I have never seen a happy or a smiling Indian shopkeeper in my entire shopping experience as a Kenyan.
And I bet you too are yet to bump into one. You could be shopping in a forgettable town such as Embu, or a mediaeval outpost such as Eldoret, or a pretentiously modern town like Nairobi, and their facial expressions will always be mournful, suspicious and sore.
Whenever I can, I skip their shops.
But you really cannot avoid an Indian owned establishment if you like books (I do), you are a father of a toddler (I am), or you are travelling and you need an affordable canvas bag (I do travel, often).
As a new father in Nairobi, you inevitably end up along Biashara Street, shopping for this and that for your bundle of joy.
Indians are legendary businessmen. Historically, that is their forte. Unlike ‘native’ Africans who stock everything in one shop (food, mobile phone accessories, mitumba and anything in between), Indians gravitate towards specialty and stick to one line.
Equally, they do not have the usual greed of overpricing things that sees 99 per cent of African businesses collapse within a year or less after inception.
Disadvantaged by their geographical dislocation from their motherland, they have pursued business and do not possess our impossibly idiotic attachment to land (forget the few implicated in the Lang’ata land scandal where the public opinion is at variance with the legal position of the issue).
They are painstakingly disciplined, ruthlessly conservative and for that, they are one of the most successful business communities in Kenya. In fact, their presence in every big town in Kenya is a huge blessing.
But despite their success and wealth, Indians have refused to integrate with Kenyans completely.
When was the last time you boarded a matatu with an Indian? When was the last time you ate in a common man’s restaurant with one? You can’t even date an Indian woman without throwing the father into a schizophrenic fit, attracting news headlines from Nairobi to Canberra. While most of their refusal to integrate is purely cultural, and even amongst their tribes, they are highly immiscible, I think it is time they rethought their relationship with black Africans.
I dislike their discomfort anytime you walk into their shop and start talking to a black shop attendant. Their prying eyes make you a suspect conniving with a local to steal from them.
Often, they move closer to eavesdrop on what you are bargaining about.
The blacks who work with them live in permanent fear and always talk to you in an irritating subservient tone, you want to shop and walk away.
I know the historical context of the problem. When the pesky Brits made us slaves in our own country and shipped the ‘coolies’ from Jaipur and other places in India to make the railway, Africans were ranked third.
We fought for independence, have mended our relationship with the Brits, and integrated far much better with the oppressors than the persons we were oppressed with. Indians are still boorishly cultural, even to themselves, but they need to thaw a bit.
They need to trust black Africans more and offer their African workers some breathing space. Our relationship with them, both at their shops and even in their industries, is permanently strained.
They treat blacks as some sort of burden they are trying to help. When was the last time you heard a Kenyan say a kind word about an Indian?
I know sometimes black Africans can be a handful, like our politicians who pride themselves for stealing our taxes, and the pesky kleptomaniacs.
But we need to mend the relationship and learn to respect and trust each other.
I salute Hon Shakeel Shabbir and Abdul Rahim Dawood for integrating with us and in return, we have trusted them as our MPs in ethnically homogeneous regions.
At the risk of contradicting myself from last week, the secret to integration lies in marriage.
Even so, Indians are Kenyan and they need to feel at home.