikhs. There are three Sikh libraries in Nairobi, Siri Guru Singh Sabha, Siri Gurudwara Bazaar, and E. A. Ramgarhia Board, the last being a recent addition and is proving increasingly popular.
A well-appointed charitable dispensary has been opened by the E.A. Ramgarhia Board. It is open, like the library, to all races.
The Sikhs of Nairobi have always taken very keen interest in sports, particularly in hockey, cricket, volley ball and to a lesser degree in tennis. Among the indoor games the most popular is table tennis.
From very modest beginnings on a plot adjoining the Sikh temple on Race-course Road, they progressed steadily and now have a beautiful club house and grounds on the Forest Road. The creation of this institution called for intense hard work and sacrifice on the part of many enthusiasts, to the extent that in the early stages a good deal of manual labour was provided voluntarily by the members themselves. The Sikh Union is now in great demand for the more important cricket matches. Its latest extension, the new cricket and tennis pavilion is being opened today (11.12.59) by H.H. the Maharaja of Patiala. Further developments are planned.
There is hardly any trophy open to Asians which the Sikhs have not won in the games which they play. In the Kenya Contingent which went to the Melbourne Olympic games in 1936, the largest single element, including the hockey coach and the hockey captain, consisted of Sikhs. The Sikhs of Nairobi can rightfully claim that through sports, they have done outstanding work in promoting closer race-relationship with the Europeans.
Due perhaps to the educational and economic structure of the community, the Sikhs of Nairobi have never taken a really aggressive part in politics. Realising the circumstances of the country they have always been instinctively loyal, though at the same time they have been very cautious to ensure that whenever any interests were diverted to a communal basis, they were not the losers.
One of the earliest presidents of the Indian Association of Nairobi was a Sikh, and there have been two Sikhs so far elected to the Legislative Council before the Asian Community was politically split into two. Their representation is now effected through a Government Nominated member, the Hon. Kirpal Singh Sagoo, who was appointed in 1956 at the time when he was President of the Sikh Union, Nairobi — His selection can thus rightly be taken as an honour to the Union itself.
The Sikhs at present hold more than their numerical share on the City Council of Nairobi. ie first Asian Deputy Mayor of Nairobi was a Sikh. (Alderman Mohan Singh)
On other public bodies, however, the community has real cause for dissatisfaction. On the Legislative Council, for example there are five Arab representatives, as against only one Sikh, though the numerical strength of the two communities is the same while the interests of the former are far narrower than those of the latter.
(Article with thanks to: Sikh heritage in East Africa)