Suffering without Bitterness

“Suffering Without Bitterness”


This was the title of a famous book that was written by Jomo Kenyatta, the first President of post-colonial Kenya over sixty years ago. There are concerns today that the Asian communities in Kenya are not coping too well after the riots that followed the general elections. Many hundreds of them have not exercised the choice that they have to leave because they want to continue to work and live in Kenya. There are no real signs of panic but informal observers and some parts of the international media report on some early signs of stress amongst Kenyan Asians. It must be noted that the Asians who have chosen to stay there are almost certainly Kenyan citizens and the expatriates who have chosen to remain in the country made their decisions many years ago. Both groups of people remain committed and that is the best demonstration of their faith in the country.


Soon after the riots that followed the elections in Kenya, there were concerns that some 2,200 Asians, some with families may try to leave the country by the end of this year. This figure was an estimate provided by the Financial Times in London and presumably they had checked their facts with suitable parties. The authorities in Kenya do not appear to have made any statements to calm down concerns in the Asian communities. To be fair, the government has not made life difficult for the Asians in Kenya either. There is no evidence of selective persecution. The uncertainties in the minds of Asians stem from fear for their safety and the protection of their assets.


A recent visit to neighbouring Uganda has shown that Asian expatriates who have arrived after 1972 have settled well and most are embarked in technical work, contracts, building construction and engineering- covering a wide area of specialisms, all critical skills for a developing country which is coping with rapidly growing population and needs huge investment in its schools and hospitals. The new Asian expatriates are not only providing the skills; they are also taxpayers. In Kenya where the Asian participation in business and economics is much more significant, contributions to tax revenues must be substantial. As they are also exporting goods and services to overseas customers their contribution to the national income must also be growing.


What is not known is whether Asian leadership in Kenya has tried to have a dialogue with the government. It could be argued that the Asians may have to ‘feel the heat’ like everybody else; the country has had a few problems and many hundred Kenyans have been reported to have lost their lives. However, many of the Asians do have the choice to leave. It would be most unfortunate if critical decisions were made as a result of failure by Asian leaders to consult with the Kenyan authorities and to secure pledges of support. Could the latter also not retort that Asian people should not expect any special privileges and that after all, many other nationalities have coped with the aftermath of the elections?


These are difficult times even though the highly risky period that affected the security of all people in Kenya seems to have passed. The impact of the expulsion of Asians from Uganda was also felt in Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe. In Zambia, Asian participation in trade, large-scale commerce and industry was not as significant as that in East Africa. But it was not until the 1980s, the next decade after the Ugandan Asian expulsion, that confidence appeared to have returned. Many Asian entrepreneurs invested in small industries, which supported the import-substitution, polices of the government. It was possible to raise venture capital and a few Asian businesses moved up the enterprise hierarchy – they were reinvesting their profits from the trading enterprises into small-scale manufacturing and more capital-intensive businesses. Apart from the emergence of these significant wealth-creating ventures, the authorities were keen to retain the contribution of doctors, teachers and skilled professional Asians.


Returning to the Kenyan situation, it would be good to see the evidence of efforts that may have been made by Asian leaders to placate the concerns of their fellow Asians. However, do the leaders enjoy respect and credibility? The rationale for selecting leaders may not have changed despite the lessons that were learnt from neighbouring Uganda. It would be reasonable to expect that faith-based communities elect or appoint leaders on the basis of their religious and community credentials. Not always true. Asian leaders with little or no knowledge of faith were appointed to run temples in Uganda. The main credentials were again, mostly but not always, success in business. Volunteering can be costly and it is far easier for a self-employed business owner to take a few hours off to attend to a wedding or a funeral in the community. A schoolteacher with heavy timetabled commitments cannot be expected to vacate the school rota at short notice. So success in business created a self-perpetuating cycle of consolidation of mostly weak and under-recognised leaders in the Asian community.


As the dynamics of business would have it, only very few Asians could afford to invest the time, money and effort to cope with the demands of the community. Asian leadership became narrowed into hands of not more than ten wealthy families. Their achievements in business were not sometimes enough to satisfy their urge for recognition and consequently a few even became leaders of religious bodies that they were most ill prepared to lead.  There was a dilemma; how could these people become so successful in business and then fail to transfer their leadership skills to community organisations that elected them? A good part of the answer lies in their management styles – they were dominant in family controlled businesses where they had absolute authority. They were not used to teambuilding and consultation. Looking back at building contracting firms, the proprietors probably never had meetings with staff and were not accustomed to being challenged by people from lower stations in life.


This remains a concern now for Kenya. If Asian leaders had blossomed and taken control of key community institutions for the very same reasons as in Uganda and assuming that they came from the same stock, then Asian communities in Kenya today may be leaderless. Success in family businesses may have propelled them into leadership positions in temples, schools and sports clubs but in the main they are going to be unsuitable for tasks that involve dealing with power relationships which could impact on their own businesses. You cannot afford to alienate a government minister whose colleague is going to issue the work permits of your own employees.


The Asian leaders in Kenya today are probably not astute politicians either. Politics is about passion and representation and some people with singular but positive vision can and do move mountains. The Asian leadership in Kenya today almost certainly operates with a major handicap unless they learn to create degrees of freedom for themselves. Freedom to negotiate comes by winning confidence of the people on the other side of the table. Have Asian leaders secured the confidence and respect from the political leadership in Kenya?


The Asian leaders in Kenya cannot ask for special treatment even if it was legitimate and possible. They are probably still divided by religious and caste-based distinctions. It is possible that their intra-Asian business and religious rivalries will militate against joint community representation as far as talking to Kenyan ministers is concerned.


A final factor lies in the Asian leaders’ perception of their role at such an uncertain time when instability is affecting everybody including native Kenyans. ‘What are you expecting us to achieve?’ they might ask. First they have to recognise their self-interest in this situation. Many Asian businesses also employ other Asians and sometimes only the members of the extended family, if not the village clan from India. If there was a hasty exodus, they also stand to lose.


The second responsibility they have is to acquire urgent understanding of what their communities want and what reassurance they may be seeking. Only then can they aspire to become effective bridges between the communities that they lead and a government that is temporarily distracted by other demands. Asian leaders should have the hard evidence to put together a case for the communities they represent. Should the concerns of the Asian communities escalate, those who can leave may want to leave against their wishes. Kenya may also pay a heavy price.


In the meantime the Asian communities in Kenya may have to suffer without bitterness. How these famous words have come to haunt a completely different people at an unexpectedly different time. The Asians in Kenya are NOT suffering from any political intoreance, or from racial and physical attacks from Kenyans. Many of them are victims of uncertainty which Asian leadership can help to reduce by being…leaders.


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