Non-Africans: Asians

Non-Africans: Asians

Most of the Asian populations in Africa are from the Indian Subcontinent. Indian relations with East Africa stretch back at least to the early Islamic period, and Indi-ans may even be among the peoples who helped form the Swahili.TheOmani Sultan invited Indians to come to the East African cities to work in trade and finance following the establishment of the Omani east African empire in the 17th century.

Others came much later in the colonial period, in the late 1800s, when labor was needed for building mainly railroads. Others were brought by colonial authorities to work as farm laborers in sugar plantations in South Africa or coffee and tea plantations in Kenya and Uganda. In places such as Lesotho, Indians form an important merchant class beginning in the late 1800s.

Indians are Muslim, Hindu, and other religions such as Christian, but the main religions are Islam and Hinduism. Today, Indians make up less than 1 percent of the total population of Africa, but in South Africa, they make up 2.5 percent. President Idi Amin of Uganda expelled 80,000 Asians in 1972, and since 1986, with the presidency of Yoweri Museveni, Asians have been coming back.

In much of French-speaking West Africa, Arabs, mainly from Lebanon, were encour-aged to come by the French authorities. The Arabs were mainly from southern Leba-non’s Shi‘ite community and were seeking economic migration. Following the estab-lishment of Israel in 1948, some Palesti-nians have also come. Most of the Arabs are Muslims, though some also belong to various Christian groups including the Eastern Orthodox or those connected to the Roman Catholic Church, such as the Maronites of Lebanon.

India became tied to the Indian Ocean trade with East Africa in the first millen-nium before the Christian era along with the Arabs. Indian products such as cotton cloth were traded for raw materials from Africa. In late antiquity, the city of Rhapta was established along the East African coast, from which commercial relations were extended inland.

Other trading cities were built along the coast, and from these communities the Swahili culture emerged. Gold from the kingdoms in today’s Zimbabwe came into the Indian Ocean trade by 1000 funneled through the city of Sofala on the Mozambique coast. The Portuguese took a number of these coastal cities in the late 15th and early 16th centu-ries and continued in trade for gold, ivory, and other African products, but in the 17th century, a revitalized Omani state pushed them out of most of East Africa.

With reestablished Arab control over the cities along the coast, the Sultan encouraged Indians as well as Arabs to come and set up businesses.Indians are mainly Muslim or Hindu, though there are others from Indian reli-gions such as Sikhs and Jains. Islam is a religion shared with a good number of Africans, and where religion is shared, intermarriage with locals has occurred. Those Indians who came later, under Brit-ish authority, did so mainly as work crews to build infrastructure such as railways.

In 1860, Natal in South Africa brought 150 Indian men to work in sugar plantations as indentured labor. An appeal was made to allow small traders to come to South Africa and, by the start of World War I, Indians were in Natal and the Transvaal.

By 1920, the number of Indians in Natal was larger than the white population, and legal restrictions were imposed to margin-alize Indians economically and politically. The fight for Indian rights was led in part by the lawyer Mahatma Gandhi, and they were able to get the agreement that dis-criminatory laws would not be passed without consulting with Cabinet ministers. In 1914, Gandhi left South Africa for India, where he helped lead the movement for Indian independence.

In East Africa, large numbers of Indians were imported to build the Uganda-Kenya Railway, which was begun in 1896 and not completed until 1931. Around 32,000 Indians were contracted to build the rail-way,andbythe endofWorld WarII,the number of Indians in East Africa was 320,000. Most belonged to the small trad-ers and artisans class called dukawalla in Hindi/Urdu. By the 1940s, Indians had gained control over 80 percent of the busi-nesses and the majority of the cotton gins in both Kenya and Uganda.

Similar to the Indians, Arabs in the West African countries of Senegal, Coˆte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria number fewer than 200,000.; but they fill important positions in the local economies as traders and deal in items such as cloth. They are considered by many locals as being highly exploitative of Africans and in the recent civil wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cˆote d’Ivoire, their shops were specifically targeted. In Senegal, where there have been historic tensions with the Arabs in Mauritania, Lebanese and Palestinians also have repu-tations for being exploitative.

Indians in South Africa felt the impact of apartheid and, like other nonwhite pop-ulations, were restricted by the govern-ment’s laws. Faced with discriminatory access to funds for building schools, hos-pitals and the like, the Indian community raised the funds from within their own group and sent representatives to the United Nations and the newly independent government of India to complain about their treatment under apartheid. In 1984,in an attempt to break the Indians from the other nonwhite groups, a Tricameral Parliament system was put in place to give Indians a say in government.

However, it was seen to be a political ploy and never gained much support among South Afri-ca’s Indians.In 1972, Uganda expelled 75,000 Indi-ans, who made up around 2 percent of the country’s population. Most of Uganda’s Indians had British passports, and 27,000 of them moved to Great Britain, 6,100 to Canada, and 1,100 to the United States. Since 1992, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has allowed them to return and regain their lost property.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Afolayan, Funso S. Culture and Customs of South Africa. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Collins, Robert O. Africa: A Short History.Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2008.

Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa:A History to 1800. Charlottesville: Univer-sity Press of Virginia, 2002.

“Indians of East Africa.” (accessed May 28, 2010).